Athletic Bilbao face Atletico Madrid in the final of this season’s Europa League final following their pulsating 4-3 aggregate success over Sporting Lisbon last night. The game will mark their first appearance in the final of a European Competition since 1976/77 when they finished runners-up in the Uefa Cup, losing out on away goals to the all Italian Juventus side of Bettega, Tardelli et al.
On their path to the final, Athletic had dispatched such luminaries as AC Milan, Barcelona and enjoyed a semi final triumph on away goals over RWD Molenbeek (from Belgium in case you are wondering).
The route to this final has seen them eliminate Lokomotiv Moscow, Man Utd, Schalke and Sporting Lisbon from the knock out phase. Initially viewed as outsiders, Athletic are now the favourites for the competition.
Yet the man who delivered European football to Athletic, Joaquin Caparros, has not been around to enjoy it. A victim of the club’s presidential elections in the summer, despite steering Athletic to 6th place in La Liga and reaching the final of the Copa del Rey last season, Caparros’ contract was not renewed. Doubts over Caparros ability were surfacing, his image tarnished as being nothing more than a long ball merchant. Despite the traditional of direct football at Athletic, support for him was declining. In opportunistic fashion, the incoming President, Josu Urrutia, aware of the shifting mood, promised to deliver Marcelo Bielsa as manager if he won the election.
He did and he duly delivered Bielsa
His arrival at Athletic has generated considerable media interest which has only heightened and continually increased since their extremely impressive performances when defeating Man Utd home and away.
It had been 13 years since Bielsa last managed a club side, an ill-fated 6 game spell in charge of Espanyol which ended with his departure for the Argentine national side and Espanyol sitting in 18th position in La Liga.
How would his strict ideals for fast attacking football fit in with the physical robust football of Athletic?
Marcelo “el loco” Bielsa is an idiosyncratic, obsessive character. With a thorough tactical mind and a desire for attacking football, he perfectly straddles the traditional Menotti – Bilardo dichotomy in Argentinean football.
Countless stories exist about Bielsa and his eccentricity / genius. From pacing out the length and width of opponents pitches in advance of delivering his final tactical instructions to his team, to soaking training pitches heavily prior to a session commencing due to weather forecasts suggesting heavy rain on the day of a game.
With his now famous squatting position in the technical area, a keen journalist observed how Bielsa, during a game against Villarreal, took exactly 13 paces across the technical area before squatting down again each time Villarreal attacked. This could not be a coincidence. Was this another example of his attention to detail? The same number of paces marking a ritual?
“What is coincidence, is that when there’s such a nice game going on, someone spends time counting my paces.” was Bielsa’s deeply unimpressed response.
Always an innovator, the tactical developments he has made have heavily influenced a number of key themes in the modern game especially at Barcelona were Guardiola cites Bielsa as the “best coach in the world”.
Marcelo Bielsa - A Madman
The Set Up
“Our simple ethos is this: we try and win the ball back as quickly as possible from our opponents as far up the field as we can. And by that I mean everyone is involved in regaining the ball, from the forwards through to anyone else”
“Then once we have the ball, we try and find a way of getting forward as quickly as possible, in a vertical direction if you like. But we don’t get frustrated if we can’t get it forward immediately, we aim to be comfortable on the ball, and if it’s not a case of going forward straight away, we keep it.”
Bielsa adopted a 3-3-1-3 formation with both Argentina and Chile (detailed below).
Chile Starting Team vs Brazil - 2010 World Cup
As can be seen above, the team was more or less split into two units. The 4 defensive players comprising the three defenders and the defensive midfielder and the 6 attacking players comprising the two wing backs and un enganche y tres punta (a playmaker and three forwards). As Bielsa himself outlines, the idea was to play the game in your opponents half of the pitch, hold a high defensive line and press your opponent very aggressively. An attacking but physically demanding system to employ.
Arrigo Saachi spoke of there being an ideal 25 metres between centre-forward and centre-back and Bielsa shares this sentiment even allowing for the liberalisation of the offside law, something which Saachi’s great Milan never had to contend with. The high line must always be accompanied by an intense press.
He recognises the importance of the rapid movement of the ball from front to back to catch opponents off balance, but he also sees the value in retaining possession, which is what differentiates him from the likes of Egil Olsen, a coach who always prioritises position on the field over possession and favours a percentage based approach to football in the Reepian tradition.
The wing backs push forward to support the wingers, creating 2 on 1’s against opposing full backs. Interestingly, the full back normally goes on the inside of the winger. The wingers stay high and wide to stretch the opponents defence creating the gaps which the full backs, when attacking, and the midfield runners from the second line can exploit.
There was no specific No10 with Chile. Playmaking duties can be attributed to a few differing players, and in that respect, Bielsa again aligns himself with the Saachian notion of whoever had the ball was the regista. Similarly, Bielsa talks about the value in squeezing the game into a 25-metre area, another Saachian trait.
Always the innovator, Bielsa pioneered the use of defensive midfielders in the defensive line to aid distribution. With superior passing ability, a defensive midfielder can circulate the ball quickly and their increased mobility compared against traditional central defenders allows the higher line to function better.
Using midfielders in the defensive line also increases the flexibility of the team to adapt to differing circumstances. If the opponent had two strikers, Chile would adopt a back three. If the opponent switched to 1 or 3 strikers, Chile would respond accordingly, always keeping one defender extra at the back.
Bielsa enjoyed contrasting fortunes with his native Argentina and Chile. Despite arriving as favourites for the 2002 World Cup, Argentina failed to qualify from the group stage. One of the reasons cited for the poor showing of Argentina was severe fatigue from arduous domestic campaigns preventing the players from fulfilling the extreme physical demands demanded by the Bielsa model.
Yet this contrasts sharply with Chile, although expectations were lower, his success here was still considerable. His achievements here partially stem from inheriting a group of young players from the Chile U20 team which finished in 3rd place at the 2007 U20 World Cup. Players such as Sanchez, Medel, Carmona and Vidal emerged from that team and form the backbone of the current international set up.
Chile has no particular footballing identity or traditions unlike some of its South American neighbours such as Argentina and Brazil . The Chileans bought into Bielsa’s methods and a team that finished bottom of South American World Cup qualifying group in 2002, qualified easily in 2010, finishing second. The willingness of Bielsa to play the young players promoted from the U20 team, fast tracking them to the first team was central. Young impressionable minds who were physically fit and accepting of the exacting Bielsa philosophy.
Despite a second round defeat to Brazil in 2010, Bielsa and his players gained considerable recognition and appreciation not least because of their extreme attacking mentality at a time of increased conservatism in the game and the proliferation of a defensive minded 4-2-3-1 approach.
Given all of the above, how would he fare with Athletic?
Athletic are widely considered the most “English” of Spanish sides with a reputation for a direct style of play which dates back to the management of the influential Fred Pentland in the late 1920’s and 1930’s.
Pentland was regarded as a radical coach who favoured a short-passing game (still comparably long by modern standards. His was definitely not a tiki-taka approach) but he liked his central defenders and centre-forwards big and robust. The likes of Fernando Llorente and Fernando Amorebieta are the modern incarnations of that tradition.
Athletic retain a direct, but not long ball, style.
The signing policy of Athletic is well documented. However loose and flexible it has become in recent times, Athletic can still only play Basques or those coming through la cantera (the literal translation is the quarry. Players, like diamonds, are found in the quarry / ground and polished, becoming the finished article). Athletic can, and have, plundered neighbouring teams for their best players such as Joseba Exteberria, Javi Martinez, David Lopez and Gaizka Torquero but there will always be a considerable reliance upon la cantera for future players too.
Upon joining Athletic, Bielsa did not ask for any new signings, working with the existing squad. Interestingly, at the start of the season, Bielsa jettisoned a number of senior players at Athletic. Whether they were considered unable to adapt to the Bielsa methods physically or would challenge his methods intellectually is open for debate.
The key ingredients existed from the outset for Bielsa to succeed.
The tradition for a direct style of football played at a high tempo was central to both Athletic and Bielsa. The reliance upon young players from la cantera gave Bielsa the opportunity to again mould young players to his footballing philosophy just as he did with Chile.
Like la cantera, Bielsa has found fertile ground at Athletic.
In pre-season Bielsa used varying formations with players operating in a number of different positions. The pre-season game against Spurs demonstrated his willingness to consider a range of possibilities and ideas in search of answers.
Athletic vs Spurs - Second Half Line Up
The use of a back three was in response to Spurs playing two strikers whilst Gabilondo and Torquero were positioned on the wings as Bielsa sought the correct solution.
This experimentation continued into the early league games. A lack of structure and cohesion leading to decidedly poor performances with the team lacking clarity as they toiled with the implementation of Bielsa’s ideas. The odd line ups continued too, only serving to add confusion to the team as players found themselves fulfilling new roles and adapting to a completely new method of playing.
The case of Oscar De Marcos is a perfect example. Notionally a striker or winger, he started the season playing at left back against Rayo Vallecano. The following week he was in midfield against Espanyol before moving back to left back and then left wing back.
With no wins in their opening 5 games, this was Athletic’s worst start to a league in 32 years accumulating just 2 points. Athletic travelled to Sociedad for the Basque derby in September and the formation changed again, back to a 4-2-3-1, a recognised formation and one they players were assured with, but more importantly than that, players were now adjusting to the Bielsa style and being played in appropriate positions.
De Marcos was now firmly in midfield, deployed as a shuttler moving back and forth, linking with the attack. Autenexte had been brought back into the fold at left back. A proper left back and a good one. Llorente had adjusted to actually moving across the front line as opposed to being stationary waiting for the ball to land on his head. His new role required much greater movement than he had been used to.
A double from Llorente sealed the points and Athletic began moving forward with some purpose. The win brought belief as well as a healthy dose of relief, easing the pressure on Bielsa.
It has taken time for Bielsa time to settle in Bilbao. Upon arrival he began instigating radical changes, offloading nine players and training became far more theoretical with key moves repeatedly practised on the training ground. This represented a clear departure from Caparros and Bielsa himself acknowledged the early errors which he made.
But as with Chile, the players accepted his ideas and began implementing them. And the results arrived.
The Current Position
The team currently play in a fluid 4-3-3 system.
Athletic First Choice Starting Line Up
Both full backs push high up the pitch supporting the wingers although Iraola is noticeably more attacking than Autenexte. It is also worth commenting that Susaeta is happy to hug the right touchline whereas Muniain starts further infield and has increased lateral movement, drifting across the pitch. This sometimes leaves Autenexte with no support in front of him at transitions. Consequently, he is slightly more cautious in his attacking play.
The central defensive pairing is Martinez and Amorebieta. Typically, Amorebieta will mark and Martinez will drop deeper to cover although this switches during games.
Unlike South America where 2 striker systems are still common, La Liga witnesses the domination of the 4-2-3-1 formation. With a single striker, the Bielsa system needs two central defenders therefore the back four is utilised. This can, and does, change during games but the back four is the default position.
Iturraspe sits deepest in midfield and is pivotal to Athletic, moving vertically between defence and midfield to destroy and create as the situation requires. The defence becomes a three when he drops deep and the midfield becomes a trio when he pushes forward. Against Man Utd, he was always close to Rooney, neutralising his overall impact on the game yet Man Utd and Rooney failed to close Iturraspe down and permitted him time and space to construct attacks.
Bielsa favours a midfield with a sitter (Iturraspe), playmaker (Herrara) and runner (De Marcos). Nominally the playmaker in midfield, Herrara shares these duties with Muniain. Similar to Chile, there is no single No10. De Marcos is the runner, breaking forward at pace to support the strikers and linking well with Susaeta and Iraola on the right.
Llorente is the central striker flanked by Muniain and Susaeta and supported by the runners from the second line.
Athletic have adopted a patient build up, happy to play laterally initially as they seek solutions to their opponents game plan. Amorebieta and Martinez are comfortable bringing the ball forward but equally, will look for Llorente or the wingers with long diagonals. This variety in developing play aids Athletic considerably. As they approach their opponents third, the pace visibly increases as they play 1-2’s and look for runners from the second line.
The role of Llorente here is key as a target man shielding the ball and providing knock downs and lay offs to the runners. A developing role and appreciation of the system allows Llorente to differentiate between holding possession when required and dispatching quickly as the circumstances dictate. The long ball and immediate knock down / pass, although still occurring in the right circumstances, has declined starkly.
Athletic often seek to overload an opponent predominantly on their right flank. Susaeta is supported by Iraola and De Marcos. With Susaeta wide, both Iraola and De Marcos have the option of moving diagonally infield. This season, 41% of Athletic’s attacks have originated on the right flank.
Athletic Attacking Down The Right
Llorente moves towards the edge of the box, acting as a focal point for passes. Assuming he receives the ball then Susaeta moves down the touchline, drawing the full back out. As Susaeta does this, it creates the space for Iraola to drive in diagonally and either he or De Marcos can receive the ball from Llorente. Muniain, meanwhile, is drifting across, adopting a more central position and ready to receive a pass.
Athletic still retain a direct element to their play, crossing the ball and hitting long passes with an average of 23 crosses and 62 long passes per game (almost identical to last season’s statistics). One of the most noticeable characteristics about the changing direction under Bielsa is the number of short passes they play, increasing by 25% from last season. Under Caparros, Athletic were one dimensional, hitting long balls towards Llorente or Torquero favouring a 1-2-3 approach from Iraizoz to Llorente. Now, they play on average 420 short passes per game. This has aided them enormously in terms of retaining possession.
They now enjoy much more possession in each game, averaging 58% per game in La Liga compared to just 47% last season. Possession does not automatically equate to control of a game however. It is possible to control a game without possession of the ball. A fine example in a UK context was the recent performance of Newcastle away to Swansea. Swansea average 58% possession per game, making around 590 passes in the process. Newcastle were never going to compete for an equal share of possession, focussing instead on retaining shape and defending deep. Despite not having much possession, Newcastle controlled the game by controlling the space, scoring from two counter attacks and winning comfortably. There is a lesson for Athletic here.
Athletic average 58% possession per game (the third highest in La Liga behind the big two) and their pass completion rate is 79%. They retain their shape when pressing far better than Chile and avoid hunting in packs high up the pitch.
Their discipline when pressing has prevented them falling into the same trap as Chile – conceeding cheap fouls and picking up needless yellow cards. Athletic concede far fewer fouls compared to Chile who were prone to being caught too high and committed a number of cynical fouls to allow the team to regroup. Athletic have avoided this. They have a relatively low figure of just 15 fouls conceded per game.
In the defensive phase of the game Llorente splits the centre backs and closes them down whilst the wingers Susaeta and Muniain close down the full backs, supported by either De Marcos or Herrara respectively. When the opponent switches play, say from their left flank to their right flank, this is the moment when Susaeta drops back into position and Muniain advances to close down his opponent.
Both Susaeta and Muniain track back consistently to win the ball. Indeed, one of the defining moments for Athletic this season has been witnessing Muniain in a sort of perpetual motion shuttling back and forth on the left wing with short, sharp sprints as he presses opponents. For a precocious attacking talent, his workrate is phenomenal.
One of the central defenders marks the opposition striker whilst the spare defender sweeps. Iturraspe will stay in midfield or drop into defence, again in response to the opposition’s attacking set up.
Bielsa has married the best of the Athletic ways with his own philosophy. The direct, vertical nature at an increased tempo with constant movement and sharp exchanges of passes.
“We always go out to attack our opponents and go for victory,” Bielsa said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but we won’t alter the style of play we have.”
One of the reasons why it sometimes does not work, is the weaknesses within the system which opponents can take advantage of.
Similar to Chile, Athletic are vulnerable to the counter attack and specifically in two areas.
There is space behind both full backs, especially Iraola who attacks much more than Autenexte. This can be exploited by long diagonals in behind the full backs which pulls the centre backs wide. Javi Martinez does not enjoy moving wide at all and is weak when forced to turn quickly.
Athletic - Weak Defensively on the Flanks at Transitions
The space behind both Iraola, and to a lesser extent, Autenexte can be seen above.
Some opponents have sought to attack in this area with quick kick outs from the goalkeeper. PSG attempted it in the Europa League group phase match and on occasion last night, Patricio in the Sporting goal also looked for his wingers, usually Diego Capel. The problem for opponents is when they get pushed back too far, the team takes longer as a unit to move back upfield and Athletic can regroup.
Secondly, when Athletic press, both Herrara and De Marcos push very high supporting the attack to provide opportunities for combination play and provide options from the second line. This leaves Iturraspe with two choices. He can stay close to the centre backs and leave space in front of himself or he can push further forward and leave space behind him. Either way, the central area can also be exposed in a quick counter attack by a clever opponent.
Athletic typically have 12 shots at goal per game yet opponents have 15 shots per game. Athletic need to adjust slightly to close off the defensive weakness within their game without negating their attacking impetus. It’s an extremely difficult balancing attack to achieve.
Due to the incessant attacking under Bielsa, games sometimes flow end to end which makes for enthralling viewing for the neutral but which demonstrates the lack of control Athletic have over proceedings. Defensively, they sometimes appear chaotic as players recover and move back into position whilst also attempting to press the opponent.
The key for Athletic is taking the next step – channel the possession into a more controlled and measured approach and then create and convert chances.
Perhaps unfairly, although to a degree understandable at the time, Athletic have been written off as a cup team this season.
At what point do you stop being labelled a cup team? Is it after qualification for a national cup final or qualification to a European final? Or is it both? Surely Athletic must now be recognised for what they are? A very good team.
Athletic now sit 6th in La Liga just 4 points behind Malaga who occupy the fourth and final Champions League qualification place. With 4 games remaining, they retain an outside chance of securing a Champions League position especially in a season when no side has taken a secure hold over 3rd or 4th place. Valencia appear to be imploding in the death throes of the Unai Emery era whilst neither Malaga or Levante seem to have the stamina to make it over the finishing line. Achieve league consistency for the final few games and the Champions League place could be yours.
The cup team specialist tag appeared to surface for two reasons:- the physical demands of the system and their small squad.
Athletic struggled to maintain their performance level in successive games, being unable to manage back to back victories for some time. The physical demands of the Bielsa system are too great and Athletic are susceptible to conceding late goals the critics claimed. They provided the “evidence”. Real Betis scored in the 90th minute to win 2-1, Sporting Lisbon scored twice in the last 15 minutes to win 2-1 in the Europa League first leg and Sporting Gijon equalised in the final minute to salvage a draw.
Yet this conveniently overlooks the late goals that Athletic themselves have scored this season e.g. Muniain against Man Utd, Muniain and De Marcos against Schalke, Llorente and De Marcos away to Granada and of course, the crucial goal by Llorente after 87 minutes against Sporting Lisbon which secured their place in the Europa League final.
Secondly, the poor run of form following the Man Utd victories led some to argue that the demands of the system were incompatible with a small squad. The drop in form coincided with an intensive period of games in February and March. As the pressure has eased and midweek fixtures reduced, Athletic’s form has picked up.
When operating with a pool of around 18 first team players, rotation becomes difficult and the drop in quality between a first choice like Llorente and a squad player such as Torqero is considerable. This is not to denigrate the qualities that Torqero brings to the squad but they differ considerably from Llorente and the drop in class is apparent.
So what now for Bielsa and Athletic?
A Copa del Rey final awaits against Barcelona and a Europa League final against Atletico. Leaving aside the potential trophies, the next step in the process is the arguably the most interesting, and from an Athletic perspective, vital, step.
How does Bielsa develop Athletic?
Bielsa’s team may not have had the same calibre of players as a side such as Man Utd, but with six players aged 22 years or under starting against United, they are a team which has the potential to develop.
If, and it’s a massive if, he can keep the likes of Llorente, Muniain, Susaeta etc together. Llorente has one season remaining on his contract. If he refuses to sign an extension, it seems inconceivable that the club would keep him and lose out on a sizeable transfer fee.
Thereafter, can la cantera continue to produce young players who can make the grade?
If Bielsa delivers silverware, it makes the job of retaining these key players easier. The Basque country enjoys more favourable taxation than elsewhere in Spain and Athletic are a wealthy club. The players would be financially secure staying at Athletic but is that the extent of their ambitions?
Off the pitch, the club will shortly move to the new San Mames and further investment is planned for the training academy at Lezama to support la cantera and the future stars of Athletic.
If the squad can be kept intact for one more season, with Athletic warding off the predators who are surely likely to tempt them in the summer with large transfer fees for key players, and if the understanding and acceptance of his system continues, could Athletic challenge for 3rd in La Liga?
Valencia are likely to be under new management and Malaga are still under development. With Sevilla and Atletico continuing to be inconsistent, the time is ripe for a team to establish themselves as the 3rd force in Spanish football.
Is it Athletic’s time?
When asked about his methods and idiosyncracies, Bielsa responded
“A man with new ideas is mad – until he succeeds”
With Athletic, el loco Bielsa can keep his name and succeed.