Football Features

“This is football at its most poetic” – Five things learned as Athletic Bilbao shock Barcelona to reach Copa del Rey semi

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:26, 6 February 2020

In a stunning night of football, Athletic Bilbao somehow squeaked by Barcelona 1-0 at the San Mamés.

This was the second such victory for Los Leones over the Blaugrana this season and it sends them into a Copa del Rey semi-final draw without any of the nation’s heavyweight sides. What did we learn?

1. Play it again, Iñaki

Back on August 16, 2019 – Athletic Bilbao played a listless Barcelona at San Mamés. A fairly even game turned in the last seconds as Aritz Aduriz came off the bench to score a sensational overhead kick and win Los Leones the game.

Here on February 6, 2020 – Athletic Bilbao played a fired up Barcelona at San Mamés. The Basques were on the defensive for the entire game, under constant assault as the Blaugrana choked out their counter-attacks and drove at their defensive wall over and over again like a Catalan Sisyphus. This was not like August, this Barcelona had an identity, an idea, they knew what they were doing.

But it all ended up the same anyway. A slack bit of defending from Jordi Alba once again led to a cross coming in from the right-side of the Athletic attack; back then it was Ander Capa this time Ibai Gomez. The ball sailed in and Sergio Busquets rose to head away, but Iñaki Williams, who had run himself ragged all night and managed to injure Gerard Piqué whilst dragging him along the grass, beat Busquets to the ball by a matter of inches. His flick was first and the ball sailed softly off his head into the far corner of the net.

Bedlam. Hysteria. The San Mamés exploded into life as crestfallen Barcelona players collapsed to the turf. How had it happened again? They had played well this time! They created golden chances and defended well, so how had they lost? There’s not much more you can say to that except, they, this is football. This is football at its most pure, its most poetic.

2. False Nine the true answer?

There’s been a lot made of how Barcelona solve the problem of Luis Suárez’s absence this season, with signings mooted and Antoine Griezmann even played as a forward – but at San Mamés the false nine made its return and, honestly, looks like the best option.

Quique Setién took advantage of the one area where Barcelona’s squad has genuine depth and moved Sergi Roberto forward into Messi’s usual right-wing role, moving Messi into a key central role. This meant that the Argentine often received the ball in dangerous central areas where he could drive at the heart of the Athletic defence, something he did repeatedly.

What’s more is that this system also helped cover for Messi in the defensive sense. Whilst the Argentine can be active in the forward press (as he was tonight) he doesn’t often track back defensively to conserve energy. When he plays on the wing, this means the Barcelona side has to adjust itself to account for that and can often be caught out in transition. It was notable how little Athletic were able to create on the break even with their lightning-fast attack. Has Quique Setién discovered the answer to his Suárez problem? They’ll need to actually start finishing their chances, but the side’s attacking structure is truly sound.

3. Unai Simon vindicates Herrerin

Iago Herrerin was sent-off after two minutes of Athletic Club’s round of 16 clash against Tenerife. It was a clash the Lions would eventually win on penalties, meaning that Herrerin would miss the next round through suspension. That next round was tonight against Barcelona, and, well, Unai Simon vindicated Herrerin’s red card by putting in a stellar performance.

Herrerin is good, but there’s no way he would have kept Barcelona at bay tonight. Simon was colossal in everything he did, dominating his area and making sensational saves to deny Barcelona. His stops from Antoine Griezmann and Leo Messi in the second-half were particularly ridiculous and kept Athletic in it until the end. And that the last move of the game ended with him claiming a high Hail Mary into the Athletic box was so apt. With the San Mamés roaring him on, Simon was the Lion King tonight.

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4. Frenkie’s got you covered

When Barcelona signed Frenkie de Jong, they signed the future of their midfield. Now six months into his Barcelona career, that future has yet to truly arrive at the Camp Nou. The question is to be asked: why? Alright under Ernesto Valverde it can be understood as the Spaniard wasn’t a great developer of young talent – but under Setién? What’s going on? Is Frenkie just not that good?

Turns out he’s basically too good. De Jong’s skill-set is unfathomably broad. He can pass, tackle, dribble and run. Like, really run. Frenkie is by far the most athletic midfielder at Barcelona, and Quique Setién has made use of this fact to add some drive to his midfield, playing Frenkie higher up the pitch than the Dutchman would ideally like, leading to some disjointed displays.

Tonight was one such performance, where De Jong was constantly racing ahead of the ball, providing the kind of outlet you’d expect Arturo Vidal to. It’s not Frenkie’s game, ideally he’d have been deeper next to Busquets controlling the game. That is surely where he’ll ends up, maybe even in a game or two once Vidal returns to full fitness, but for now he has to do a job for the team and that means driving up the field to provide some verticality to Barcelona’s play.

5. This new Copa del Rey works

This Copa works. You’re looking at all the other cups and this the cup doing all the working around here, right? This. Copa. Works.

Gone are the two legs, the endless grind that sapped the strength and will of everyone involved and just ended up with Barcelona making the final (the Blaugrana have been in eight of the last 10 finals, winning five). It was boring and the two-legged structure meant that upsets were impossible unless Real Madrid were feeling extra fancy and, y’know, fielded an ineligible player.

But this new format? One leg only? Atlético Madrid fell two rounds ago. Sevilla went in the round of 16. Then in the quarters Valencia, Villarreal, Real Madrid and Barcelona all lost. Every single favourite was dumped out on their backside, with Los Blancos even losing at home. This is the magic of the cup, the kind of thing you wouldn’t see in any other major league and in all honesty you wouldn’t have seen in Spain in a lifetime. But now the RFEF have a dynamic, full-blooded cup competition that should be the envy of the whole world.

This. Copa. Works.