Celta Vigo met Athletic Club de Bilbao in their 2019/20 La Liga clash at Balaídos. This tactical analysis will investigate how Los Celestes overcame their opponents. Although it took a set piece goal to separate the teams, this analysis will demonstrate how Celta were by far the better team. Their tactics nullified Athletic Club’s biggest threats and helped them record close to 60% possession on the day. They dominated Athletic Club without creating clear chances.

Lineups

La Liga 19/20: Celta Vigo vs Athletic Club - tactical analysis tactics
Celta Vigo vs Athletic Club teams (wyscout.com)

Celta Vigo lined up in their favoured 4-4-2 formation. They made a single change from their defeat against Eibar, with Rafinha Alcántara coming into the side at right midfield. The defence of Hugo Mallo, Joseph Aidoo, Néstor Araújo and Lucas Olaza were tasked with marshalling Athletic Club’s dangerous duo of Iñaki Williams and Iker Muniain. Meanwhile, the attacking side of the game was left to Denis Suárez, the aforementioned Rafinha, Iago Aspas and Santi Mina. Stanislav Lobotka generally played higher than his partner Okay Yokuslu in central midfield.

Athletic Club played their preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. They made three changes from their defeat to Valencia. Mikel Balenziaga came in at left-back. Mikel Vesgalñigo replaced Unai López in central midfield and Óscar de Marcos replaced Ibai Gómez on the right flank.

Athletic Club’s press

Athletic Club sought to unsettle their opponents and force them long with an aggressive high press out of possession. They mostly adopted a 4-4-2 structure when pressing, with Raúl García pushing up alongside Iñaki. On occasion though, García would drop deeper than Iñaki to mark Lobotka more closely however. In the early stages, Athletic Club had success forcing Celta long. Celta were at a distinct aerial disadvantage against their opponents.

La Liga 19/20: Celta Vigo vs Athletic Club - tactical analysis tactics
Bilbao tended to adopt a 4-4-2 shape in defence. They would press high, often with the front four pressing Celta’s back four. The double pivot would then have to squeeze up behind them. In the early stages, Celta had real issues playing though Bilbao’s press.
La Liga 19/20: Celta Vigo vs Athletic Club - tactical analysis tactics
Rafinha has dropped very deep to pick the ball up here. Balenziaga has pursued him from left back. Multiple other Bilbao players are in the vicinity and can support the pressing effort whilst screening their own nearest Celta player.

Celta Vigo play through the press

However, as they grew into the game, Celta were able to play through Athletic’s press. The entire team showcased their quality on the ball as well as patience to recycle and shift possession until they could progress.

They increasingly formed a lopsided 3-5-2 structure in possession. Yokuslu would drop outside Araújo to become the left-sided player in a back three. Lobotka would play as a pivot with one or both of Suárez and Rafinha tucking inside in the half-spaces to receive the ball. This outnumbered Athletic Club’s double pivot when they both tucked in. Hugo Mallo and Olaza provided width. Aspas and Mina pinned Athletic Club’s back four.

La Liga 19/20: Celta Vigo vs Athletic Club - tactical analysis tactics
Celta created more of a 3-5-2 shape in order to play through Bilbao’s 4-4-2 press. Yokuslu dropped to the left of a back three, allowing Celta to outflank Iñaki and García. To compensate for the lost body in central midfield, both Rafinha and Suárez dropped off the flanks to come inside, forming a central trio with Lobotka as the pivot. Hugo Mallo and Olaza provided width. Mina and Aspas provided depth, pinning Athletic’s back four
La Liga 19/20: Celta Vigo vs Athletic Club - tactical analysis tactics
Celta have formed a 3-5-2 style shape again here. On this occasion though, both Suárez and Olaza have stayed wide on the left flank. They stretch the play and provide a wide option. De Marcos stays wider on the near side as a result, making Athletic less compact.

The technical quality and positional awareness of Celta’s players was impressive. They often received the ball under significant pressure. Nevertheless, they were able to efficiently transfer the ball to a well-placed teammate and progress through Bilbao’s shape.

Suárez, Lobotka and Rafinha impress

Celta’s three most important players for ball progression were Suárez, Lobotka and Rafinha. Lobotka often received the ball with attention from several Athletic players. On those occasions, he showcased impressive composure to bring a teammate into play. Nevertheless, he was also able to find pockets of space centrally.

La Liga 19/20: Celta Vigo vs Athletic Club - tactical analysis tactics
Lobotka is passed the ball despite the close attention of two Bilbao players. He allows it to run across his body, before playing a press-breaking pass to the dropping Rafinha. Mina moves forwards to keep the full-back from pursuing Rafinha.

Suárez and Rafinha were crucial in linking play between deep areas and the front duo. Their dropping off the Athletic full-backs into the half-spaces between the lines created options to progress the ball. They could then turn and progress the ball on, or progress it first time to Aspas or Mina. They also created overloads centrally.

The freedom they were given to roam frequently threatened Bilbao’s shape. With both players willing to pop up across the field in dangerous areas, Athletic’s players were unsure who to pick up. This led to both players getting time on the ball in dangerous areas.

La Liga 19/20: Celta Vigo vs Athletic Club - tactical analysis tactics
Suárez receives the ball centrally, having come in off the left flank. He plays the ball to Aspas before receiving the return pass and then threading a beautiful ball to Mina.
La Liga 19/20: Celta Vigo vs Athletic Club - tactical analysis tactics
Both Rafinha and Suárez find themselves tucked inside on the left-hand side of the field. With Yokuslu and Lokotka deeper, and Aspas and Mina ahead, a 4-2-2-2 shape emerges. The full-backs provide width. This completely outnumbers Athletic Club’s midfield.

Celta nullify Muniain and Iñaki

Celta were also able to nullify Muniain and Iñaki during the match. Athletic Club only managed an xG of 0.18 for the match, creating very few chances of note. Celta’s defensive tactics, as well as some terrible passing from Athletic contributed to the Basque side’s impotence going forwards.

Celta’s initial press frequently forced Bilbao long, whilst their compactness also forced Bilbao to attempt ambitious long passes. Celta’s centre backs, Aidoo and Araújo, were completely dominant in the resulting aerial duels. Aidoo won 100% of his aerial duels, whilst Araújo won 57% of his aerial duels.

Overall, Aidoo, in particular, marshalled Iñaki superbly. His positioning, awareness of Iñaki’s own position and athletic qualities saw him win 86% of his defensive duels and record seven interceptions without recording a foul.

Furthermore, the team as a whole worked together extremely effectively. Rafinha and Suárez worked back diligently to support their full-backs, doubling up on Athletic Club’s wide players. Rafinha helped Hugo Mallo repeatedly with Muniain. Inside meanwhile, both centre backs kept a close eye on Iñaki. All the midfielders also made sure they helped out on the Bilbao frontman if he was close to them as well.

La Liga 19/20: Celta Vigo vs Athletic Club - tactical analysis tactics
Muniain is on the ball. He finds himself facing up to Rafinha with Hugo Mallo and Lobotka in close support. The centre-backs marshall Iñaki in the penalty area.
La Liga 19/20: Celta Vigo vs Athletic Club - tactical analysis tactics
Iñaki receives the ball with his back to goal and Aidoo. Rafinha and Lobotka come from the front to steal the ball.

Conclusion

Despite needing a set piece to differentiate themselves on the scoreboard, Celta Vigo were the superior side against Athletic Club. Their defensive tactics nullified the threat of Muniain and Iñaki completely. Aidoo had a dominant game but his teammates also provided effective assistance.

In attack meanwhile, Celta’s quality in possession and ability to create midfield overloads saw them dominate the ball. Though they struggled to create chances themselves, their build-up play suggested that with more chemistry in the attacking third, goals could start to come more easily.


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Scott Geelan

Scott is an avid sports fan and follower of both football and its American cousin. He tries to write about both of them.
Scott Geelan