Bielsa and Bilbao – Second season syndrome?

Marcelo BielsaWhen you believe you have accomplished all you can in life, sit back proudly and admire your work. Then make sure you ask yourself: Do you have a football stadium named after you? Does Sir Alex Ferguson, or Bill Shankly? Maybe a stand, but certainly not a whole stadium. Heck, even I had one built in my honour, but then again cracking through to 2034 with Tottenham Hotspur on Football Manager warrants ‘McAleer Park’ being constructed as a result of my commitment to the cause.

Away from the realms of fiction, there is one stadium that pays homage to a manager who has endeared himself to many. Argentine side Newell’s Old Boys at present ply their trade at Estadio Marcelo Bielsa, a name officially announced back in December 2009 as they looked to honour their former manager. It certainly sounds much better than ‘El Loco’ stadium.

Bielsa may have only played 25 times for La Lepra between 1977 and 1978 before taking over the reins for two years in 1990, but in that short period of time the 57-year-old earned many friends through his innovative tactics and indifferent way of addressing the media and players.

Newell’s Old Boys were so desperate to entice Bielsa back to the club after he resigned from his post as Chile manager in 2011 that, following Roberto Sensini’s resignation, club president Guillermo Llorente met with the coach in an attempt to convince him to return.

Sadly for Newell’s, Llorente failed in his mission, and their loss was Atheltic Bilbao’s gain, with the Basque club excelling in their first year under the Argentine before a summer of upheaval paved the way for a much more turbulent current campaign. But despite Bielsa’s reputation largely remaining intact this season, why have Atheltic struggled to recapture their form from 2011/12? And what does the future hold for the club and their manager?

Distressingly for Bielsa, the current team are a far cry from the Athletic team that took Europe by storm a little under 12 months ago. On March 8 last year, the Basque outfit travelled to Old Trafford to take on a Manchester United side who had, quite embarrassingly, been knocked out of Europe’s elite competition in the winter.

“Thursday nights, Channel 5” was the quip aimed at the three-times Champions of Europe, but few would have expected to witness United’s complete humiliation at the hands of Bielsa’ Athletic in their own stadium.

Led by Fernando Llorente, who was flanked by impish duo Iker Muniain and Oscar de Marcos, with Javi Martinez acting as a central pivot, Athletic romped to a 3-2 win in Manchester before a 2-1 victory at San Mames emphasised the extent to which United were outclassed in their last-16 tie.

Athletic’s journey didn’t end there, and the La Liga side battled their way to a final clash against Atletico Madrid at Bucharest’s Arena Nationala, although 400 fans made headlines for foolishly flying to Budapest instead. Athletic’s talisman, Llorente, even suggested that securing a spot in the Europa League final was a better feeling than picking up his World Cup winners’ medal in 2010. And despite a 3-0 defeat to Atletico, Llorente and his teammates had won great affection for their achievements, with Bielsa’s standing at an all-time high in Europe.

This season has marked a contrasting change in fortunes for the club, Bielsa and Llorente. While ‘El Rey Leon’ enjoyed his most prolific campaign to date last year, scoring 29 goals in all competitions, he has made just 24 appearances for Athletic this season, netting a measly total of just two strikes as the team languish three points above the relegation zone in La Liga.

The 28-year-old’s confirmation that he will not be extending his stay beyond the end of the season was never going to sit well with the fans or Bielsa and a training ground bust-up between coach and player in October ensured Llorente’s time in Bilbao was sadly coming to end, with the forward announcing a pre-contract agreement with Juventus in January.

Without their star striker to lead the line in Bielsa’s famous 3-3-1-3 formation, the focal point of the attack has all but dispersed and it’s no surprise to have seen Athletic score just 30 goals in La Liga this season.

While the impending departure of Llorente has certainly had a nagging detrimental impact, the loss of Javi Martinez last summer to Bayern Munich has proved to be a bigger problem than many had anticipated. While Athletic received a considerable fee – £35million – for the 24-year-old Spain international his versatility has been severely missed. Martinez’s ability to drop from centre-midfield to centre-back in Bielsa’s system allowed the full-backs – notably captain Andoni Iraola – to double up on the wings and readily support the attack.

It was a finely-tuned formation that developed over the course of the season, and that Martinez has continued to excel since his move to Bayern – playing a crucial role in the team’s huge lead in the Bundesliga and march through the Champions League – highlights the extent to which he has been missed in Bilbao.

Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 system at Athletic was largely dependant on the flexibility, tactical discipline and positional awareness of Martinez and, as a result of his departure, the coach has failed to inspire the current group to replicate the exciting, incisive style on which last year’s success was founded.

Indeed, the loss of Martinez stands out as being Athletic’s biggest problem, rather than the poor form and wandering eyes of Llorente, with the club having conceded 50 goals with 13 La Liga matches still remaining, compared to the 52 they shipped in the entirety of last season.

Defeat to Real Sociedad in the last ever Basque derby at San Mames, which closes its doors for the final time in May, further rubbed salt into the wounds of the Athletic fans who were so optimistic in the summer. “I feel responsible,” said Bielsa after the 3-1 loss.

Whether he is held responsible by club president Josu Urrutia is yet to be seen. Upon appointing Bielsa in 2011, Urrutia claimed that the coach’s “virtues and Athletic’s needs fit together like a hand in a glove.” But the glove is slipping along with Athletic’s hopes of maintaining their ever-present record in Spain’s top flight.

Regardless of the current plight of Athletic, Bielsa’s reputation is unlikely to suffer drastically, such is the cult of personality the Argentine commands. He is still held in high regard by his peers and football fans alike, such is his insistency on playing the ‘right way’. In his final season at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola hailed Bielsa as the ‘best manager in the world’, revealing the respect and affection in which the Athletic boss is held. But only time will tell if we are to see him squatting on the sidelines at Athletic next season.

The Author

Ben McAleer

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