How Athletic Bilbao Stopped Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo

Paul WilkesFeatured ColumnistFebruary 2, 2014

Valencia's coach Ernesto Valverde gestures during his round of sixteen second leg Champions League soccer match against Paris Saint Germain, at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Wednesday, March 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Christophe Ena/Associated Press

It was always going to be a difficult task for Real Madrid, with the improvement of Athletic Bilbao in this campaign. The Basque club are now just two points off their total from the whole of last season.

Having been beaten just once in the last 10 games, via, they are looking comfortable for a Champions League finish. In recent weeks they have shown a killer instinct in front of goal, as confidence has increased.

Former coach Marcelo Bielsa preached the importance of pressing the opposition and fast attacks in numbers.

When the Argentine took his side to Old Trafford in the Europa League two years ago, he told the press room: "In terms of style of play, our simple ethos is this 'try to win the ball back as quickly as possible from our opponents as far up the field as we can,' via LaLigaUK.

"By that I mean everyone is involved in winning the ball back from the forwards to anyone else and then once we have got it try and find a way of getting forward as quickly as possible, in a kind of vertical direction if you like," added Bielsa.

Under Ernesto Valverde, the team are more measured in their approach. They are a lot calmer in possession and able to break down stubborn defences.

There's still an intensity when they press the opposition high up the pitch, but rather than trying to steal the ball back, they look to cut off the passes.

If the press is avoided through a long ball or a clever piece of skill, the team swiftly drops back and becomes very compact.

Bielsa's team would often get caught out in the transition as the opponent pressed them in return, whilst Valverde has made his side less susceptible to the counter-attack.

As a result Carlo Ancelotti's players attempted 51 long balls in comparison to the 32 they made in their last league game with Granada, per FourFourTwo. The success rate was also a lot lower as they were harassed on the ball and closed down instantly.

With Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema's work rate off the ball inferior to that of Athletic's, centre-back Aymeric Laporte was able to dictate the game and attempt more passes than anyone else, via FourFourTwo.

The home side had more possession and created the better chances as both Aritz Aduriz and Iker Muniain should have opened the scoring in the first half.

Aduriz's hold-up play and ability in the air were evident against Pepe, whilst Ander Herrera made life difficult for Xabi Alonso and was very creative in the final third.

After the break, Real Madrid improved and put Athletic on the back foot, as Ronaldo began to assert more influence.

Up until then he had been marshalled well through a combination of Oscar De Marcos, Ander Iturraspe and Markel Susaeta.

De Marcos was beginning to get isolated by the Portuguese forward, so the more defensive and natural right-back Andoni Iraola was introduced.

It had little effect as Ronaldo's cross was turned in by Jese on his full La Liga debut six minutes later.

Valverde's second substitution had much more of an impact as Ibai Gomez's spectacular strike drew them level with just his second touch. He almost added another toward the end of the match from a similar position, but Diego Lopez was equal to it.

Frustration boiled over when Ronaldo was sent off, as Carlos Gurpegi made the most of the contact, though it could be argued he clawed his opponent.

Most managers tend to sacrifice the rookie when down to 10 men, but Ancelotti's decision to remove Jese for Asier Illarramendi, denied Real Madrid pace up front and an obvious out ball.

Athletic's unbeaten home record in the league continues at the new San Mames, and few would begrudge them of the result.