As Marcelo Bielsa touched down at San Mames last August to return to club management for the first time in over a decade, there was an air of excitement in Spain. Bielsa, having turned down Massimo Moratti and Inter in order to fulfill a promise he made to Josu Urrutia, was coming back in order to attend to some unfinished business he had endured the first time around.
In 1998, Español hired him. He lasted only six games, failing to win any. He abandoned ship as they lay in 18th position after those half a dozen games to take up the post as manager of his home nation, Argentina.
At the beginning of this season, to the untrained eye, it seemed Bielsa was set for a case of déjà vu. It was with Athletic Club de Bilbao this time that he went winless for his first fives games of the season, breaking a 32 year record for their worst start to a campaign. Languishing in the relegation zone, just as he had with Español, questions were already being asked of Bielsa and his coaching methods and if they were suited to club football, especially a team structured like Athletic. While the stats lay bare the early season mini-crisis, behind the scenes it was a different story altogether.
Athletic were clearly a side in transition, still dealing with the demands of Bielsa and implementation of his tactics. It was evident at the World Cup that Bielsa's Chile team constantly hounded teams like dogs seeking to regain possession of the ball. It's the same at Athletic. They press, but just not as an alarmingly a rate as Chile did, most likely due to the fact that there are a significant amount of lower games to play in the World Cup than there are in La Liga and the copious amount of pressure would begin to tell for Athletic as the season progressed.
Athletic's first league win of the season, and usually one of the most anticipated in the club's season, was a win against Basque rivals Real Sociedad. Two goals from Fernando Llorente were enough to cancel out Inigo Martinez's jaw-dropping goal from the half-way line and give them their first three points of the season.
Finally there was a reward. For all the work the players had endured early on in the season, Bielsa's tactics were finally paying dividends. He now had one win in six but pundits were still excited to see what came next from the Argentine. Bielsa himself was particularly relieved about the result: "Even though I am a foreigner you can still feel this game is different; it is not just any game. We needed to win."
He said it again, whispering it, albeit as if to emphasis the repercussions he would have been ridiculed to if he hadn't: "We needed to win for many reasons." He knew, the team knew, the board and the fans knew how important that game was. It was one of those ‘must win’ games, a ‘do or die’ fixture, that eased the early season pressure on Bielsa, giving them some much needed respite, lifting them up from 19th to 16th.
That win kick-started a run of eleven games without defeat for the Basques. Among those results was a creditable draw away to Valencia, a seemingly comfortable 3-0 victory over fellow Champions League hopefuls Atletico Madrid and, perhaps most intriguingly, a pulsating 2-2 draw with Barçelona at San Mamés, in which Pep Guardiola showered Bielsa's men with praise, labeling them 'beasts' and stating that he had 'never played against a team so intense'.
The two have what one calls 'history'. Back in 2006, when Guardiola wished to become a coach, he paid Bielsa a visit in Argentina and the two talked. And talked. And talked. For eleven hours. Flinging chairs from one place to another, exercising several different marking strategies. Such a story was confirmed by Guardiola who stated "you don't talk for that long if its not agreeable and worthwhile". No wonder then why they were quick to compliment each other on that wet, rain-soaked drama fuelled November night, Guardiola more so than his counterpart.
While Bielsa's methods were beginning to bare fruit, we could see where and what he had altered since arriving. For example, Athletic now average 418 short passes per game, as opposed to last season’s 308 under Joaquín Caparrós. This clearly conveys El Loco's tactics of executing short and concise passes in building from the back and, with more possession, comes the likelihood of more goals.
He's also channeling more of the ball out to the wings, where Iker Munian and Susaeta attempt to weave their magic, the former more so than the latter. This season, attacks have instigated in the middle of the pitch just 25% of the time. Last season it was 30%. The emergence of Iker Munian has obviously lent a helping hand in shifting attacks more frequently from the middle to the right and indeed the left, where Muniain enjoys most of his possession. The possession they receive out on their respective wings is used predominantly to supply Fernando Llorente up front. This season, the 27-year-old has managed to grab an impressive 23 goals in just 30 starts. With Llorente having recently signed a new contract extending his stay at San Mamés until 2016, fans can breath a sigh of relief as his new inflated price tag will turn off any potential bidders.
In Europe, Bielsa and Athletic Club have taken away the breath of many, and slain some of Europe’s biggest sides in the process. Arguably Athletic Club’s finest victory of the season was when they outmaneuvered and outgunned Champions League dropouts Manchester United at Old Trafford, winning 3-2. Sir Alex Ferguson couldn't help but beam of admiration for Bielsa and the way Athletic performed, claiming that it was an ‘outstanding’ performance, as well as admitting that the Basques had ‘the highest stats of any team that has played at Old Trafford in the last 10 years.’ Sir Alex even went as far to say that this Bilbao side’s work-rate is greater than anyone he had seen in Europe, including Barcelona.
Madrid legend Raúl also got in on the act. Following Athletic’s 4-2 away win in Gelsenkirchen last week, the 34-year-old claimed, “this may be the best Athletic I’ve ever seen.” Now that’s saying something.
With their progression into the Europa League semi-finals and a Copa Del Rey final in May, it’s easy to admit that the short-term effects of Bielsa’s tactics have born fruit. However, league-wise, results have been dim of late. In their last six league games Bilbao have managed just one victory, which was the reverse fixture of the Basque derby against Real Sociedad. It’s understandable that such results are inevitable, especially a team drilled so intensely like Bielsa’s, and fatigue begins to play its part as the season draws to a close. The lack of depth in the squad has also made itself evident in the past couple of weeks and yet, the Argentine has continued to name unchanged line-ups, unless forced otherwise.
Marcelo Bielsa once said: “a man with new ideas is mad until he succeeds”. These ‘ideas’ that El Loco have implemented have brought success, be it short-term, to Bilbao. With Bielsa the man behind such ideas, it’s safe to say Los Leones is in safe hands and will be for the foreseeable future.