SD Eibar, the smallest club in La Liga which consistently punches above its weight, are currently sitting pretty at 8th in the Spanish La Liga table. The club from a town of 27,000 people in the Basque country, which play at the little Ipurua Stadium, have been putting on some dazzling displays this season under the Basque manager José Luis Mendilibar.
The philosophy of Marcelo Bielsa, the famous idealistic Argentinian coach who popularised high-pressing, looks to have inspired Mendilibar’s tactics. However, Mendilibar’s system is completely different from the systems of some famous coaches of the Bielsa school – like Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Jorge Sampaoli – because Eibar attack very directly after winning the ball back. After recovering the ball with their high, intense pressing, Eibar move forward with pace, and play some vertical, long passes before getting into dangerous areas. Eibar aren’t concerned with keeping possession either; they only have the ball 51% of the time and only 73.9% of their passes are accurate.
Their tactical system is unique, and even more so when you look at slightly more advanced statistics. With the lowest PPDA (only counting passes and defensive actions in the opposition half; lower PPDA indicates a higher press) in La Liga, Eibar’s high press is more intense than every other Spanish side.
Even more interestingly, Eibar have conceded the 4th-lowest shots per game in the big-5 leagues so far this season with just 8.1 shots conceded per game. Juventus, Tottenham, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Atlético Madrid have all conceded more. This means that their high press is also very, very good at limiting shots.
So I decided to watch a bit more of them and browse through the data to learn more about their game. Here’s what they do.
As I mentioned before, Eibar press really high and have the lowest PPDA in La Liga. But that PPDA number doesn’t tell you the whole story.
Eibar’s high press also prevents the opponent from getting into dangerous areas easily. Opponents ususally play 52.34 passes per shot against Eibar. This number is the highest in the league. They also prevent the opponent from playing out from the back by pressing the backline with a few players. Here’s an example of this against Real Betis:
Very often, it’s the strikers and the center-midfielders who move up, with the wingers staying wide. Their press is man-oriented, and they always seem to be running without the ball. This pressing forces the opponent to play long passes. 18.63% of the passes Eibar concede are long, which is the highest in the league.
When the ball moves into Eibar’s own half through a patient buildup, they set up a more stable block. Horizontally and vertically compact, they keep very little space between their two lines of four. While the midfield line actively applies pressure on the opponent players, the backline stays steady. Here’s an example of their block in their league game against Barcelona:
Their defensive system is very, very good at holding off the opponent. With only 363 key entries conceded, only Real Madrid and Barcelona let less attacks into the final 18 yards.
As for conceding deep completions (passes in the final 20 yards excluding crosses), it’s the same case with only Barcelona and Real Madrid conceding less than Eibar’s 85 deep completions conceded.
However, Eibar are easy to score against once the press is broken. Teams take 1.9 shots for every deep completion they complete against Eibar. The shots they concede are of high quality (0.15 xG/shot against according to Understat.com; highest in the league), with most of them emerging from situations in which the spaces left in behind were exploited.
Barcelona’s third goal against Eibar when they thrashed them 6-1 is a good example of Eibar’s defense being cut through like butter (starting at 1:41 here):
Eibar’s attack isn’t as impressive as their defense, but it definitely is interesting.
When Eibar get the ball, they move up the pitch with pace and play long, vertical passes. 22.05% (2nd-highest in the league) of the passes they attempt are long, and they attempt very few actions per possession.
Eibar’s attacks reach the final 18 yards frequently, with 467 key entries, which is the 4th-highest in the league. Their attack is wing-oriented, as 73% (4th-highest in the league) of their key entries are into the areas wide of the penalty area.
When they get into dangerous areas, they look to shoot as soon as possible. They take 3.5 (2nd-highest in the league) shots per deep completion, and these shots are often of low quality (0.096 xG/shot; 3rd-lowest in the league). In general, their attack adopts a ready-fire-aim style, and isn’t very effective.
Eibar, being the least wealthy club in La Liga in a town as big as Fleetwood, are underdogs in La Liga. And underdogs can’t beat favourites at their own game. So, successful underdogs devise new ways of approaching things, like how David overcame Goliath by launching a stone from a sling. In football, that usually means sitting back in numbers, absorbing shots and mastering set pieces, and examples of such teams are the various sides of Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce.
Eibar, on the other hand, are a different type of David. With high pressing and direct attacking, Mendilibar’s side try to be a reimagined version of the Goliaths. This is similar to Paco Jemez’s Rayo Vallecano and Las Palmas, and Roberto Martinez’s Wigan Athletic. This style means that they can be destroyed 6-1 by Barcelona once in a while, or in the other teams’ cases relegated, but they do something very, very important: entertain spectators. What’s more, Eibar are in 8th place and their position looks sustainable.
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This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.