“I have no doubt that this is a special game … we started badly, but we are trying to recover from that bad start.”
The words of Andoni Iraola prior to the Basque Derby. But just as those words were spoken in the last few days, they could equally have been spoken last season.
Last season, Athletic Bilbao visited the Anoeta on Jornada 6 for the first Basque derby of the season. Athletic Bilbao were under the leadership of new coach Marcelo Bielsa but their first five domestic games returned just two points. Personnel changes were frequent as Bielsa sought to identify and then correct perceived problems within the starting line up as Athletic craved consistency. Somehow los leones managed to leave the Anoeta victorious with a 2-1 win. Llorente, struggling to adapt to the new style required under Bielsa, scored a brace. The rest, as they say, is history.
And now, on Jornada 6 of the present season, Athletic visit the Anoeta again as the 14th placed hosts take on the 16th placed visitors in a game that is shaping up as crucial even this early in the season.
Both sides were tipped to improve upon last season’s league performances but concerns are growing within both camps that expectations may have proven too lofty.
The biggest problem facing coach Montanier for Real Sociedad is the loss through a training ground injury of experienced keeper Claudio Bravo. The Chilean international will be out of action for an estimated two months. Deputy Zubikarai will stand in
It appears that Bielsa may be able to call upon two experienced players for this game if he chooses. Both Gorka Iraizoz and Oscar De Marcos were initially doubtful yet now seem likely to be passed fit and available for selection although rumours persist that Raul and Galaretta remain favourites to start.
Amorebieta returns to the squad but Ander Herrera and Aurtenexte remain on the sidelines.
The Importance of Home Form – La Real
La Real go in search of their first Basque Derby victory since December 2010 when their defeated their rivals 2-0. Since then, three consecutive Derby day defeats have come the way of the men from San Sebastian. Victory would ease the mounting pressure on coach Montanier who was this week publicly defended by Real Sociedad President, Jokin Aperribay.
A group of talented and precocious youngsters now ply their trade at the Anoeta and much was expected of Real Sociedad this season. Could Montanier coax the best from his charges?
So far, the doubts remain. Last season Real Sociedad eventually finished the season comfortably in 11th place. At home, they were strong securing 33pts from their final total of 47pts. But this only highlighted the poor performances away from the Basque Country. In 19 away games, Real Sociedad only secured 3 wins picking up a grand total of just 14 points from 19 games.
This season, it would be different. Following an opening day defeat away to Barcelona, La Real’s next two trips were to Mallorca and Levante. On both occasions they failed to take control of the game despite opportunities and crashed 1-0 to Joaquin Capparros’ men before a more painful 2-1 defeat was delivered at Levante.
Montanier has tended to be slightly more circumspect on their travels but at home, with a 100% record thus far, Sociedad will be expected to provide more attacking threat. If the disappointing away from continues, it only adds to the pressure to deliver results at home.
Confusion in the Ranks?
Are Athletics’ problems this season of their own making?
Los Leones have recorded just three wins in ten competitive games this season, two of which arrived in the Europa League at home.
Yet Bielsa has only named the same starting eleven in two successive games. The home victory over HJK in the Europa League following by the heavy 4-0 defeat away to Atletico. The line up changes on a weekly basis with players moving around the team. Gurpegi appears to be the successor to Javi Martinez in central defence but the veteran midfielder lacks pace. De Marcos has been used across the midfield and at left back. Ibai has played on both right and left wings. And now the biggest potential headache for Bielsa is the return to the squad of Llorente who stays on the bench whilst Aduriz starts and continues to toil as the lone striker.
Even allowing for the disruption of injuries, where Athletic have been very unfortunate, and the loss of Javi Martinez late in the transfer window, the consistent inconsistency of team selection and playing position is undoubtedly affecting the team from finding any semblance of fluency in their play.
The Key Battles
Both sides need to gain a positive result on Saturday night.
Real Sociedad will likely line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation as they have done for much of the season. The predicted line up is shown below: -
Real Sociedad have better balance to their team but Montanier is often too conservative and lacks sufficient belief in pushing forward with any degree of conviction. A starting eleven containing the pace and attacking verve of Vela, Agirretxe and Griezmann can make a substantial contribution towards all three points staying in San Sebastian.
The industrious pairing of Illarramendi and Bergara in midfield will be expected to undertake the defensive duties whilst the back four has a familiar feel to it.
Athletic still tend to dominate possession and it would be no surprise to see them do likewise on Saturday but they lack the same level of intensity in their play from last season. The pressing is a little bit slower; their attacking passing lacks the same precision. Small details which cumulatively begin to have an impact.
Given Bielsa’s tendency to change the line up it’s difficult to assess the starting line up with any degree of certainty: -
Muniain is operating slightly further forward and the midfield often feels exposed.
The full backs are less adventurous perhaps chastened by the ability of opponents to find space behind them. Or are Athletic simply fatigued from the intensive regime of Bielsa even this early in the season?
Both sides tend to favour their right side when attacking particularly Real Sociedad with 45% of all attacks originating on the right compared to Athletic who have addressed last season’s over reliance on their right side to a certain extent. Now approximately 38% of Athletic attacks begin on the right.
The flanks will therefore be crucial. The main creative outlets for both teams exist here with the industry for both found centrally.
How can the relatively inexperienced duo of Isma Lopez and Xabi Castillo on the Athletic left cope with the attacking skills of Xabi Prieto supported by Estrada who often pushes into a more advanced position?
With limited appearances together, Castillo and Lopez have yet to develop a relationship. Will this be telling on Saturday?
And yet Athletic can ask a similar question of De la Bella on the Real Sociedad left who will face the combination play of Susaeta and the marauding Iraola from right back?
Will Carlos Vela, if selected, back track to support his full back? Or will he stay high and seek to exploit the space behind Iraola?
It’s difficult to see Athletic leaving with any points. The team looks disjointed at the moment. They dominate possession yet carve out few chances whilst remaining suspect to counter attacks.
If Montanier selects an attacking line up and there is belief in the ranks of La Real, they can secure the home victory on Saturday night.
Chalk on the boots