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Behind Enemy Lines: Athletic Club

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What are Athletic’s current tactical issues, how will new manager Marcelino fix them, and how do they matchup against Real Madrid?

Athletic Club v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Why did Athletic fire Garitano?

When it comes to squad building, Athletic always find themselves in a weird position. Their budget and expectations are those of a Europa League level side, but opponents for these positions (Real Sociedad, Betis, Celta, Villarreal, Sevilla) can build more talented and coherent squads because they are not limited by the ‘Basque-only’ rule.

This situation forces managers to do some creative tactical problem solving, but it seems like former Athletic manager Gaizka Garitano ran out of solutions. Garitano had created one of the most stable and versatile defensive systems in the league, and his Athletic could press high or defend deep when needed. FBREF xG data tells us that Athletic are one of the top 5 defenses in the league.

However, the issue that arguably sunk Garitano was that he never found a way to improve the team’s offense. Throughout his managerial tenure, Athletic depended heavily on set pieces and sending long balls to Raúl García and Iñaki Williams, but this direct approach has become less effective over time.

Athletic Bilbao v Real Sociedad - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Williams has underperformed in the last 18 months, so last season the goalscoring duties fell more heavily on Raúl García. However, García will be 35 years old this year, and age has clearly slowed him down and made it harder to win physical duels. This has been reflected in his reduced goal tally this season. The one silver lining has been the presence of young striker Asier Villalibre (look at that wonderful facial hair). Villalibre contributes not only to goals but also helps Williams be less isolated in counterattack situations.

With all these issues, Athletic has (deservedly) lingered in the lower half of the table, not quite in the relegation zone, but not too far away from it either. Athletic’s club management thought they could do better, and have opted to hire Marcelino as coach to replace Garitano.

Who is Marcelino and why him?

For 15 years, Marcelino García Toral has been one of the staple coaches of La Liga. And from his 2005-07 Recreativo de Huelva to his 2017-19 Valencia, all his teams have followed surprisingly similar tactical principles.

Marcelino usually sets up his team in a deep or medium 4-4-2 defensive block that attacks through quick transitions and counters. Marcelino wants these transitions to be through short passing circuits executed at breakneck speed rather than simpler long balls. He usually builds good defensive structures that are not too reliant on physicality to dominate games.

Marcelino is usually the guy you hire when you want to improve your defensive performance quickly. Since Athletic already have a pretty solid defensive system, Marcelino’s big task this time around will be to improve the offense. The long ball approach to Williams and García has gotten old, and Marcelino will be looking to develop a proper quick passing circuit for counterattacks.

Athletic Club v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I would argue that the key for Marcelino to create a good offense will be finding a solution to a problem Garitano never solved: how to integrate playmaker Iker Muniain into the system. Under Garitano, Muniain never found his place in Athletic’s simpler long ball attack, but one would expect him to be a key player for Marcelino’s short passing circuit.

Marcelino’s Tactics Against Barcelona

Last week’s league game against Barcelona gives us some ideas of how Marcelino will rework Athletic’s offense. Marcelino moved Williams from the right winger role he had under Garitano back to a central striker role. This gives him more freedom to move across the pitch and choose which channels to run into. This move paid off very quickly for Marcelino, as in the 3rd minute of the match, Williams’ run on the counter turned into an early goal.

Muniain, on the other hand, will be used as a creative wide midfielder playing on the left of Marcelino’s 4-4-2, with the freedom to either make runs in behind the defense or dictate play from the left half-space area.

That being said, Marcelino still has a lot of work to do with Athletic. The counterattacking mechanisms are not well-drilled yet, and Athletic was pushed back by Barcelona with no reliable way to quickly play out of their own half. In the 2nd half, Athletic tried to press more aggressively to chase the result, but the pressing block was disorganized and not compact at all. TAthletic’s second goal—which came late into the game—does hint at how Marcelino plans to produce more goals from pressing situations and not just from counterattacks coming from his own half.

Lineup choices in Athletic vs Real Madrid

For today’s Supercopa game, Athletic and Marcelino must deal with the injuries of left-back Yuri Berchiche and midfielder Unai López. Center back Yeray Alvarez is also in doubt.

Marcelino will choose his usual 4-4-2 block, with Unai Núñez and Iñigo Martinez as the center back pair, Ander Capa and Mikel Balenziaga as fullbacks, Mikel Vesga and Unai Vencedor as the double pivot. The wings will feature the energetic Óscar de Marcos on the right and the more creative Iker Muniain on the left. The striker pair will be Raúl García and Iñaki Williams once again.

The big tactical question mark for Marcelino will be the height of his defensive line: does he want his team to press high or defend deep? This season Real Madrid has struggled more breaking down deep blocks rather than high pressing systems, so one would expect Marcelino to choose the deeper defense. The Barcelona game also implies that Athletic will try to press more aggressively whenever they find themselves behind in the scoreline.

From Real Madrid’s perspective, the key injuries are Dani Carvajal and Rodrygo. For Zidane, the big question mark is how much will he rotate the lineup. In normal circumstances, we would expect this Supercopa game to feature more subs. However, Zidane’s lineups in the last few months have featured very few rotations to keep the team’s current momentum and dynamic, and there’s a chance the same will happen in the Supercopa.

Eibar v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

That being said, I would place my bets on Fede Valverde coming back to the lineup. With Luka Modrić playing at such a high level, he hasn’t seen too many minutes lately, but this might be a good game to rest the Croatian maestro a bit. Besides, Valverde has some good Supercopa memories from last year. On the rightback position, Lucas Vázquez will likely take the place of Carvajal once again. On the left wing, there’s the question of whether Hazard or Vinicius with start. Finally, there’s always the chance that we might see some wacky experiment from Zidane on the right wing, like fielding Valverde as the right winger similar to what was done in last year’s Supercopa games.

Key Duels

Watch out for the battle of Iñaki Williams vs Lucas and Varane. Against Barcelona, Williams aggressively ran into the channels between the two center backs as well as the channel between right back and center back. Muniain also made some runs into the RB - CB channel throughout the game. Vázquez will have to watch his back, and Varane will have to watch for that too.

Real Madrid v Athletic Club - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

In the center of the pitch, expect Raúl García to alternate between fighting Ramos or fighting Casemiro. Marcelino seems to want to use him not just as a target man but also as a kind of second striker who quickly lays off the ball to other teammates in counterattack situations.

On the other end of the pitch, let’s talk about Athletic’s keeper Unai Simón. After an outstanding 19/20 season, he’s been performing poorly this season. He is particularly struggling with anything that requires him to come out of his goal, from crosses to long balls that force him out of the box. Two of the goals Barcelona scored against Athletic last week came from Simón blunders when coming out of the goal. Real should aim to do similar things that will force Simón out of his goal and into making such mistakes.

Real Madrid v Athletic Club - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Finally, let’s talk about why Barcelona were able to break down Athletic so easily: they have great dribblers in Messi and Dembelé, who could take on defenders and disorder Athletic’s defensive block. For this game, then, the dribbling contributions of Hazard and Vinicius will be vital to preventing a similar outcome to what happened against Osasuna.