Many were surprised that Barcelona were defeated by Athletic Bilbao last weekend but the outcome of the game seems only logical despite Barcelona’s unbeaten run in the league. Bilbao’s new stadium has awaken unknown spirits in the club, players and fans. Though the atmosphere of their games felt more like a circus.
In a circus, the least risky segments take place at the start and the riskiest ones are always at the end because the way the show ends leaves the greatest emotional impact on the spectator. Perhaps this Athletic Bilbao side belongs to the circus, maybe a trapeze artist, one who takes the biggest risk to produce the best show, to take its spectators into an emotional roller-coaster but eventually satisfy them with the end product, a win. They unveiled their new San Mames this season under new head coach Ernesto Valverde and their form seems quite hard to explain, terrible first halves, fantastic second halves in front of the home crowd but terrible ones when they are on travel. Why is it so?
The new stadium seems to have given Bilbao a new form of strength, something quite unique and different, out of the seven games they have played at home, Bilbao earned 20 points, just a single point less than what Barcelona, Atletico and Real Madrid (20) have earned in their own ground. Nevertheless away form has been somewhat of a disaster for the Lions. Athletic have managed to win only three of their away games so far this season and losing the other four. In terms of away performance, eleven clubs have fared better than Athletic. Bilbao cannot have imagined a better start, they are directly behind Real Madrid in the standings although the point difference is huge. Perhaps if Bilbao would improve their away form they could be closer to the top three or at least secure the fourth spot and breakaway from Villarreal.
An interesting issue at the San Mames is that Bilbao are conceding goals early on in the game but on four occasions they managed to make a comeback winning four and drawing once against Valencia. If we take a look at the half-time table (taking the score of all games at half-time) they will be in the bottom half of the table, the first half problem is present with Bilbao at home and away. What makes the difference at the San Mames? The fans, the atmosphere, the spirit of the saint itself, it is all that. At home, Bilbao were inspired to fight and comeback in front of their own crowd.
The problem is definitely not the players themselves with the exception of Fernando Llorente, Javi Martinez and Fernando Amorebieta, the squad still has the same talented players it had two seasons ago when they beat Manchester United home and away in the Europa League. As a matter of fact, the players have added two years of experience to themselves and even Beñat returned to the club as well as Mikel Rico joining. The side is definitely strong and mature but they are like saboteurs, unpredictable ready to damage everything but achieve their aim.
Valverde has juggled around with the squad using 23 of his 24 players, the non-used player being the third goalkeeper. We’ve seen four different players play as a left back, five different ones as a lone striker and 10 different ones in the midfield. A 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, there is no definite decision on what exactly Valverde has in mind. The excess rotation has significantly hindered the team’s chemistry as Bilbao’s success passing rate is among the bottom half of La Liga’s table.
The club’s main threat lies in the high balls, only Espanyol and Osasuna have won more aerial duels than Bilbao (311) and this definitely helped Aduriz score some of his headers and the seven goals they scored from set-pieces of which none was a penalty making them second only to Sevilla (8). The highlight of Bilbao’s play is their crossing through Andoni Iraola, Iker Muniain, Markel Susaeta and Oscar De Marcos mainly. They lead the league with 28 crosses per game while their long balls are also a vital power as they are among the top in the league. They are even more diverse with their through balls coming only second to the magical Barcelona.
Bilbao can create solutions in different situations, they have shown us that they can unlock any defensive side but why can’t they initiate the play right from the start. If they are to make the leap into the Champions League zone, they have to start playing before they concede, they need to use all the tools they have been using only this time right from the start and even on away ground. Their ability to take shots from inside the 18-yard box is phenomenal and their defensive line is not weak, they do not let in many shots, but it is a psychological matter that makes them concede early and lose concentration in a little instance.
The Basque club is known to stick to players from its own region and they have no reason to change their policy, they have the right players to play through their tough mentality but if Bilbao is to reach the Champions League, a championship they truly deserve to be in, they need to wake up and play more pragmatically than stick to their nervy heart-breaking shows.