Los Leones and Celticos treated football fans to a sparkling encounter that ended in a draw at La Catedral.
Last Saturday, Celta de Vigo visited San Mames for a mid-table clash against Athletic Bilbao. Both sides came into the match harbouring hopes for Europa League football, with Celta six points behind Sevilla in sixth and last European spot, while Athletic trailed by a further four. The match turned out to be an entertaining affair as it pitted one of the more direct and high-intensity Spanish sides in Athletic Bilbao against the more typical Spanish outfit in Celta Vigo.
The excellent press and counterpress of Athletic Bilbao
What really stands out from Athletic Bilbao is their supercharged pressing which they displayed in this match. They specifically executed a zone-oriented pressing in the high block to stifle Celta’s rhythm. Celta struggled against the press early on and as soon as they win the ball back, Athletic proceeded to counterpress.
Naturally, counterpressing also features prominently in Athletic Bilbao’s makeup and especially in the first half, they executed it very well. When Athletic build-up in the final third, the positioning of Ander Iturraspe and Mikel San Jose as double pivots not only provide a stable structure for ball circulation. That is, it also allows the more advanced midfielders to huff and puff in counterpressing if Athletic lose the ball.
— Athletic Club (@AthleticClub) March 31, 2018
In attack, meanwhile, Athletic Bilbao play more directly than most La Liga sides. In this particular match, Los Leones started in a 4-2-3-1 but funneled attacks mostly through the right-hand side. They looked to exploit the perceived weak link of the Celta defence in the area of leftback Jonny Castro and left centreback Sergi Gomez.
Athletic did this in a number of ways. The first of which was through quick switches to the right flank. Markel Susaeta and rampaging rightback Oscar de Marcos possessed the pace to make rapid transitions into the final third.
Another way is through creating space for de Marcos to push further up the pitch. As Susaeta (or Iñigo Cordoba) tucked in wide, taking their marker with them (Castro or Nemanja Radoja), de Marcos has space to exploit as a result. And along with Celta Vigo’s poor horizontal compactness, it creates a direct vertical passing option for Iturraspe to furnish the ball straight to de Marcos in an advanced position.
Williams the main danger man for Los Leones
However, Athletic carried the most threat through Iñaki Williams who possessed all-around qualities as a striker. The Spanish forward presented himself as a direct option for long balls and as an extra man for overload on either flank. Apart from those, his natural gift of pace allowed him to constantly play off the defenders’ shoulders and get in behind. He featured prominently in Athletic’s early chances, which originated from the right-hand side.
Athletic’s pressing, counterpressing and right-flank overloads earned them an extended period of dominance and they should have capitalised when Jonny Castro caught Williams’ foot late inside the area. The referee immediately blew the whistle. But instead of pointing to the spot, he booked Williams for simulation, despite being in a great position to have a clear view of the incident.
Celta Vigo struggle to build-up before overloading the first phase
In attack, Celta Vigo lined up in their traditional 4-3-3 shape that featured exciting wing play featuring the likes of Nolito before. In this match, however, Athletic’s excellent defence early on prevented Celticos from establishing a passing tempo in build-up. As such, they looked to use the pace of Iago Aspas and Lucas Boye in the flanks to launch counterattacks.
— RC Celta (@RCCelta) March 31, 2018
To counter Athletic’s excellent press, Celta tweaked their positional structure in the first phase of build-up. At first, only Stanislav Lobotka assumed the bulk of anchor duties wherein the Slovak struggled. But as the match went on, the other midfielders Radoja and Daniel Wass dropped deeper to create overloads in the first phase of build-up. The added passing options of Radoja and Wass presented more opportunities for Lobotka on the ball. Thus, Celta Vigo gradually grew into the game as they strung passes more successfully.
Still, Athletic’s counterpressing caused problems for Celta Vigo and towards the end of the opening half, Celticos dropped deep. They proceeded to maintain their shape in the low block and not press upfront. This prevented Athletic Bilbao from playing quick transitions and forced Los Leones to build-up from the back.
Athletic Bilbao turn intensity into advantage
The restart saw a fast start for Celta Vigo who made crisper passing and displayed more drive going forward. But Athletic immediately responded by increasing intensity when pressing in zones. It made the midfield battle patchy and eventually, Los Leones wrestled the momentum back. They turned this aggressiveness offensively and shortly after, they took the lead.
After taking the advantage, Athletic retained supremacy in attack with Williams still finding success down the right-hand side. They had another penalty shout when Williams outpaced Gomez down the left-hand side but it was less contentious than the one in the first half.
Celticos exploit spaces opening up from Athletic’s pressing
Later into the second half, Athletic struggled to keep their shape when pressing and left spaces for Celta to exploit. This allowed forward Maxi Gomez and Aspas to operate in between the midfield and defensive lines of Los Leones. Also, Athletic failed to keep their defensive lines compact in the low block. Due to this, Celta Vigo enjoyed more success in their build-up approach.
Furthermore, The introduction of Pione Sisto proved to be an inspired substitution for Celta boss Juan Carlos Unzue. It markedly improved Celticos’ attack down the left. In particular, leftback Castro got more involved offensively through overlapping runs and swinging in crosses. This allowed Celta to start threatening the Athletic Bilbao box.
Towards the closing stages, Celticos became more assertive in the midfield as they probed to get something out of the game. Celta Vigo restored parity in stoppage time when they launched a counterattack that left Athletic defence scrambling and proceeded to trouble Kepa’s goal but the Athletic Bilbao keeper produced an outstanding performance towards the end to keep his side level.
— Athletic Club (@Athletic_en) March 31, 2018
Overall, the match serves as a great exhibition of both sides’ admirable qualities. Athletic Bilbao remain a solid side under the tutelage of Jose Angel Ziganda. Their impressive pressing and counterpressing style remains a problem for most La Liga sides and it showed against Celta Vigo. Celticos, meanwhile, adjusted very well in the second half to counter the Athletic press and show their prowess in their build from the back approach before snatching a draw through a counter.