Athletic Club defeated their local rivals Real Sociedad 2-0 at San Mamés on Friday to record a second home win of the nascent campaign and extend their unbeaten run there to 16 league matches.
The fixture provided a worthy comparison between two sides at a similar stage of development. Both Athletic’s Gaizka Garitano and La Real’s Imanol Alguacil stepped up from the B teams of their respective clubs to take over from sacked predecessors in December of last year. Garitano led Athletic from 18th up to eighth in the final standings; Alguacil took La Real from 15th up to ninth. Both expect to compete for European qualification this time around, but at this very early stage of the campaign it is Athletic who seem to have a clearer idea of how to implement their approach.
This is how Athletic won the Basque derby, and how it highlighted some of the changes Garitano has made and continues to make to their style of play.
The stylistic differences between the two teams were readily apparent. Under Alguacil, La Real are a team who look to play out short from the back, combine through midfield and primarily create opportunities from established possession; under Garitano, especially at home, Athletic are a side who seek to suffocate their opponents early on with a high press and a quick and direct attacks down the flanks and into the channels. It is an approach that feeds on what Garitano perceives to be the physical superiority of the Basques: “It’s what predominates in our footballers. It’s in our DNA,” he said. “The crowd at San Mamés enjoy themselves because it is an infectious style of play.”
Those differences set up an interesting dynamic, and one that proved to be to Athletic’s favour. “I think any team like us who tries to play out from the back has to do it very well against Athletic,” Alguacil said afterwards. “But we were unable to, and they were phenomenal. During the week, we practiced a number of routes forward, but we were unable to execute them. They are worthy winners. In the first half, they were better in every aspect.”
It wasn’t just that Athletic scored twice inside the opening 30 minutes to establish a lead they never looked like relinquishing; the degree to which they completely disarmed their opponents that was perhaps even more impressive. La Real only successfully entered the final third, off of a pass, dribble or carry, 10 times during that first half. They had done so 26 times against Mallorca the week previous, and 27 times against Valencia on the opening weekend. They didn’t attempt a single shot. Look at this map of their first half carries, dribbles and passes (red lines are successful actions; yellow lines are failed actions) and you’ll notice a gaping hole in the centre of the final third.
Athletic had successfully forced Barcelona to go wide to find a way forward in their league opener at San Mamés, and so it wasn’t particularly surprising that La Real likewise struggled to pick a way through. They seemed to lack reliable reference points to hold the ball and allow them to move upfield. Despite Martin Odegaard’s relentless prodding and probing (he ended the match having touched the ball more times than anyone but defender Igor Zubeldía), they were unable to successfully work the ball forward.
Athletic are clearly doing something right. They’ve defeated Atlético Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid on home soil since Garitano took over. He has said that he wants his side to be able to control all phases of the game, and that is what they’ve been able to do in both of their home matches to date, mixing that early high pressing with spells of deeper defending thereafter. It took La Real until the 83rd minute to get off their first of just two shots.
To have only conceded 0.57 expected goals (xG) per match across home wins over Barcelona and Real Sociedad and an away draw with Getafe (1-1) represents a strong start, and continues the clear defensive improvement under Garitano. He inherited a side with relegation-worthy defensive numbers under Eduardo Berizzo and immediately got them on more solid footing.
In fact, they were the league’s best defensive team (in xG terms; third-best in terms of goals conceded) from his appointment until the end of the campaign.
Athletic can be expected to lean heavily on their defence this season because in terms of both personnel and approach they are never going to be a super-expansive attacking force. In the admittedly limited sample size to date, no team has created less open-play xG (0.34 per match) than they have. This is not a team who can regularly be expected to create chances from orchestrated sequences of possession; instead, their attack is built around the exploitation of unconnected instances.
Three of the team’s four goals to date have come within five or less touches from a throw-in in the attacking half. Two of them have come directly from crosses arising from layoffs straight back to the advancing throw-in taker, including the first goal against Real Sociedad. Ander Capa throws the ball into play and immediately sprints in behind the confused full-back onto Iker Muniain’s return to cross low for Iñaki Williams to sweep home.
“Through one-twos and combinations one can generate situations that lead to good crosses and goals,” Garitano explained when questioned about it afterwards.
Surprisingly given their personnel and historic reputation, Athletic were actually La Liga’s worst team in terms of scoring and creating chances from set-piece situations last season. That was a focus for Garitano in pre-season — a point of identity he wanted to recover. In addition to their rapid throw-ins, they worked a couple of corner schemes that caused problems for Real Sociedad’s somewhat passive defensive setup. We’ll have to wait and see if there is a maintained uptick in productivity from these situations as the season unfolds.
Last season, Athletic primarily built into the final third through their midfielders, with Muniain and Beñat leading the team in deep progressions. But so far this season, it has been the two fullbacks who have led the way. The sample size is so small right now that it is difficult to know to what degree that will hold, but certainly in their matches to date, Capa and Yuri Berchiche have had prominent roles in moving the team forward.
One columnist described them as a pair of “steam hammers” after the derby win, and Garitano also handed out plenty of praise to two players he previously worked with during his time at Eibar. Capa, in particular, is just an intensely positive fullback, constantly seeking to combine or drive into space. He already has three assists to his credit, and here are his final third entries to date. Look at the distance on some of those carries (the dotted lines).
If the full-backs do continue to shoulder the primary responsibility for moving the team into the final third, Athletic would join a select group. Only two teams in La Liga have had their two full-backs at the top of their deep progression rankings in either of the last two seasons: Eibar and Getafe. Will Athletic become the third?
At a club whose scope for reinforcements is limited by their Basque-only policy, there can often be space for players who had previously been on the fringes to find a spot in the starting XI as others move on or regulars begin to succumb to the effects of ageing. This season, it looks like that will be the case for Unai López. After a couple of years out on loan and limited minutes back at Athletic last season, the 23-year-old has started in midfield alongside Dani García (another whom Garitano previously coached at Eibar) in both of the club’s home matches.
In those limited minutes last season, López showed signs of being an able ball progressor.
Whether that will prove to be such a valuable skill if the ball progression emphasis falls to the fullbacks this season is clearly a point to consider, but López also provides a bit more mobility than Beñat (the regular starter alongside García under Garitano last season) typically does in possession, dribbling more often and carrying the ball further.
This is a good example from the derby. López picks the ball up just past the half way line, drives into space down the left and then neatly flicks the ball inside to Williams.
He also provided an example of his passing range with an expertly weighted diagonal switch out to Iñigo Cordoba in the build up to the second goal, scored with a nice chipped finish by Raúl Garcia — the battering ram with the subtle touch.
There is also a feeling that the way López delivers set-pieces opens up a wider variety of routines from those situations than Beñat’s technique. There will certainly be matches, especially away from home, in which Garitano is likely to prefer the experience of Beñat or the physicality of Mikel San José (both of whom are out of contract next summer), but early displays suggest López could have an important role to play this season.