Last season couldn’t have been more contrasting for Athletic Bilbao and Valencia. Valencia showed promise following a whole host of talented signings, including the likes of Álvaro Negredo, Matthew Ryan, André Gomes and Rodrigo, however their season was derailed with four managerial appointments and many results going against them – including a 7-0 thrashing by Barcelona – before eventually limping to a 12th placed finish. Meanwhile, Bilbao, supported by Aduriz’s 20 league goals, finished fifth – qualifying for the Europa league in the process.
Valencia again strengthened over the summer, bringing in marquee signings such as Eliaquim Mangala and Munir on loan, and permanent signings in Ezequiel Garay, Martín Montoya and Nani – losing Shkodran Mustafi and Paco Alcácer in the process, while Bilbao carried on their incredible transfer philosophy – not losing a single key member of their squad, and not strengthening either.
Both sides have been consistent with their formations so far this season, Bilbao sticking with their traditional 4-2-3-1 and Valencia lining up in a 4-3-3 in all but one of their games.
Bilbao made just two changes from their last league game, with Muniain dropped to the bench in favour of Susaeta, along with Iturraspe preferred to San José. Valencia made a surprising four changes from their defeat to Real Betis, with injured Garay being replaced by Santos and Montoya replacing Cancelo at right-back. Álvaro Medrán was restored to the midfield over the suspended Enzo Pérez and youngster Munir was chosen to be on the wing over Santi Mina.
Valencia’s lack of pressing causes problems
Despite conceding in the first minute of the game and being behind for the first 20, Bilbao looked comfortable. Valencia didn’t look to press the defence whenever they had possession and left holes in their shape – easily allowing the defence to either bring it out into midfield themselves or pass between them until a passing lane opened up in midfield. I’m not convinced that this was Pako Ayestarán’s game-plan for Valencia, however, as they allowed Bilbao to bypass their front-line in numerous different scenarios.
Here we see centre-back Bóveda pick up the ball deep in his own half from the goalkeeper Kepa, with no Valencia players within at least a 20-yard radius of him. A few seconds later he’s been able to carry the ball over the halfway line into the Valencia half, inviting a press from the Valencia midfield as seen below. The Valencia press is now a three-man press, leaving other available options for Bóveda to pick out, although a sloppy pass from Aduriz ended up stifling this promising attack.
This carried on for most of the first half with Valencia defending centrally and deep, which wouldn’t normally be a terrible game plan, however the execution was poor. Below we see the lack of pressing open up a passing option into left-back Balenziaga.
He receives the ball and recycles possession into Beñat before moving into an advanced area and getting the ball back. In just over 10 seconds from receiving the ball in a seemingly harmless zone, all of a sudden Valencia are on the back foot with Bilbao runners in dangerous positions and too many players surrounding the player on the ball; none of them close enough to immediately snuff out the impending danger.
In this example we see Bóveda pick up the ball again with no pressure on the centre-backs. The full-backs spread wide to receive the ball, however Bóveda just completely bypasses the initial line of Valencia players with a simple pass straight into Raúl García, instantly creating a dangerous attack.
There is no way a central midfield should be that far apart and so flat, allowing the Bilbao midfield to play between the lines so easily and would easily be punished if it weren’t for a poor touch by Iñaki Williams.
Bilbao’s flexible approach
Despite the ease in which Bilbao got the ball into advanced areas, they weren’t really creating many clear-cut chances from them as Valencia got back in numbers to snuff out any danger.
In the above example, Valencia heavily outnumber Bilbao, which leads to a cross that is easily cleared by Mario Suárez. Despite a quick passing move that led to nothing, Bilbao often gambled on the long ball up to either Williams or Aduriz, which often led to chances. Laporte was the main instigator of these, using his great passing ability and the movement of Aduriz to pump the ball up the pitch with an incredible seven long-balls into the Valencia final third.
Aduriz’s superb movement
The main man from last season hadn’t yet replicated his form, with no goals in his first three games, however he bagged a brace against a poor Valencia. His movement was a constant thorn in the Valencia defence all game, anticipating every pass whether short or long and bringing it down.
Here we see Bóveda play an accurate ball forward behind the Valencia defence; despite being 35, Aduriz still manages to outpace the Valencia defence and bring the ball down with an exquisite touch.
In this particular example, he was ruled offside, but the run itself was still superb. The first of his brace was down to poor defending. Bilbao had a free-kick in a dangerous position and we can see Aduriz and his marker, shown by the red semi-circles. The marker is watching Aduriz, but as soon as the kick is taken, turns to watch the ball and that’s all Aduriz needs to make his run towards the six-yard box and head home.
His second goal was again fantastic movement, using a lack of communication between the defence to get in behind. He starts off in an offside position behind Gayà, before checking on-side then getting in behind Mangala as Beñat plays a beautiful chip over the top, before calmly flicking the ball over the oncoming Diego Alves.
Bilbao were deserved winners in a somewhat scrappy game and I think they’ll do well this season in both Europe (despite a 3-0 loss to Sassuolo) and in the league.
For Valencia fans and Pako Ayestarán, there are warning signs that things haven’t improved from last season. Performances will need to improve rapidly with games against Atlético Madrid and Barcelona in the next month, however the returns of Abdennour and Garay will be a welcome return to their backline.
By Stuart Reid. Follow @From_The_Wing