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Behind Enemy Lines: SD Eibar (Home)

Mendilibar’s Eibar are closer than ever to relegation.

RC Celta v SD Eibar - La Liga Santander Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

What did we learn from the last encounter?

The December game against Eibar saw one of the most impressive opening minutes of Real Madrid this season, with Los Blancos completely dismantling the Eibar press. Benzema and Modrić showed up everywhere and became the hinges of a fluid offense that that moved the ball extremely fast, combined well on the wings, and got players to deliver dangerous cutbacks into the Eibar box. The goals rushed in and by the 15th minute, Real were up ahead by two goals from Modrić and Benzema.

Perhaps the goals came in a bit too quickly, because Real didn’t manage the rest of the game as well. They slowed down while Eibar adjusted their pressing, and it became harder for Real to create good chances. After Kike scored his 28th-minute golazo, the game was rather even and both teams continued creating good chances against each other, with Ramos and Courtois heroics needed to prevent Eibar from drawing the game. After much suffering, an injury-time goal from Lucas (and another Benzema assist) secured the three points.

xG vs time plot of Eibar - Real Madrid (12/20/20)
Source: Between The Posts

All in all, this was a game that showcased Real’s strengths and weakness: one of the most fluid and effective buildup phases in Europe thanks to the Ramos - Kroos - Modrić - Benzema backbone, but not enough firepower in the final third to capitalize on their good midfield play.

Eibar: Same Process, Different Results

We like to believe that everything happens for a deterministic reason, but both in life and in sports, sometimes things happen due to sheer luck or other factors that are very hard to control. Football is a cruel, low-scoring game subject to a lot of randomness, and that means that a team can often implement the same process yet obtain different results.

This is what is happening with Eibar this season. If you look at their underlying numbers (expected goals, shots, entries into the final third and box) they are playing as well, if not better, than last season. Their defense has actually improved thanks to better pressing and a great shot-stopping season for keeper Marko Dmitrović. However, this season the ball is simply not going into the opposition goal. Simplistic analysis, I know, but that’s about it.

Eibar’s offense has struggled greatly to be effective in front of goal this season. They are the biggest xG underperformers in La Liga, lagging a full 9 goals behind their xG created. Perhaps the best example of their finishing problems is their woeful penalty kick conversion rate: they have scored only 3 out of 8 PKs. Football is a game of fine margins and several Eibar attackers—Edu Expósito, Inui, and especially Sergi Enrich—just haven’t been as confident and clinical as in previous years.

Eibar’s predictable crossing tactics don’t help either when it comes to converting chances. They are the team who cross most frequently in La Liga, but if we look at the quality of the shots they create (as measured by xG per shot), they rank at the bottom of the league. Opponents know where Eibar’s shots are coming from and are ready to defend the incoming crosses.

A top pressing system in Europe

Despite the offensive troubles, Eibar continues to be one of the most effective high-pressing systems in Europe. Coach Mendilibar has performed miracles over the years, drilling his pressing game plan into the team even though he loses key players every year to richer teams.

As shown in the video below, their 4-4-2 shape is compact, shifts aggressively from side to side, and will often feature a defensive line almost at the halfway line of the pitch. Once they recover the ball, Eibar will try to progress through their wings with fullback – winger combinations or through long balls to their strikers, and then create chances through crosses

Their pressing block is one of the most aggressive and effective in Europe, and the numbers reflect this. In late February, I compiled a dataset of defensive numbers in the big 5 leagues (using FBREF numbers), and Eibar’s defense ranked

  • 8th in fewest completions allowed into the final third
  • 5th in most attacking third pressures executed
  • 9th in fewest shots conceded
  • 8th in lowest passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA)

All in all, it’s no exaggeration to say Eibar are among the 10 best pressing systems in Europe. Their defensive aggression, however, does have its trade-offs: they have 10th highest fouling rate.

Bryan Gil rocks on

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

With a Beatlesque mop-top hairstyle and a Cruyffian body type that makes him a tricky dribbler, 19-year-old Bryan Gil looks like a 70s footballer transplanted into the modern age. The Sevilla loanee has become Eibar’s key creative force in the final third, and his statistical output this season places him among the top dribblers and chance creators in La Liga. Among La Liga players with more than 900 mins, Gil ranks:

  • 11th in shot-creating actions p90
  • 5th in shot-creating actions p90 from dribbles
  • 8th in dribbles completed p90
  • 10th in most ball carries p90 into the box
  • 7th in most passes p90 into the box

For a league that has become so focused on order, defense, and disordering opponents through passing rather than dribbling, Gil’s old-school dribbles and everything he creates from them provides a breath of fresh air. Personally, he reminds me a lot of the early versions of Di María we saw at Benfica and Real Madrid. And just like Di María, Gil puts in a defensive shit too: he ranks third among Eibar players in pressures per game, only behind Sergio Alvarez and Sergi Enrich.

Mendilibar has played Bryan on the right wing in the last two games against Villarreal and Athletic. His stat output hasn’t dropped despite the change of position, and in fact, he is shooting a bit more frequently than usual. When left-footed Bryan plays as a traditional winger on the left, he focuses more on reaching the end of the pitch and assisting teammates. When he plays on the right as an inverted winger, he gets to cut inside more frequently and then shoot with his left. Bryan is already a gifted dribbler and assist-provider, and if he can add more shots and goals to his end product, he could really become of the top wingers in Europe.

Lineup Choices

The toughest and most important week of the season is coming for Zidane and his men, with a grueling series of back-to-back Liverpool - Barça - Liverpool games. This is a strong argument for Zidane to do some much-needed rotation ahead of this Eibar game.

Carvajal, Ramos, and Valverde are injured, while Hazard continues to do recovery work in hopes to make it to the Liverpool game. These injuries limit Zidane’s ability to rotate certain key positions. The center-back pair of Nacho and Varane as well as the backbone of Casemiro - Modrić - Benzema will likely start in all of the upcoming four games, including Eibar.

However, Zidane could play Isco in left midfield instead of Kroos. The German maestro suffered a knock during the international break with Germany and perhaps he should be rested just to be safe. On the left-back position, Marcelo could also start over Ferland Mendy. Zidane has a few options when it comes to wingers, but Vinicius and Rodrygo would likely be the best tactical fit to play against Eibar’s high line.

In the case of Eibar, they are suffering a number of injuries: Rober Correa, Yoshinori Muto, Recio, but most importantly, starting center back Pedro Bigas and starting midfielder Edu Expósito. Against big teams, Mendilibar likes to use a 4-2-3-1 with an extra midfielder to ensure a bit more midfield control, and it’s likely he will do the same against Real Madrid. Another reason to use this shape is that Sergi Enrich—the striker who often plays alongside Kike in the 4-4-2—has not been effective in front of goal recently. Therefore, Eibar’s expected lineup is:

  • Keeper: Marko Dmitrović
  • Center backs: Aritz Arbilla and Paulo Oliveira
  • Full backs: Jose Angel ‘Cote’ on the left, Alejandro Pozo on the right
  • Midfield trio: Similar to the one used vs Athletic: Papakouli Diop and Sergio Alvarez as double pivot, Aleix Garcia ahead of them as a ten
  • Wingers: Bryan Gil on the right wing again and one of Inui or Kevin Rodrigues on the left.
  • Striker: Kike García

Key Matchups

As far as individual duels, watch out for Bryan Gil taking on the Real Madrid fullbacks. Whether he plays on the left or the right, his 1-on-1 skill will be a threat either to Lucas or Marcelo, who can both struggle against these kinds of tricky dribblers. If the fullbacks can win most of those duels, Eibar will struggle to produce really good chances.

Real Madrid Training Session Photo by Antonio Villalba/Real Madrid via Getty Images

On the offense, Eibar’s press will be a big test to Real Madrid’s passing circuit. If Kroos doesn’t play, then Nacho and Modrić will likely have big responsibilities in keeping the ball under pressure. They have done quite well in this regard in the past few months, so there’s good reason to believe they can succeed once again.

Further ahead on the pitch, watch out for Vinicius running behind Eibar’s high line. His interaction with Benzema will be vital here, as the Frenchman can drop into deeper zones, pull defenders out of position, and then open up spaces in Eibar’s defensive line that Vinicius could run into.