Gaizka Garitano The Architect Of Athletic’s Impressive Win Over Barcelona
Athletic’s 1-0 win over Barcelona on Friday night was massive. The Lions showed no fear, took the game to the Catalans, and were rewarded for their bravery. Several storylines dominated the match such as Aritz Aduriz’s wonder goal and Oihan Sancet making his debut, but it was the organized defense and tactics of Gaizka Garitano that were the true keys to victory.
Since taking over as manager last December Garitano has turned Athletic into one of the strongest and most reliable defenses in all of Spain. The focus on organization and communication has yielded fantastic results and was once again on display against Barcelona. It wasn’t just the backline that played well though as it took a team effort to topple the reigning champions.
Yuri Berchiche was quite possibly the best player on the pitch for the full 90 minutes. Tasked with marking Nélson Semedo, Ousmane Dembélé, and Rafinha throughout the game, Berchiche completely locked down his side of the field. The left-back said during the preseason that he expected much more from himself this season and showed that he could be one of the best in his position with a dominant display against Barcelona.
Likewise, Ander Capa put in a brilliant performance both defensively and going forward. The right-back made two interceptions and assisted Aritz Aduriz’s goal at the end of the match. Capa’s physicality was vital to holding up play and not losing possession when pressed. With an impressive engine, the 27-year-old perfectly timed his runs and was always in position when tracking back to defend.
Most importantly, the center-back pairing of Yeray and Unai Nuñez was absolutely flawless. The defenders won several challenges, didn’t give up any clear chances, and were composed with the ball at their feet. Barcelona found it impossible to break through the middle and even when they did get a rare chance Unai Simón was there to make the save. The goalkeeper was composed and did everything that was asked of him.
Organization is the word constantly used to describe Garitano’s system and for good reason. Any time Athletic lost the ball all ten players on the field moved as one to immediately switch to defensive duties and find their shape. No space was allowed, no easy chances, and the press made Barcelona uncomfortable. Even when stamina was lacking in the second half the team kept their structure and didn’t take unnecessary risks.
Dani García and Raúl García also played important roles with instructions from Garitano. Throughout the match, Raúl García physically hassled Frenkie De Jong to keep the midfielder from having time on the ball. It wasn’t always successful, but it was consistent enough to cause problems. Meanwhile, Dani García sat in front of the backline to provide support which freed up Unai López to be able to roam around to recycle possession.
With a high press, choked midfield, and perfect defensive structure Athletic were able to deal with Barcelona’s attack without any major concerns. The Catalans struggled to create chances and weren’t afforded any space to utilize. When Barcelona did take on defenders Athletic always had a player in position to help which often forced the visitors to pass the ball back out.
Going forward the plan was clear. Whether forcing a turnover or simply winning the ball back, the Lions would attack quickly and direct. Athletic often looked to send Iñaki Williams through on goal and the striker was given two chances inside the box, albeit from tight angles. Garitano also seemed to put a focus on trying long shots to force the goalkeeper to make saves. Williams nearly scored in the opening 14 minutes with one of these strikes but saw his shot stopped with a diving save.
There was no wasted motion in attack. When Athletic had the ball they immediately looked to create chances through crosses, through balls, or long shots. The Basques also did well at times to pass the ball around and keep possession, though it was obvious that they didn’t want to give Barcelona time to set up in defense. It may have taken a wonder strike in the final minutes of the game but Athletic created several promising chances and could have had even more goals.
At the end of the day, Athletic needed a top-level performance to take points off of Barcelona and that’s exactly what they did. The players were extraordinary, but Gaizka Garitano was the architect of the victory at San Mamés. Garitano’s tactics were perfect and so were his changes throughout the game. The Mister brought on Beñat and Oihan Sancet at the most needed times and the addition of Aritz Aduriz decided the outcome. From the opening kick to the final whistle, Garitano got it all right.
The Zurigorri showed their strength in defense, physicality while pressing, and were able to create going forward. Beating Barcelona is often seen as a shock, but the Lions weren’t surprised. Garitano and the players were outspoken about their confidence going into the match and showed why. Friday’s win was the best possible way to start the season and Athletic have now proven that they have the quality and leadership to challenge for a place in Europe this year.