by Michael Ogunjimi
A team beating Bayern Munich four times in a row is completely unheard of in the Bundesliga. On Wednesday April 2012 the Ruhr side completed that feat to clasp one hand on the Bundesliga title. A team of good young players consisting of Mario Gotze, Shinji Kagawa, and the incredible Mat Hummels who is surprisingly a Bayern reject, have come a long way. Last season they were phenomenal beating Bayern to the title including a 3-1 victory that all but secured the dream.
Coach Jurgen Klopp has done a wonderful job and is inevitably attracting interest from all over by creating an utterly vibrant young side that play an intensive game that requires a huge amount of pressing the opposition team but don’t easily tire and recuperate quickly. Yet this Dortmund team does have a bit of history and they are hardly an over-night revelation. In the 1990s they won the Bundesliga twice and the UEFA Champions League after beating a Zidane-inspired Juventus 3-1 in the final in Munich. On the night they completely nullified the French maestro. This season however they started the season quite slow and it seemed Borussia were set to become one of those teams who shocked many by winning the title unexpectedly before returning to their previous level thereafter.
Borussia won their first match, then lost their second, then won again, then drew and lost twice in a row as Bayern were picking up wins and the gap was increasing; it all but seemed Bayern were on their way to getting back there title. But after Dortmund’s loss to Hannover in September they have since gone on a 25 game unbeaten streak including beating Bayern twice – both one-nil victories – to establish a nine point difference in the league. Surely with only three games remaining will go on to win the Bundesliga for the second time in a row. The larger question however is can this side become a European force? They fared poorly in the Champions League this season, going out in the group stage, but that may have been down to inexperience. Now they have secured a second bite it is hoped they can learn from thei mistakes, eradicate the naivity and – whilst continuing to play great football – establish themselves firmly amongst Europe’s elite.
So how do Borussia play?
Borussia Dortmund play a 4-2-3-1 formation. Whenever they attack their wide midfielders come inside to make Dortmund’s midfield narrow, while their full backs push forward to provide width in attack in order to stretch their opposition. Their holding midfielders become a vertical line while one of them becomes more involved in attack.
Since Borussia are an attacking team won’t they be susceptible to counter attacks? Here is how they solve that problem to a lesser degree. Pressing. Much like Barcelona, whenever Borussia lose the ball the player closest to the opposition player who has the ball presses and is also joined by another player closest to him as you can see in the diagram below. The number 21 moves to the centre to cut out any possible pass through the centre. This pressing makes the player with the ball panic so he is forced to kick an aimless long pass and lose possession.
There are only few teams in world football that are able to demolish a side like Manchester United. And one of those teams is Athletic Bilbao. The manner in which Bilbao suffocated Man U was so jaw dropping, I dare say it was much worse than the defeat Barcelona inflicted on then in the Champions League final in Wembley. The way they pressed, passed, man-marked, and counter attacked left Manchester united battered and bruised. There is only one man who made this club play such exuberant football, one that has been belittled as the ‘English side of La Liga’ to a team compared to the playing style of Pep Guardiola’s brilliant Barcelona side – Marcelo Bielsa. ‘El loco’ they call him back in his home land in Argentina and he really is a special man. The playing style he brought to Bilbao has gained him massive praise around the world including a significant fillip from Pep Guardiola who recently hailed him as the best manager in the world – I bet José has something to say about that. But what’s shocking is that while Bilbao are doing excellent in Europe, their league form is quite poor and inconsistent. The Basque side are only ninth in La Liga and one hopes they make the top four in order for them to qualify for the Champions League. We all ask ourselves why they are ninth if they are able to hammer Man U like a game on Fifa 12? Well at the start of the season they had a poor start in La Liga, drawing their first game and losing 3 in a row in the Spanish league. But one must admit Athletic have been saving their brilliant best for their cup games which sees them in the Spanish Copa Del Ray final against Barcelona which promises to be a spectacular match and in the semi final of the Europa league. Also because of Athletic’s playing style which includes intense pressing, this can leave the team very tired which could cause them to lose points in the League (check the recent game against Barcelona where they had to rest some of their star men and the match against Valencia). The frustration lies in the fact that if they played with such intensity in La Liga in the same way they did against Man U they would certainly give Barcelona and Real Madrid a run for their money. With young talents like Iker Muniesa, Fernando Llorente, Ander Herrera, Susieta and Javi Martinez, Bilbao’s future looks very bright but crucially that’s only if they manage to keep their stars from the clutches of Europe’s big clubs.
So can Bilbao become a European force? Certainly, but that’s only if they can get a Champions League spot which most of us are hoping for the good of world football. Rest assured next season – if they manage to retain their key personnel which we all want because we have all fallen in love with Bilbao – they will become even better next season.
So how does Bilbao play?
Athletic Bilbao play a 4-3-3 formation that mirrors Barcelona’s play of possession, pressing and movement. Making this work so successfully is Bielsas’ trademark man-marking which requires his players tracking their man all over the pitch (watch the La Liga match in November against Barcelona). Javi Martinez although a midfielder sometimes plays as a centre back in order to play the ball out of the back to start moves and increase possession at the back. They prefer to attack directly and vertically not by hitting long passes, but by short passing.
It’s been a joy watching these two teams not only for me but for all football fans. Let’s hope these two teams continue to enjoy their success and continue to play amazing football. Watch out Barcelona and Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Athletic Bilbao getting closer.