After an encouraging victory over Villarreal in the middle of the week, Barcelona hosts a surprisingly great Athletic Bilbao side, under the guidance of our ex-manager Ernesto Valverde. The former Blaugrana master turned the Basques into a really well-organized unit, which is surely going to make things difficult for us.
Barca News Network brings you Four talking points ahead of the 11th matchday of the season.
1. A surprisingly good team
If we look at the table, we may be fooled to see Bilbao sitting at the 6th spot. However, if we take a look at the advanced statistics, the Basques produce some utterly impressive numbers, especially given the quality of the players they work with, which generally defines the ceiling of a certain team.
This season, Los Leones are playing in typically a proactive, ball-dominant approach, as they want to possess the ball and create chances in great volume. Thus, they are fairly high in average possession (55%, 7th best in the league) and field tilt (60%, 4th best), meaning they are truly using their superiority to take the initiative and create from first intent.
Accordingly, they have the 3rd highest XG (9.5) in the league, just behind the duo of Real Madrid and Barcelona, from a commendable, 167 shots, which is, again, the 3rd best in the league, just after the two aforementioned giants of Spain.
Furthermore, their defense allowed the least quantity and quality of chances to the opposition (7.3 XGA), which happens to be the best in the league. In plus, they don’t even allow their opponents to get through their defense and threaten Unai Simón’s goal, having conceded the 2nd least amount of shots (coincidentally, after Barcelona), and the least shots on target (precisely 21).
2. Familiar face
The refreshing form of the Basques, however, is mostly thanks to the return of Ernesto Valverde as the Leones coach. The ex-Barcelona manager, after leaving the Catalan capital in 2020, took a two-year break from coaching, but at the start of the new season, he finally, returned to La Liga, and of course, it was Bilbao where he resumed his beneficial work.
While he is mostly a negative figure in the eyes of the Blaugrana fans, despite the unquestionable results and titles won, in Bilbao, he is a greatly appreciated person, nearly on a legendary level in the hearts of the local fans. After managing the Basque side in two stints in 2002-2005 and 2013-2017, the local hero, once again, gladly accepted the proposal to train the team of his heart, and drive them back to a more successful path.
3. Ones to watch
In plus, the arrival of the old-new coach involved good decisions about the personnel, and we can see that in the exquisite form of individuals like Iñaki Williams, Oihan Sancet, Álex Berenguer, and Nico Williams among others.
Iñaki Williams, the eternal talent, has found his form again, scoring 4, which happens to be the most among the Basque team’s ranks, and assisting once. Oihan Sancet, who played as a forward previously, prospers in his new role, deployed more as an attacking midfielder who arrives into the box, scoring 3 in 10 games.
On the wings, Álex Berenguer is seemingly comfortable with the role the new-old coach gave him, getting into good positions to shoot, and consequently, finding the back of the net more frequently, precisely 3 times. He is a serious threat coming from the flanks, but the biggest of them all is certainly the younger Williams brother, Nico.
The young titan, who has already earned a call-up to the national team due to his impressive performances, has become a serious threat to every La Liga defender, starting from the right wing and penetrating defenses with his lightning pace and piercing dribbles. At the same time, he can also finish the chances off, demonstrated well with his 3 goals. Surely one to watch out for the Blaugrana defenders.
Turning our sights to the home side, Barcelona prepares for the game with a few returning players to bolster their roster. Although Christensen is still not available due to his injury suffered against Inter, and Araújo is also out for still a long time, we have reasons to be delighted ahead of the encounter.
In Héctor Bellerín, we got a dissimilar profile to the right side of the defense, which offers tactical variety to Xavi, adjusting his set up according to the opposition. In plus, it is a great chance to rotate as Sergi Roberto started many games recently, and could have a crucial rest ahead of the Bayern game, which is our last, vague ray of hope to still get out of the Champions League group.
Although Kessié has participated in the last minutes of the El Clásico after his injury in early October, as I mentioned above, due to the problem of having a crucial game ahead, he might get the chance to return to the starting XI, while players like Gavi or de Jong can have a rest to better prepare physically to the midweek battle.
All in all, a tough game awaits Barcelona in their own playground as Bilbao will surely look to frustrate us and steal some points away from the Catalan fortress. Two teams with a rich history between them, clashing again for victory, a new episode of a great serial comes out, and hopefully, it ends with our triumph.