Garitano’s Gamble Pays Off In Madrid
Gaizka Garitano took a serious risk against Real Madrid. The Athletic manager fielded a lineup with three center-backs and two wingbacks at the Santiago Bernabéu on Sunday and, although it’s not a system the players are used to using, the gamble paid off. The Basques were able to overcome adversity and return to Bilbao with an important point from the draw.
The formation wasn’t perfect, but it worked. The trio of Yeray, Unai Núñez, and Iñigo Martinez did very well together and were relatively organized throughout the match while Yuri Berchiche and Iñigo Lekue were free to attack down the wings. Lekue was often targeted as the weak point in the Athletic defense, but the structure allowed for other players to be in position to help.
Further ahead, Mikel Vesga was handed a rare start alongside Dani García and the midfield pairing operated like a pendulum. As one pushed further ahead to attack, often Vesga, the other would stay back to protect the defense. Both García and Vesga were composed under pressure and provided strength in the center of the field, though their passing left much to be desired.
Passing was the biggest issue for Athletic and Garitano admitted as much after the game. “All of their chances in the first half came because we gave the ball away too much,” he said. “We have to improve in that area and we did in the second half so we suffered less.”
Iñaki Williams and Raúl García were threats going forward and, although Real Madrid defended well, there was space to attack on the counter. While not in possession, Williams would be positioned at the top of the attack waiting to break forward. The striker had three promising chances and even forced the goalkeeper to make a diving save.
Kodro also played well, contributing defensively and scoring with a sublime finish before the linesman called the goal back. In the second half Asier Villalibre nearly won the game in the final seconds with a diving header which was saved. The flag had gone up but replay showed that VAR might have overturned that decision if the goal had been scored. Though relatively defensive in nature, the formation offered width and creativity in the final third.
The structure and organization was solid for the most part and playing with three center-backs allowed for more support on the wings from the fullbacks. Berchiche and Lekue both had moments of brilliance going forward while the midfielders acted as the team’s security measure. Each player had an important role in the system and they understood exactly what they were asked to do.
Moving forward, this system can be another valuable tool for Athletic. The team showed that they can still defend well with a fluid back line and creativity can come from other areas. It also required luck, and another world class performance from Unai Simón, but that was always going to be needed at the Santiago Bernabéu. However, this doesn’t mean that Garitano will be making a permanent change.
“We have been playing with four at the back for a year and doing well,” the Mister told reporters. “This is a plan we sometimes use and I thought it was convenient in this situation because we gained height for set pieces and strength in the midfield. We had to stop their quality. Having a plan B is fine, but I don’t know if we are going to use this every weekend because there are things about it that I don’t like.”
Regardless of whether or not this system becomes more common, Garitano showed that he isn’t afraid to make formational or tactical changes. Adaptability is an invaluable asset in today’s football and Athletic have a squad capable of doing different things. It was never going to be easy against Real Madrid and the performance was far from perfect, but the Basques continue to play with confidence, show improvement, and find ways to get results.