With kickoff just hours away, Real Madrid look to increase their La Liga lead over Barcelona to seven points. With the Catalan side playing later in the day, a win for Madrid will put the pressure on Barca to take all three points from Villarreal, one of La Liga’s best teams since the restart.

Since we covered the Bilbao’s defensive approach in the last preview, it’s time to examine how Zinedine Zidane’s men will attack the two blocks of four.

The importance of width for Real Madrid

Outside of the first 15 minutes, Real Madrid must prepare for an incredible compact opponent. If there are bright sides to this matchup, it’s that Real Madrid is in fine form, even despite the heavy rotations, and Bilbao is averaging 1.42 xG per match while conceding only 0.83 goals per 90. The numbers indicate that Athletic’s opponents have been wasteful in front of goal rather than the Basque side’s defensive domination. Madrid knows that wastefulness all too well, recording a phenomenal tally of 2.51 xG to Bilbao’s 0.56 xG in the last matchup. Despite the reasonable expectation of three goals in the game, the final score was 0-0, which included a few open-net misses for Madrid.

After a slow start to the match, Real Madrid started to find lots of space in the wings and the outskirts of the half spaces. Funnelling play into one of the wings would cue a switch of play to the opposite wing or half space. Quick ball circulation clearly benefitted Madrid, but so did the rigidity of the Bilbao defence. With the Basque side moving in a predictable pattern, the Madrid attackers started using Bilbao’s movement across the pitch against them. As Bilbao’s lines moved in relation to the ball’s position, gaps emerged and Real Madrid started moving into these pockets of space.

Another pattern of attack was a central build-up with through passes to the wide forwards. Using their numeric superiority in the central channel and half spaces, Madrid’s defenders and midfielders enjoyed a rondo around Bilbao’s front four. While the backline and midfield possessed, Real’s wide forwards took up high and wide starting points. If the defender didn’t move wide with them, one of two things would happen. First, Benzema would drop into the midfield and the wide forward would make a run into the half space or central channel. Since there was no expectation of a pass, this decoy run aimed to catch the attention of the wide defender, then pull him into a wider starting point.

If that didn’t work, a second pattern played out. Kroos and Modrić, the two wide midfielders in the first match, would drop deeper, pulling the Athletic Club midfielders higher up the pitch. When they stepped, the Madrid midfielder would dash behind them into the half space. A pass to Kroos or Modrić in that position forced the Bilbao backline to move laterally to cover the new threat. As the near-sided outside-back moved wider, Madrid’s wide-forwards were cued to make diagonal or horizontal runs into the 2/4 (right-back and right centre-back) and 3/5 (left-back and left centre-back) gaps. The image below shows Benzema dropping, Kroos receiving behind the Bilbao midfield and Vinícius Júnior making the corresponding run.  

Instead of playing Vinícius Júnior through the 2/4 gap, Kroos dribbled forward. Vinícius Júnior continued his run forward to pull his mark away from the play. Since Unai Núñez had to step forward to delay Kroos’ progress, another pocket of space emerged, this time for Benzema in the central channel. Martínez’s step was a split second late, but the real damage was done when the ball ricocheted off of him, then back off of Benzema, sending the Frenchman onto goal. Rather than shooting from the top of the box, he rounded Simón and saw his shot cleared off the line to Vinícius Júnior, who couldn’t finish.

After a slow start to the first 25 minutes of the match, Real Madrid really started to control the match. Moments after his miss, Vinícius Júnior displayed his explosive dribbling ability, progressing the ball through the wing. His moment of brilliance cued Athletic Bilbao to send extra help. As help moved wide, the pass came central to Kroos.

Despite their excellent defensive record, Bilbao greatly struggled with Madrid’s qualitative superiority in the wings. With the first defender beat, coverage wasn’t able to arrive in time to prevent negative passes to Madrid’s midfielders (or Benzema after a check into midfield). Though their 4-4-2 defensive work is highly structured, higher quality opponents are routinely able to take advantage of the space between the lines. You have to assume Real Madrid will look for those gaps once again.

Even when the central and half space gaps don’t emerge, Real can still target the narrowness of Bilbao’s lines. Barcelona was able to do just that. In the sequence below, Luis Suárez had just made a run to goal and was recovering his attacking shape. Bilbao didn’t account for his recovery. Instead, they kept their lines at a 20 metres range in the central channel. Their line was so compact that a simple pass to Suárez nearly gave Barcelona a second goal.

Moving the Bilbao backline with quick ball circulation is the key to Real Madrid’s attacking success. As Bilbao moves laterally and diagonally, gaps emerge. The sheer number of 1v1s with the keeper and high xG opportunities show that the last match came down to Madrid’s failure in front of the net more than Bilbao’s defence limiting Los Blancos’ attack. Madrid showed they could exploit the gaps in the previous matchup, they simply couldn’t finish off the attacking moves. With Madrid’s attack showing better form since the restart, expect higher quality finishing in this match.

Expect low success rates of counterattacks

Athletic Bilbao, as mentioned in the first section, looks to create counterattacking situations from middle and low block defending. For the season, they average 2.91 counterattacks per match, with 27% ending in a shot. On the other side of the ball, Real Madrid’s well known for quick counters as well, recording 4.28 counters per 90 with 30% ending in a shot. Despite each team typically enjoying their share of counterattacks, don’t expect much to come from them in this match.

According to Wyscout, Real Madrid has faced nine counterattacks since play restarted last month. Of those nine attacks, opponents were only able to record one shot. Athletic Bilbao has seen six counterattacks in that time, allowing just one shot.

The primary reason for their opponents’ lack of success is rest defence. When these two teams are in possession, they’re incredibly well set to snuff out attacks before they can properly start. In the image below, Valencia, a team very reliant on the counterattack, has just won the ball and started their attacking move. Notice the box of defenders Bilbao has behind the ball, as well as the recovery run of Capa on the right side of the pitch. Upon winning the ball, Valencia fins themselves 1v2 up top, the central passing lane cut out and a defend to pressure the ball-carrier.

Real Madrid has a very similar rest defence. Although it’s common to see the outside-backs higher up the pitch, the centre-backs, Casemiro and Kroos typically form a central box themselves, funnelling the opposition wide and intercepting the majority of balls that enter the central channel. This example from El Derbi Madrileño shows their fantastic starting points and quick pressure on the ball-carrier forcing Atlético Madrid into the wing, delaying, then ending, the attack.

With both sides so well-positioned to defend the counterattack, don’t be surprised if there are few in the match and, when we do see one, that it’s unsuccessful.

Conclusion

This match has major implications for each team. For Athletic Club, they simply can’t afford to drop any points. Trailing Getafe by four points, a loss could see them fall seven points out with four matches to play, which would surely end their dreams of continental play.

For Real Madrid, it’s a chance to move seven points ahead of Barcelona. With the Catalans playing a surging Villarreal side in the evening, an early win for Madrid would heap the pressure upon Barcelona’s sputtering side.

Though the recent history of these two sides suggests the match ending in a draw, Athletic Bilbao’s has had some defensive issues since the return to play. A one-goal margin is likely, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say 2-0 Real Madrid.