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Saturday, March 31

Preview: Barcelona - Athletic

Two questions about Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao's upcoming La Liga contest.

Athletic Bilbao enter Saturday's La Liga meeting with Barcelona as the toast of Europe, the darlings of the football world, the eradicators of Manchester United from continental play.  Managed by the loco Marcelo Bielsa, Athletic play at a frenetic pace, opting to man-mark opponents every which way across the pitch, unafraid to key attacks with versatile, running defenders.  It's a style as unique today as it is tactically demanding, a style that can lead to open affairs defined not by end-to-end shot festivals but by each player on the pitch playing both ways.

It's a style that, when clashing with the fluidity of Barça's modus operandi, creates one hell of a spectacle.

In the teams' first league meeting in November, Athletic played Barça to a 2-2 draw at the San Mamés in what must be one of the wildest games of the season, a game whose tactics saw to a mixing of shapes resembling the incoherence of oil stirred in water rather than the defined system of pieces on a chessboard, all set against the backdrop of a torrential downpour.  It was a thrilling ninety minutes of football, and Barça manager Pep Guardiola was not reserved when speaking after the match:
I'm proud of my players today, but I also want to congratulate Athletic Bilbao.  Everyone has enjoyed this great show thanks to 22 very good players. These are the best games I have ever been to, and that comes from the two teams' will to win.

I have said that they are beasts, as I had never played against a team so intense, so aggressive, that leaves you so little space.  If you're not prepared they will beat you, as they have a very intense, peculiar way of playing.
In this week's buildup, Guardiola's laudatory praise for Athletic continued:
I have so much admiration for Bielsa and I try to learn from him. Athletic have been the sensation of Europe this season. They deserve the admiration of all.

In the games I've seen, they have been a pleasure to watch. This will be a complicated game, very tough and very demanding.
 Bielsa also wasn't shy about the mutual respect both mad men share:
Guardiola built a team that plays a different -- and better -- game than the football we've seen in the last 25-30 years.
With Barcelona now just six points back of Real Madrid with a Camp Nou Clásico in hand and with Athletic's recent floundering in La Liga to 11th, Saturday's contest sees both sides needing more than one point.  It's a contest with two pressing questions: 

With only one day of rest, will Bielsa have Athletic man-mark across the pitch?

From the very beginning of the opening leg of Athletic's Europa tie with Manchester United, Bielsa's players bore down on their marks, running the Premier League's table leaders ragged in the process, demonstrating an understanding of the pressing concepts even more understood than in November's meeting with Barça.

But with tired legs and against a more-rested Barça squad likely to feature fresh legs, to do the very same pressing with the very same feral-dog-ferocity would be something of a gambit.

If Bielsa is nothing but one thing, he is cunning.  If two, he is cunning and brave.  If Bielsa instructs Athletic to man-mark even on tired legs, it won't be out of dogmatic adherence but of intentional opportunism.

What shape will Guardiola deploy for Barça?

A look at the average positions of the players from the first game reveals Guardiola selected the hybrid shape of his 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 to counter Athletic's approach.  It's an important piece of data to consider, but so too must the possibility of Guardiola playing a true 3-4-3 to attack Athletic's tired legs be contemplated.

Also worth noting is that Bielsa, like Guardiola, favours the keeping of a spare man at the back.  To attack this shared precept, will Guardiola play the 4-2-4 which featured in defeating Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu during the Copa del Rey Clásico quarter-final?

While this campaign's Copa del Rey final awaits the two sides come May -- a condition which would normally see to a more conservative contest -- both Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa find their squads in need of three points for each of their domestic pursuits.  While the final will surely be a damn-the-torpedoes duel, hope remains for a La Liga classic, even if it's sandwiched between fixtures of two European competitions.

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