A hard-fought win over Getafe saw Real Madrid take a four-point lead over Barcelona. La Liga’s crown firmly under their control with five matches separating Los Blancos from their 34th league title.

Before celebrations begin, the club is in the middle of a difficult stretch of games. The win against Getafe was critical, but an equally difficult test awaits them in Athletic Club. Since the restart, the Basque side has shot up the league table, getting Gaizka Garitano’s side within reach of a Europa League spot.

Heading into the match, Real Madrid’s ability to find the gaps in Bilbao’s defensive structure is key to the matchup. Below is our predicted lineup and an overview of how Athletic Club will set up defensively.

Predicted Lineup

Athletic Club’s predicted lineup – Unai Simón; Ander Capa, Yeray Álvarez, Íñigo Martínez, Yuri Berchiche; Dani García, Unai López; Iñaki Williams, Oihan Sancet, Iker Muniain; Raúl García

With Athletic Bilbao needing a result to stay alive in their bid for a Europa League spot, expect Garitano to field a more attacking side. García has started a couple of matches in a row, so there’s a chance he’s rested, moving Williams to the top of the formation, but García’s goal-scoring form is desperately needed in this match. Look for the youngster, Sancet, to earn another big start with Muniain to his left.

Real Madrid’s predicted lineup – Thibaut Courtois; Dani Carvajal, Éder Militão, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo; Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Federico Valverde; Marco Asensio, Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard

With Luka Modrić playing in the last match and Vinícius Júnior starting in three of the past four games, they’re prime candidates to sit. Expect Hazard to start on the left, Valverde starting in place of Modrić and Marcelo’s return to the lineup. With Varane doubtful for the clash, look for Militão to get the nod next to Ramos. The right-forward spot offers Zidane plenty of options. While this is a great time for Asensio to start, there’s also the possibility of Rodrygo in the XI or Vinícius Júnior starting and rotating sides with Hazard. The right-wing is a wildcard.

Athletic Club’s defensive phases

With a 1.10 xG per 90 output, Athletic Club is not a team that generates a lot of high-quality scoring chances. While their xG rating has improved to 1.19 since the restart, this is a side that likes to dictate play through defence. With a narrow, compact defensive structure, their objective is to force the opposition to overcommit, then take advantage of uncontested space and qualitative advantages higher up the pitch. Claiming only 45% possession in the previous six matches, Athletic Bilbao’s deliberate deferring of possession to the opponent has produced fewer shots than their season average, but a higher quality xG per shot.

To set up this direct style of attack, they start the match-high with an aggressive high press. This approach is typically applied in the first 15 minutes of the match. The objective is to unnerve the opposition. Despite the high-pressure induced goal against Valencia, this is not the club’s modus operandi. In those first 15 minutes, the side will usually commit the attacking midfielders and forward to the press. Gaps emerge between that group and the defensive mids, making the press fairly easy to beat.

In the recent match against Barcelona, Bilbao shot out of the gates, pressuring Barcelona across the pitch. However, as you can see in the image below, Barcelona’s numeric superiority allowed them to beat the press rather easily.

With the first line beat, Barcelona was able to progress to midfield rather easily. However, once they reached midfield, Athletic’s remaining players behind the ball were very successful in delaying the pace of the Barcelona attack, giving the attacking midfielders time to take up their spots in the side’s defensive structure.

In this matchup, delaying the Madrid attacks, especially if they play directly to Hazard or one of the other forwards, will be key. Athletic’s rest defence must account for the forwards, denying entry passes when possible and delaying the Madrid attack when they can’t cut out passes. Whereas Madrid should prepare for the high press, looking to score before Bilbao can reset their lines.

After the first 15 minutes, look for Athletic Bilbao to primarily defend in a middle block. You will see them drop off, preferring the more compact structure of the middle block. Denying entry through the central channel and contesting play in the half spaces are foundational to their defensive approach.

The image below is a progression from the one above. As mentioned, Athletic Club looks to halt the opposition’s attack near midfield. With the attack slowed, the players took up the standard middle block. Though they’re a 4-2-3-1 club in attack, they typically defend in two banks of four with one of the forwards dropping to the opposition’s holding midfielder.

Bilbao invites the opposition to commit numbers forward, clearing space for their high attacking players to engage in 1v1s higher up the pitch. The middle and low blocks allow Bilbao to transition from defence to the attack by keeping two high targets. With the opposition pushed high up the pitch, those outlet passes to the high targets are easier to complete.

As shown in the image below. they used this same approach against Real Madrid in the first matchup. As Real pressed into the attacking half of the pitch, the Bilbao forwards tended to remain near midfield, offering a direct passing option. Skipping the lines puts their attackers, especially Williams, in position to use their pace and physicality in 1v1 situations. Sitting deeper also guarantees the opposition has a longer recovery run to offer help against the Bilbao forwards and attacking mids.

In terms of their transition to the low block, Bilbao will drop eight field players back to deal with the attackers moving forward. In the first matchup of the season, Bilbao actually used a 5-3-2 to ensure numeric superiority deep in their end, as well as defend against Madrid’s crosses. While I don’t think they’ll play the 5-3-2 in this matchup, do expect Bilbao to err on the side of overcommitment when they transition into the low block.

Though Athletic Club’s attacking tactics resemble those of Getafe, the defensive tactics alter the starting points of the attack. Against Getafe, Real routinely had numbers around the ball to counterpress a loss of possession. In this matchup, Bilbao’s philosophy of sitting deeper in defence will invite the Real Madrid attackers to push forward, creating the attacking conditions Bilbao desires. Athletic’s attack starts with their defensive shape.

Conclusion

With Bilbao expected to prioritize a rigid defensive shape, the burden is on Los Blancos to break down a strong defensive squad. In the next section of the preview, we’ll look at some of the attacking options available.