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Thursday, May 24

Preview: Copa del Rey Final

A preview of Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona meeting in the final of the Copa del Rey, Pep Guardiola's last game as Barça manager.

Following Barcelona's 2-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao in La Liga at the death of March, Barça manager Pep Guardiola had nothing short of the highest praise for his counterpart and mentor, Marcelo Bielsa:
Bielsa is a gift to the sport. We are not aware of what he is providing for football coaching. With teams like his, football will live forever.
After utilizing tactics of an adventurous and brave nature to lead Chile to the Knockout Stage of the 2010 World Cup, Bielsa has seen the first club he's managed in over a decade become the darlings of Europe, the side that knocked Manchester United out of the Europa League before eventually losing to Atlético Madrid in the tournament's final.  Featuring both a possession-oriented attack with dynamic movement from all positions -- wingbacks making runs at goal, centre-backs slinging in crosses on counter attacks -- and an every-inch-of-the-pitch man-marking defensive scheme, Athletic has the technical acumen to pass an opponent off the pitch and the physical capital to kick their ass in the parking lot.

Athletic only finished tenth in Spain this season, however, but their place in the table is not commensurate to their quality but rather effect of the strenuous demands of reaching the finals of two cups all while playing in a league returning to the top of UEFA's country coefficient.  Perhaps as impressive as their quality is their youth: of their starting eleven from the Europa League final, only goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz is over thirty years of age, and at twenty-nine, defender Andoni Iraola is the only outfielder over twenty-seven.

Athletic Bilbao Starting XI -- Europa League Final

Athletic's shape under Bielsa is essentially a fluid 4-3-3.  The wingers are of the inverted variety, looking to come inside just as much as they push outside.  The fullbacks run the touchlines when the forward ahead floats towards the centre but they also run towards goal when the forward ahead supplies width.  A midfielder will look to join the front-line.  The versatility of Bielsa's tactics in possession allows Athletic to not just resemble but play like a 4-2-4 for stretches, with their 3-2 drubbing of Manchester United at Old Trafford perhaps the best example:

Athletic Bilbao Average Positions -- at Manchester United (Source: Opta, via BBC)
RED: Defenders || GREEN: Midfielders || White: Forwards

De Marcos and his forays forward from midfield lets Athletic steal from an opponent what Bielsa holds in great revere for his own side: a spare defender in defence.  By forcing the opponent to be reactive by dropping a midfielder down a line, Athletic gains the tempo, and their possession-wanting ways are rewarded by having the initiative in hand.  With the midfield of their opponents now short a man, Athletic also finds themselves in a favourable position upon losing the ball: their relentless, tireless pressure is a legitimate weapon against any opponent backed up in their own final third.

Nevertheless, Bielsa's affinity for a spare man at the back is not without problems against Barça,  From the March fixture match review:
The keeping of a spare man in defense while man-marking elsewhere means that, invariably, one player has to mark two of the opponent.  For Athletic, this usually means their striker is responsible for both of the opposition's centre-backs.
For all of Llorente's immense talents and physical gifts -- talents and gifts that make him a frontrunner to replace David Villa for Spain at Euro 2012 -- he cannot be in two places at once.

 Barça 2-0 Athletic: Bielsa's spare man and Barça's surging centre-halves

Against centre-backs who are marginal on the ball, this isn't a problem.  But against Javier Mascherano and Gerard Piqué?  Again from the March match review:
It was an early and often occurrence for Mascherano or Piqué to drive forward with the ball from their own half into Athletic's, deep enough as to warrant a defender leaving his mark to pick up the marauding centre-half.  The only Barça player with more successful dribbles than Piqué was Dani Alves[...]
Piqué or Mascherano needing to be picked up by a midfielder or a defender introduces a sort of anarchy into Athletic's defensive system, leaving players either scrambling to cover or dropping into zone principles.  And Athletic's ambitious attack is not without blowback either.  Again from the March match review:
Another danger of Athletic's man-marking scheme comes from when they turn the ball over and, as a result, have defenders out of position.  This led to Barça's first by way of Andrés Iniesta's right foot:
 Positions upon Sánchez picking Gomez

When Sánchez picked the ball away from Ibai Gomez from behind in the 40th minute, Iniesta's marker, Ander Iturraspe, was in the unenviable and understandable position of being completely out of position with regards to his chief defensive obligation through zero fault of his own.

Positions after Sánchez finds Messi

Sánchez, after passing to Messi, then did what any good Barça forward does when the break is on: run over the top, trying to drag a centre-back with him to create space for the Argentine.  Gomez stayed on Sánchez after being dispossessed, but the Chilean's run drew Ekíza to his right just enough for a charging Iniesta to get clear onto goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz after a note-perfect pass from Messi.

The goal was the result of an unfortuante meeting of Athletic's two defensive principles: man-marking kept Gomez on Sánchez, leaving Iniesta free, and keeping a spare man at the back meant Ekíza's first priority wasn't the running-from-midfield Iniesta but the over-the-top run of Sánchez.
Will Guardiola or Bielsa drop their 4-3-3?  While an interesting footnote to Guardiola's Barça will be the 3-4-3 and the various three-man back-line exotics he deployed this campaign, the tactics first remembered will be the 4-3-3 and Guardiola's interpretation of total football.  Barça in a 4-3-3 strikes as nothing but fitting for Guardiola's last game, and Carles Puyol's unavailability makes a Montoya/Mascherano/Piqué/Adriano defence a seeming inevitability behind the business as usual Busquests/Xavi/Iniesta midfield.

Both managers want to take away an opponent's spare man at the back while keeping one for themselves, and Guardiola has a ready-made solution for de Marcos' forward runs: Sergio Busquets and his dropping in and out of defence whenever the situation warrants it.  Another solution for Guardiola could be turning to a 4-2-4 like against Madrid -- or, if he takes a damn the torpedoes approach, a 3-3-4 like in the Champions League Knockout Stage home leg against Milan -- to remove Bielsa's spare man, but the likeliest course of action is a 4-3-3/3-4-3 hybrid in attack like employed in the away leg against Milan but with the ability to switch flanks with two attacking fullbacks instead of just Alves.

For Athletic, Bielsa could turn to one of his alternate shapes from the 3-0 loss to Atlético in the Europa League final, but doing so would gift Barça a 3 vs 2 advantage in midfield, a proposition not to be taken lightly.  Bielsa's players have the flexibility and stamina to supply runs from any position to overrun a side's defence and this one-off final offers little in the way of need for change.  And, as Guardiola has Busquets, Bielsa has Iturraspe to supply cover to his backline.

It's a fixture quit of storyline shortages.  Pep Guardiola's last game as Barcelona manager, the potential end of an era.  Athletic Bilbao's last game before a transfer window which could see its core decimated or remain intact for a likely Champions League qualification next season.  The audience won't be as large as the Champions League final, the winner won't receive a payout in the neighborhood of Chelsea's haul, but what the Copa del Rey final does have over Chelsea/Bayern is a guarantee of football played not cynically by one side but beautifully by both sides.  And for that, before Euro 2012 dominates the football landscape, little better can be asked for to close out the current campaign than the swan song of Guardiola played against the cacophony of Bielsa's brilliant madness.

Liked this?  Then for blog updates and all the banter a 140-character limit provides.  Also, you might like this essay comparing Pep Guardiola to Don Draper from 'Mad Men'.

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