Athletic Club … the resurgence … 19 matches in, 19 matches to go

What has happened to Bilbao ?  This time last season, languishing towards the bottom of Division 2, struggling each and every week, and ultimately relegated with several matches left before the end of the season.

This season, after a second chance from the new Chinese owners, reinvigorated from a post season trip to Australia and a change in strategy, manager Mike T has Los Leones sitting in 2nd place in Division 3, three points behind leaders Lazio.

In an attempt to break from the pack, a decision to move from the 4-2-3-1 formation that has been recognized as the *new* 3-5-2 and used by many teams successfully and unsuccessfully (see Bilbao last season) was made, and the coaching staff transitioned the team to a 4-4-1-1 formation, pushing the DM-CM-AM forward to support the attack where-ever possible.  A direct passing approach, and compact defending once the ball moved into their own half has Bilbao close to promotion again.  Knowing that squad depth and starting 11 caliber was approximately mid-table in Division 3, a tight marking and counter attacking style was drummed into the squad, which has so far yielded the right results.

Not afraid to chase the game and open up a little has also brought some notable saves and wins, notably a draw in the opening season fixture vs Dynamo Kyiv, and wins against AZ Alkmaar, Hamburg and in their last outing, a late winner against PSV.  Knowing that his squad is not built to win a possession battle, and playing a counter attacking style has meant that Bilbao average 48% of the ball at the San Mames, and 45% on the road.  Interestingly the counter style has still yielded the same shots and shots on target both home and away 10S / 4oT at home, and 11S / 4oT away from the San Mames.  Opponents, despite having more possession are only averaging similar numbers of shots and shots on target.

What has made the biggest difference this year has been the form of Fraser Forster between the sticks.  Offered in a few deals during the summer after a forgettable campaign in Division 2 last season, he has turned it on and is having his best year statistically by far.  Over the first 19 matches, he has kept 10 clean sheets, 5 at home and 5 on the road, and has average a 7.2 match rating, both home and away.  With his confidence having returned, the defense has also responded in kind and have the second best goals conceded rate at 16, with only Lazio sitting above Bilbao at the head of the table with 15 conceded.

Having the left and right sided outside midfielders with defensive qualities has been a key this season in limiting the the goals and cutting off the outside channels that teams often exploited the previous season.  The signing of Delaney in the off season partnering with Inan in the middle of the park has helped the settle the midfield and allowed club captain Camacho to anchor the center of the defense, as a CB with ball playing skills, with many a push forward set up with his initial ball.

Also noticeable has been the crowd returning to watch their team.  After averaging ~35000 in their first four home games, yielding 3 wins and a loss, the next 6 matches have averaged ~42750 fans, a 20% increase through the turnstiles, with visit on leaders Lazio topping out at 44036 fans.  An 11 match unbeaten run in the first 19 matches for good measure had many a die hard fan in tears … not having seen this sort of form for many many years.

Goal scoring has not been the focus this season, a haul of 25 goals from 19 matches places Bilbao mid pack.  All but one of these goals was created from an assist which has in part validated the change to the formation and playing style, with nine players having created 2 or more assists.  The goals hitting the back of the net also has a wide distribution, with seven players having scored two or more, Sandro Ramirez and Gio Dos Santos scoring 5 each.  This spread of assists and goals has not made Bilbao the one dimensional team it was last season.  A next man up mentality, selected for their ability to follow instructions and play the position while not sacrificing the balance of the team has also contributed, with youngsters getting their chance to start … Marcelo Saracchi scoring a goal against PSV in the last outing from a corner, starting his first match in place of the injured Ledley on the left side of midfield.

What do the remaining 19 matches hold ?  The chairman and board still expect a Top 10 finish, and have not yet been putting any pressure on Mike T and the squad, but the fans are excited, and if the Rojiblanco’s continue with their form shown from the first half of the season, dreams of another season in Division 2 against some of the bigger clubs in the T100 could be on offer ….

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