Keep Pressing Forward

Southampton found themselves in 15th place and three points above the relegation zone when Maurcicio Pochettino was hired on the 18th January 2013. The Saints would eventually end the season in 14th position and five points clear of the final relegation position, securing their berth in the Premiership for a second successive season.

From his 16 games in charge, Pochettino won four, drew seven and lost five producing an average of 1.18 points per game, a slight increase on the 1 point per game collected by his predecessor, Nigel Adkins. Were such a points per game ratio to be maintained over an entire season, the Saints would have finished in 11th position last season with a slightly healthier total of 45 points.

In a results driven business, there will be those of an opportunistic nature who seek to denigrate the relatively low level of points returned during the Argentineans brief tenure thus far. Why change a manger in the middle of the season? Particularly to a manager with no experience of the English game joining a club fighting relegation in mid-season and with limited English.  That such problems were of Southampton’s making by sacking Adkins is also true but the brief glimpses of the football that Pochettino’s side have served should be more than enough to quell those who are quick to criticise the Argentinean for the poor handling of the situation by the Southampton Board.

“But in the second half Southampton put in the best performance anyone has here this season.”

Sir Alex Ferguson

That’s the problem when you unveil a long term plan. People are quick to accuse you of creating a plan to remove the present managerial incumbent. The plan justifies the action taken.  If the plan is quickly aborted thereafter, those same forces will be present to revel in its downfall. If the plan succeeds, well it’s maybe four or five years later and nobody can be bothered to recall what was said all those years ago. Either way, you’ll be criticised.

With a modestly impressive start offering optimism for the future, what should Southampton fans expect from the side under their new coach? And what has the Argentinean tactician changed during his brief spell in charge to date?

Influences

Pochettino is heavily influenced by the philosophies of Marcelo Bielsa, a coach who has retained total faith in his system and who returned to vogue in the last two seasons with his swashbuckling Athletic Club side. A side that showcased the two extremes of such an approach. The young central defender Mauricio Pochettino arrived in the first team at Newell’s Old Boys when Bielsa was coach and subsequently earned a number of his international caps under his former club manager.

“He’s like a second father to me. I don’t know if he’s a crazy football coach, but he’s very methodical, and always faithful to his ideas.”

Whilst Bielsa is a fundamentalist, a man so defined by his beliefs that he would rather fail than change his methods, Pochettino must be careful to avoid becoming so ideologically driven. Indeed, if he is to succeed at the top-level of coaching, he cannot afford to be like his mentor. He must carefully assemble the components which has enable Bielsa to succeed whilst sidestepping the pitfalls which repeatedly traps his mentor.

The Espanyol Legend

Pochettino took charge at Espanyol in the middle of the 2008-09 season. In doing so, he became the club’s 13th coach in 11 years under President Daniel Sánchez Llibre, a revolving door policy operating in the Montjuic area of Barcelona. A club legend, the aggressive central defender played more games for the club than any other foreigner.

The tactician won just one of his first nine matches with Espanyol failing to keep a single clean sheet in the process. Bottom of the table and facing a return to la Segunda after 17 seasons in the top flight, Pochettino sought divine intervention, making a pilgrimage by foot to a nearby religious site. And he received it. Espanyol won eight of their final ten games and finished in the top half of the table.

Under his leadership, los pericos finished 11th, 8th and then 14th in the following seasons. The statistics below show how the side developed under him, as his determination to impose his style of play and system took hold:-

Espanyol Stats Under Pochettino                      http://www.whoscored.com

Espanyol increased their average possession under Pochettino and their pass success rate despite offloading their best players each season to ease their financial burdens. As the players understanding of the system increased, tackles and interceptions increased along with yellow cards. Part of the reason for the continuing success was the ability to work and influence the youth set up. Players being promoted from la cantera bought into the Argentinian’s values and ideals.

“There are teams that wait for you and teams that look for you; Espanyol look for you. I feel very close to their style of football”

Pep Guardiola

And this is where some of his most impressive work at Espanyol occurred. Working closely with the youth coaches, redesigning the youth setup, laying down tactical guidelines to be followed throughout the club and insisting on making each team play in an age group above, to increase their competitiveness and accelerate their development. It was not just an ideal though, it was a financial necessity. Espanyol cannot afford significant transfer fees and need to raise income from selling players. Promotion of youth team players under Pochettino increased with many players making their first-team début. The Espanyol squad retained a high number of home-grown players only Athletic, Barcelona and Real Sociedad having a higher number. It also speaks volumes about the philosophy of the club:-

“We’re not interested in our youth teams winning games; we’re interested in them developing players for the first team.”

Upon departing Espanyol, Pochettino’s time in charge will be interpreted differently dependent entirely upon what you perceive as success. With a win percentage of 33%, during his 161 games in charge Espanyol won 53, drew 38 and lost 70 games. Leaving Espanyol in November by mutual consent and not having been sacked as widely reported previously, the club were bottom of the league and had won only twice in 14 games. Having been at the club almost four years, Pochettino became the fourth longest-serving manager in Espanyol’s history.

Pochettino’s Style

As you would expect from a devout follower of Bielsa, Pochettino likes his teams to be play sharp passing football combined with a steely edge. Play should be built from the back, moving forward slowly if necessary, before the tempo increases as the ball enters the opponents’ territory and passing becomes more one touch. The high technical demands that this places upon the players can lead to a repeated loss of possession. And it can be frustrating to witness at times.

“I like football to be played well from the back, to have movement both in and out of possession, to pressure high up the pitch, and to be attacking”

The defensive phase begins as soon as possession is lost and the team are responsible. The team attempt to press their opponents as high up the pitch as possible. To do so, a high defensive line is held and an aggressive offside trap is pursued. It’s a strategy that will produce high quality attacking football with the odd defensive disaster. If one part of the team fails to press coherently, the system begins to crack and the opponent has time to exploit the space behind the high defensive line.

There is also another price to pay; Disciplinary sanctions. Espanyol had one of the worst disciplinary records in La Liga. If you press high and hound your opponent, you will inevitably concede fouls. Whether this approach will be more suited to the Premiership than La Liga, where minor contact often results in fouls, remains to be seen. It’s an area that must be addressed if a relatively small squad is not be over stretched.

The key was all the work we put in over the past few weeks. The victory only comes if you believe you can get the victory and today we believed we could win and that is the way we should continue. It happened as we hoped, planned and wanted. Many times you can imagine and it is difficult to make it happen but today it went to plan.

Pochettino is a devout believer in the triumph of the system. The above quote taken after the impressive win over ManchesterCity provides clear evidence of that. The work put in on the training pitch, the planning that is needed to achieve your goal at the end of the week. It’s not luck. It’s hard work, discipline, organisation and belief.

Southampton Beginnings

With 16 games under his belt at St Mary’s, it’s important to tread cautiously when examining the impact that Pochettino has had to date. It must be remembered that predecessor Adkins was enjoying a fine run of form when he was sacked. With just two defeats in the previous twelve games, Pochettino was inheriting a squad that had adjusted to life in the Premiership and contained much better morale than earlier in the season. That may have aided the adjustment initially.

Pochettino sought to impose his style quickly at Southampton taking advantage of free weekends to work with his new players on the training pitch. Double sessions have been commonplace but then, the players should have expected this. Pablo Osvaldo played under Pochettino before moving to AS Roma in Serie A:-

“He makes you work like a dog. Sometimes, you feel like killing him but it works”

Much of the focus in training will shift to ensuring the team is a coherent unit; that the system works as outlined above.

“It may seem like we are running more but really we are just running in a more organised way”

More organised and more compact and closer to the opponent’s goal. What is happening on the pitch is that Southampton are playing higher up the pitch both with and without the ball. It may sound revolutionary, but it’s quite simple really.

Our style of play is to win back the ball as soon as possible and then play it. We moved forward our lines and play more up field. When we lose the ball we must have the mentality of winning it back as soon as possible”

Why run up the pitch, lose possession and then retreat back into your starting position? You’re expending energy moving up and down the pitch and when you recover possession, you are starting 60 or 70 yards away from the opponent’s goal again. Instead, when you lose possession in your opponents half of the pitch, try to regain possession immediately. You don’t expend energy retreating and when you recover possession, you are maybe only 30 yards from their goal.

Rewards and Risks

The rewards from playing high up the pitch are obvious. In order to press effectively, the lines must be tight together in a coherent fashion. It requires the defensive line to be very high. You squeeze your opponent and only technically superior teams will be able to evade a well organised press.

Or teams that play long ball.

Which may present some issues for Southampton given the necessity to play a high line; the abundance of space in behind them for quick forwards to exploit. It requires Boruc or whoever plays in goal for Southampton to operate as a “sweeper keeper” If Southampton don’t press properly it provides the opponent with time and space to pick out a pass that could go long for a willing runner to pursue. Away to Newcastle late on last season is one example of this.  Newcastle are a fairly direct side under Pardew and possess forwards who will work the channels such as Cisse. The Saints faced a side that would go long at every opportunity, working the channels and getting success as a consequence. Would Southampton really play as high and as openly against the likes of Theo Walcott?

Southampton must address this problem to prevent it becoming the ubiquitous tactic to defeat them.

Easy Adaptation?

Upon taking control at Espanyol, Pochettino won just once in his opening nine games for the club as los pericos fell to bottom spot with relegation to la segunda, a very real possibility. Bielsa also experienced similar problems adjusting at Athletic Club, failing to register a win in his opening five league games, the club’s worst start to a league campaign in some thirty years.

The way Southampton appear to have adapted to Pochettino’s methods, although it is still very early days, differs vastly from his initial games at Espanyol. There were, and still are, concerns over a bumpy transition as the side adapt to the Argentinean’s preferred style but thus far, things are probably going as well as could be expected.

Given the performances of the team during this transitional phase, it inevitably begs the question of whether the demands of Pochettino are more compatible with the style of play within the British Isles. Whilst the technical requirements may be beyond that which have been demanded from the Southampton players to date, an emphasis upon quick one touch passing, the physical demands are not that different. Individually, the components are prevalent in British football, the pressing and the offside line. The difference is the coherent fashion which Pochettino demands. Frequently, we see un-coordinated pressing from a team with strikers closing down opposition defenders but the midfield has dropped off. The aim of Pochettino at Southampton is for the team to work as one coherent unit.

Could this be the reason for the smooth adaptation? Are British players more suited to the style Pochettino demands? If so, why did Andre Villa-Boas struggle so badly at Chelsea? Villa-Boas utilises a different formation but there are broad similarities; the pressing, the high line, the direct style of play.

There are many factors to consider. Pochettino has a dressing room with a number of young players who he can shape and mould similar to Bielsa with both Chile and Athletic Club.

The Future

Pochettino has found himself in the unusual position of having cash to spend to improve the team during the close season. A novel experience for a man used to watching assets departing Espanyol to be increasingly replaced with youth team players or veterans on free transfers. He has stated that he would not raid his former club and has thus far remained true to his word. The speculation surrounding a possible move for Verdu was just that; speculation.  Forays into the Spanish market seemed likely but thus far the two purchases have arrived via Lyon (Dejan Lovren) and Celtic (Victor Wanyama).

Both fit the Pochettino prototype. Young, hungry and crucially, easy to mould and adapt to the system that is being utilised. Both also arrive with hefty price tags for a club of Southampton’s stature at £8.5m and £12.5m respectively. A considerable outlay.

Having avoided relegation, the focus will shift towards securing a higher finishing position as the club look to progress. Despite the good start to his career on the South coast, expect blips as the season progresses. With such demanding tactics both physically and mentally, with the rewards come the risks and a few heavy defeats are not out of the equation.

They survived the drop, and just as he expects his teams to do, Pochettino will keep pressing forward at Southampton.

Engineering Change

“I have a commitment to make Manchester City my priority. I have a verbal agreement with them and I hope it is carried out”

 And so, one of the worst kept secrets in football, is finally confirmed. Manuel Pellegrini will be the new coach of Manchester City after agreeing a 3 year deal at the club. Actually, there’s little point discussing anything else, is there? Following the endless speculation, the conjecture and the fall out from Mancini’s dismissal, Pellegrini has eventually been confirmed as the Italian’s successor. Given the prolonged nature of this appointment, everything that needs to be said already has been said. Pellegrini failed at Real Madrid after spending over £200m, didn’t he? He’s only ever won one trophy in Europe and that was the Intertoto cup back in 2004. What “success” he enjoyed at Malaga and Villarreal was built upon the back of considerable spending. And look at the financial mess both clubs are in now. Sadly, we cannot all write for the mainstream tabloids. Some of us actually watch European football and delve a little deeper than the mere production of superficial nonsense designed to illicit a response and sell copy.

Leaving aside the appointment of Pellegrini for a moment, the critics will argue about the supposed long term plan at City. Is this really evidence of a plan? The lavish spending (thus far) of over £40million on two players? This isn’t the future that UEFA had in mind when designing Financial Fair Play. It’s just more of the same from Manchester City and nothing new. This isn’t a brave new world - it’s just window dressing to cover the lack of progress the club is making. Very expensive window dressing.

Expensive Indulgence

A side in the north of England attempting to mimic a club on the coast of Spain ? This is an ego trip fuelled by the extravagance of owners whose wealth knows no bounds. This is vanity, which is how a number in the media may interpret it, poised to print the pre-written obituary of Pellegrini and others when the bricks come tumbling down. And the bricks may well come tumbling down but that should not disguise the clear strategy that Man City has and which they are following.

The comparisons with Spain (and ultimately Barcelona) are inevitable when City have appointed men like Ferran Soriano Compte and Aitor ‘Txiki’ Begiristain Mujik, both of whom are previous employees of the Catalan side. Begiristain was the man responsible for the appointment of Josep Guardiola as the new Coach of Barcelona back in 2008 when others on the Board felt Mourinho was a better fit for the side.

In attempting to construct a new philosophy at the club, it’s unavoidable to an extent that you will turn to men who had helped you in the past and who share your vision. That’s why City was interested, along with other elite sides, of appointing Guardiola as their new Coach. When it was confirmed that Guardiola would move elsewhere, City needed an alternative. Somebody who would fit with their vision for the club over the longer term and who would mould the side on the pitch accordingly. It was no surprise that Begiristain returned to La Liga nor was it that surprising that Pellegrini was his chosen candidate.

The club now aim to install a possession based, attacking game across the board. Each level of the club will follow the same model. The ultimate goal is to be both successful and to complement the first team with players developed by the club. Manual Pellegrini has been tasked with the early stages of construction. He is highly unlikely to be around once construction is complete but the stage from initial project inception to laying the foundations correctly can often be the most difficult aspect.

The Engineer

A graduate of the University of Santiago in Civil Engineering, the Chilean began his coaching career in his homeland in 1988 with spells in Ecuador and Argentina following before Villarreal came calling in 2004. Pellegrini won his first and only piece of silverware in European football during his debut season with the successful defence of the Intertoto Cup. The yellow submarine also finished 3rd in the league and progressed to the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup.

Manuel Pellegrini

Manuel Pellegrini

The following season would witness Villarreal reaching the semi final of the Champions League. Riquelme’s missed penalty late in the second leg enabled Arsenal to progress to the final via a 1-0 aggregate win. This remains the furthest stage a team debuting in the competition has reached.

Domestically, the high point for the Chilean arrived in 2007/08 when Villarreal finished second to Real Madrid in La Liga. Villarreal remain the last side to split the big two in Spain , an accomplishment which should not be degraded. In a country where finishing third will earn you less TV income than a side being relegated from the Premiership, the financial disparity between the big two and the remainder should not be underestimated. The gap was bridged and that too by the production of stylish football.

Yet this relative “success” was built upon the back of President Roig’s generosity. When things went bad, Pellegrini - who had overseen the good timeshad long since abandoned ship. Right?

Roig’s business began encountering financial problems at the onset of the recession, with the housing crash in Spain causing particular problems. This forced Villarreal to begin following a new financial model. Pellegrini had long since gone by the time of their relegation. As for the spending, Pellegrini’s net spend at Villarreal was just £11million.

At Malaga , he arrived to oversee a new project being built upon Middle Eastern riches. Except the money tap was quickly switched off and Malaga endured a series of financial problems which required the offloading of numerous players whilst others waited for wages. The Engineer repaired the team to ensure progression to the quarter finals of the Champions League (the second furthest stage a team debuting in the competition has reached) and a 6th placed league finish. Pellegrini’s net spend at Malaga was just £16million. When the left back Monreal was sold to Arsenal in the winter transfer window and with the alternative left back Eliseu injured, the club acquired Antunes on loan from Pacos in Portugal . A new component for the team who fitted in seamlessly. It’s not about the money he has to spend. It’s about the qualities of the players both on and off the pitch.

“We wanted players with sufficient maturity, with human qualities as well as footballing ones that can help”

 

Pellegrini Tactically

“To be attacking, to try to tale control of the game, to take responsibility, to be attractive. There are small differences of course, depending on what players you have, but there is a footballing concept and a concept of spectacle that is non-negotiable”

Pellegrini has used a variety of tactical set ups during his time at Villarreal, Madrid and Malaga, ranging from 4-3-1-2 to 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1. But it has been with his 4-4-2 at both Villarreal and Malaga that his sides have often produced the best football. That may sound unusual given how we are constantly told the 4-4-2 is an entirely reactive formation, not to say an almost redundant formation at the top level, yet Pellegrini has it operating in the latter stages of the Champions League. How?

At Villarreal he moved from a 4-3-1-2 capable of utilising the skills of a classic South American style playmaker such as Riquelme and latterly Matias Fernandez to a 4-4-2 using interiores. His final season at Villarreal primarily used the 4-4-2 as shown below:-

 
 

Villarreal 4-4-2 Formation Villarreal 4-4-2 Formation

Pellegrini has always used a flat back four. The defensive unit is always well marshalled by a dominant centre half. When an opponent attacks, the defensive line, which is normally high, will drop off to the edge of the penalty area before holding firm. The offside trap is used to good effect. At Villarreal the central defensive pairing of Godin and Gonzalo were physically robust and the full backs of Javi Venta and Capdevila able to move up and down the wings.

The two defensive midfield players stay deep to offer protection and to pull wide should the opposition attack behind either full back.  This provides security but is not entirely defensive. The players must also be able to build and construct play. At Villarreal, Marcos Senna was tasked with this role.

The two wide midfield players cut in centrally to form a block of four in the centre of the pitch with the full backs advancing to provide the width. They move into the interior, hence the name “interiores”. Crucially, the two wide players must return to position for defensive duties. The two forward players meanwhile are capable of pulling wide, creating space centrally which can be attacked. Pellegrini was able to use the mobility of either Giuseppe Rossi or Nihat alongside the presence of a more powerful, physical striker such as Joseba Llorente.

The key point throughout is the availability of passing triangles. From the graphic above, when players move, you can clearly see how passing channels are open via movement. A player always has passing options available to him and the side swamp the opponent in central midfield. In such a tightly congested area, the side with the greater technical proficiency will domainate as they find team mates with short, sharp passes. This will be a Pellegrini side. The positions are not fixed either. The right interiore will move across if play is stationed wide on the left (and vice versa). The team is compact and the opponent is squeezed.

A similar philosophy developed at Malaga although the formation began to shift. In defence, the commanding presence of  Demichellis took control alongside Weligton. Both full backs were comfortable moving up the pitch but this is where the dynamic began to alter. The defensive unit was sound but in the attacking third there was a great deal of fluidity offered:-

Malaga 4-4-2 Formation Malaga 4-4-2 Formation

Eliseu on the left of midfield is a converted left back and operated more like a wing back, shuttling up and down. On the right, Isco would drive in centrally allowing the full back to overlap. Together, they would combine with Joaquin who was the striker but was beginning in a deeper position.

Pellegrini is not a coach who will instruct his side to press high and chase and harass an opponent. The Villarreal side had a South American feel to it with the tempo which they played the game and the individual components of the side. The side don’t rush to attack. It is structured, cautious, with the team moving as a coherent unit. His sides can defend resolutely as the performances in Europe of both Villarreal and Malaga demonstrated when a reactive approach was favoured allowing opponents to take the initiative.

If that’s how he operated previously, how he will operate at City remains to be seen, particularly when it appears he has been charged with implementing a 4-3-3.

With his ability to utilise the creative talents of a playmaker, David Silva could find himself in a central role in the season ahead. Silva is not the quickest player in physical terms but that will not dissuade Pellegrini from constructing the side around his creative talents if necessary.

Using full backs for width is something which City have done to date. It’s also something that has become something of an Achilles heel for them with teams exploiting the space on transitions particularly given Barry’s immobility and reluctance to be pulled wide to cover.  This is an area which must be tackled. Using two defensive midfield players will assist this but possibly not Yaya Toure. Indeed, how the Ivorian fits into the system will be a crucial element. Does he have the discipline to operate in a purely defensive fashion? Does that suit his talent best?

The defence should be straightforward with Kompany the ideal individual to use as the central starting block. Alongside him may be Nastasic with Zabaleta and Clichy as full backs. In midfield, the three could be Fernandinho, Toure and Silva. City continue to be linked with Isco from Malaga and it’s not inconceivable to field an attacking trio of Isco, Silva and Navas behind Aguero as the central striker.

Such a set up would provide an asymetrical formation with width on the right against narrow approach on the left and it would also need to combat the lack of defensive cover that Navas offers. Whatever formation is utilised, expect City to be more resolute defensively and more fluid in the attacking third. There will be a clear template to use when defending and flexibility when attacking.

Questions will remain over the long term futures of the likes of Milner, Barry, Sinclair, Rodwell, Tevez and Dzeko. An already small English core may be depleted further. Actually, it is a real possiblity that the only Englishman that City will field on a regular basis next season will be Joe Hart in goal. Such a scenario is not City’ s problem in the short term at least, but it again raises questions over the technical and tactical profiency of English players.

The More Things Change

“No one ever asked me anything about how to create a team capable of playing the kind of football I wanted to play”

The manner in which Mancini departed to be replaced by Pellegrini would be very familiar to the Chilean. A little too familiar perhaps. Similar circumstances prevailed back in 2010 when Pellegrini departed Real Madrid after just one season to be replaced by Jose Mourinho.

Pellegrini spent one season at Madrid when he spent a small fortune and achieved the princely sum of zero. Or so the story goes. Scratch a little deeper than your average tabloid journalist and you’ll find the real story.

When Pellegrini arrived at Madrid , over £200m was already spent and in some respects he was already living on borrowed time. He had no say in the players that were acquired by the club. What he did have a say in was the players he would like to retain and build his side around. Players such as Arjen Robben and Welsey Sneijder. Two players who were subsequently sold within days of Pellegrini arriving against his will.

It was clear for Pelleginri where the problems lay:-

“I can’t get anything out of an orchestra if I have the 10 best guitarists but I don’t have a pianist or a drummer”

The squad was unbalanced for the tasks ahead yet his viewpoint was ignored.

And for those who would argue if he had won trophies, he would not have been dismissed, consider exhibit A; Vicente del Bosque. Sacked after delivering two La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues in just three seasons. Pellegrini was the choice of the former Sporting Director, Jorge Valdano, a man who has clear identity when it comes to football. According to Valdano, Pellegrini was a “protagonist; he seeks to dominate possession and always attack”. Perez simply wanted a manager who would win and Pellegrini was not a “winner” but nor was Perez either. He had overseen the collection of zero trophies during his reign as President. Pellegrini was not Perez choice and favoured some players acquired by the previous President. It really was that petty at times.

Madrid spent £258 million prior to Pellegrini arriving with President Perez noting “We have to do in one year what we would normally do in three“, an idea that is at odds with the philosophy of the then incumbent in the managerial hot seat. Despite noting that he had begun laying the foundation for success which included dealing with the heavyweights in the dressing room in the shape of Guti and Raul, the Chilean was axed.

Pellegrini may only have managed Real Madrid for 48 games but he had a win percentage of 75%, which is 3% higher than a certain Chelsea manager.

“I’d like to congratulate Real Madrid , fantastic opponents and without whom we would never have reached 99 points. Pellegrini and his players have dignified our professions”

The words of Guardiola after his Barcelona side claimed the La Liga title on the final day of the season over their arch rivals.  Sentiments which were not shared by those inside the Madrid boardroom.

The Engineer Who Constructs

“To be able to build up a club, this is as important as going to an institution where you will be able to win things”

When you hear Pellegrini speak, the same themes appear consistently. The need to build, to construct a long term solution and to play aesthetically, but ultimately successful, football in the process. This is not necessarily all out attacking football. It’s considered, it’s patient but it is football with a clear personality.

Upon taking control of Malaga , he noted:-

 “I’m not interested in external ego but internal satisfaction. I’m not interested just in easy glory but in constructing something….together we are trying to build a project that is not just short term”

And that really encapsulates his overarching footballing philosophy. Why buy to acquire success if it’s short lived or unsustainable? The creation of a lengthy period of dominance fuelled by both acquisitions and the promotion of youth players from within the club must be the ideal goal. This is what the neighbours from across the city achieved under Ferguson . Players from within being promoted to the first team and supplementing quality acquisitions and it led, after a slow start, to a period of dominance which is arguably unparalleled in the English game.

Pellegrini seeks to bring footballers with human qualities to his sides and he too displays the very same qualities he desires in others. Urbane, likeable and fairly laidback, he won’t make great copy for journalists at press conferences as he acts with a professionalism and dignity that doesn’t make headlines. The manner in which he handled the constant sniping and undermining at Real Madrid is testimony to his character, as is the manner in which he has refused to be drawn in ever since whenever his Malaga side has faced los blancos.

And now, as he heads for Manchester , Pellegrini retains the same desire to continue building, acknowledging the need for a solution both on and off the pitch. The manner in which some sections of the media questioned City for claiming the need for a “holistic” solution when terminating Mancini’s contract will start to look more questionable by the day. The club have a manager who shares the ideals being espoused at boardroom level.

Upon his appointment, he noted:-

“The club has a clear vision for success both on and off the pitch and I am committed to making a significant contribution.”

Departures All Round?

It’s been plain to see where the problems lie in the Manchester City side over the past few seasons. Mancini favoured a very central approach with both wide attacking players operating as inverted wingers. This relied upon the full backs to provide width. The acquisition of Jesus Navas from Sevilla represents a departure from this viewpoint and provides a much needed tactical variation in the side’s attacking play.

And just as there have been critics of Pellegrini, there are those who are rushing to criticise Navas. Let’s be clear, the player does have his flaws. He didn’t score a single goal for Sevilla last season and his shooting has always been very poor. But that’s not why you acquire someone like Navas. You acquire him for his blistering pace and very direct nature. His repeated desire to attack the opposition full back on the outside is why you buy him. To stretch opponents defences. His presence on the touchline forces the full back out and creates gaps in a back four. The sort of gaps that a player such as David Silva can exploit.

Jesus Navas

Jesus Navas

Yet, just as Navas marks a departure for Man City and the players they have acquired, it also represents a change for Pellegrini who has rarely used wingers until he arrived at Malaga and found Joaquin. Once the golden boy of Spanish football, its fair comment to state that Joaquin never reached the heights he should have. Yet under Pellegrini in Andalusia , the winger has been reinvented as a central striker who can pull wide. And Joaquin now plays with the same smile and level of infectiousness last seen during his early days at Real Betis.

Joaquin began to operate as the second striker, cutting in from the right with a slightly deeper starting position (as shown on the diagram above) and able to drive at opponents. Freed from the shackles of defensive responsibility that comes with being a right winger, Joaquin prospered. Yet he cites Pellegrini for his both his tactical and non tactical work:-
“Everyone knows Pellegrini’s philosophy and his history but he’s a guy who gives you so much confidence, who acts with so much humility that, somehow, he always gets the best out of every player: he is the central piece in this jigsaw”

How Pellegrini uses a player such as Navas will be pivotal if City is to confront their problems from last season and present opponents with new questions.

Season 2013/14 Engineering City

Of course, none of this means Pellegrini will storm the Premiership and help City regain the title from Man Utd. His appointment simply means that the hierarchy have employed an individual who shares their visions and ideals. Progress may not be immediately obvious nor will it be solely assessed by results. Clearly, a disastrous season would have repercussions, but a trophyless season may not. Projects as ambitious as this take time.

The club have begun with the acquisitions of Navas and the Brazilian midfielder, Fernandinho. Although Begiristain will be overseeing transfer dealings, Pellegrini will have an input there too as the club build a squad capable of playing the 4-3-3 formation that they have chosen as their default.

The plans have been drawn up and the various appointments have been made. It’s time for the Engineer to start building.

Athletic Club – Bilbao was not built in a day

The condition of Lezama is an insult to the players and I am responsible for them … You can’t have a squad worth €300 million and not proper playing fields … To start the season in conditions such as these makes a mockery of me as a coach because I am the one responsible for the working conditions being this way.”

Marcelo Bielsa’s words during an extraordinary press conference in which he attacked the quality of workmanship during the ongoing refurbishment works at Athletic Bilbao’s Lezama training ground. That a manager would become embroiled publicly in such an issue encapsulates Bielsa perfectly, succinctly addressing why he is known as “el loco” (the madman).

And yet, even allowing for the tense days which passed following the outburst, just a few weeks earlier it would have been difficult to envisage such a scenario developing. The end of the 2011/12 season had witnessed Athletic Bilbao produce a brand of scintillating football on their way to the final of both the Europa League and the Copa del Rey final. Progress which overlooked the other periods of the season when the team had toiled. The poor performances were consigned to the past now as Athletic projected an optimistic exterior as they entered a new chapter. At least, that was the perceived wisdom until Athletic suffered demoralising 3-0 defeats in both games.

“I accept that the approach we presented was not successful. I realise that. I’m the decision-maker. I represent and am responsible for a team that today did not carry through the plan I had established. Now we will evaluate the continuity of the coaching staff with a meeting between all parties concerned. I suppose in the course of next week the subject of my continuity must be decided in one way or another.

We have a very young team. But we can now go one of two ways: we can use the experience because there is room for growth; or admit that there was an inability to cope with the high demands placed upon us this year.”

Marcelo Bielsa cut a forlorn, brutally honest figure in the aftermath of Athletic Bilbao’s defeat to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final which brought the curtain down on a season which promised so much and yet, in terms of trophies, delivered nothing. Bielsa spoke of the inability to “meet our objectives” which prevented it being a “good season”. A revealing conclusion from Bielsa given the public perception of Athletic enjoying a “successful” season and one which demonstrated his continued demand for perfection. Reaching two finals was not considered sufficient reward for their endeavours.

In the days following the Copa del Rey defeat, it appeared as if the Bielsa project at Athletic would be curtailed in it’s infancy, halted after just one season. Would Bielsa really commit for another term at San Mames after such a crushing end to the season?

The confirmation that el loco would extend his stay with the renewal of his contract in June 2012 ensures that the project would continue, the architect in charge of the project continues.

For Athletic Club, this season represents a major challenge. Can the foundations which Bielsa helped construct last season be built upon? Or will keys sections of the project be demolished only for rebuilding work to commence again?

If the project is to continue, there are several key building blocks which must be fixed firmly in position.

Relationships

“I can accept their [the board's] removal of my authority, but… they indicated that my statements lacked truth. What has happened has modified our relationship.”

The idiosyncrasies of Marcelo Bielsa are well known; his attention to the small details both on and off the pitch in order to prepare his team for the challenges ahead. 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.

And yet this quality which Bielsa exhibits can also be problematic. The recent dispute at the training ground threatens to undermine the work thus far. Bielsa signed a new contract with enhanced improvements to the club’s training facilities believed to be one of his demands prior to putting pen to paper on the extension. Refurbishment work was already proposed. Bielsa demanded more.

Lezama – 2011                                                                Picture courtesy of http://estadiosdeespana.blogspot.co.uk/

Lezama was opened in 1971, allowing the players of Athletic to train in a more serene environment than the industrial Bilbao, as it was then. The present refurbishment work was authorised following a period of consideration, focussed upon the current and future needs of Athletic.

Unhappy at the perceived slow progress and poor quality workmanship of the contractor undertaking the refurbishment works at Lezama, Bielsa personally intervened and a physical confrontation ensued with the site foreman. The physical side of the dispute was easily resolved however the matter continues to fester within the club, eroding the trust that has been built. Athletic publicly rebuffed Bielsa’s claims the following day and, amid the confusion and speculation that followed, a working truce amounting to two weeks has been called.

“It is not my subjective opinion with respect to the quality of work, the stage of its development, the control and fulfilment of the works at Lezama … I can show that every one of the things I said corresponds to concrete and verifiable facts … If no one has been at fault, then why were the facilities not available for the first team for the start of pre-season?”

Bilbao – Ciuded Deportiva de Lezama                          Picture courtesy of http://estadiosdeespana.blogspot.co.uk/

Yet Bielsa maintains his position in this argument, unwilling to back down, to compromise. An important glimpse into the desire which propels him forward but which somewhat inevitably reveals a stubborn streak which is most apparent in his tactical philosophy.

And if tensions are fraught at boardroom level, what of the situation with the players? The Athletic dressing room is widely considered one of the most harmonious and easily controlled dressing rooms in the Spanish game. But how much of the high intensity training regimes (which the methods of Bielsa dictate) can the players tolerate? Will the players continue to willingly accept his methods if league form begins to stutter once more or will questions start arising?

Are we witnessing the first hairline cracks developing within the Athletic foundations this season?

Consistency

Consistency. So easy to say yet so difficult to achieve.

Bielsa arrived at Athletic after the contract of previous incumbent, Joaquin Caparros, was not renewed. The methods and style of play of Caparros were openly criticised, his image tarnished as being nothing more than a long ball merchant. The Athletic under Caparros was torn down. Last season Athletic finished 10th in La Liga, six points adrift of a top six finish. This was four places lower and nine points less than under Joaquin Caparros in his final season in charge.

It was never meant to be this way.

With the perceived belief that Caparros was not obtaining the maximum from the talented squad at his disposal, Bielsa was appointed to extract that extra value which would push Athletic onto a legitimate challenge for a Champions League place. Athletic only flirted ever so briefly with this objective.

The season began with a poor run of form immediately casting a shadow over the project. With just two points from their opening five league games, this was Athletic’s worst start in over three decades. The change in the system under Bielsa required time to settle down. A criticism which could be levelled legitimately at Bielsa was his deployment of players in unfamiliar positions as he sought the ideal line up. For such a considered, studied individual, this constant reshuffling highlighted a degree of uncertainty. Several older players were entirely removed from the squad in the process.

Athletic’s style of play has been revolutionised under Bielsa. Although never the long ball merchants that some would claim, they have always favoured the direct approach with reliance upon physicality seldom seen elsewhere within the Spanish Game. This element of their approach dates back to Fred Pentland and the 1920’s. That the club continues to unearth robust, and highly skilful, figures like Amorebieta and Llorente ensures that the tradition remains.

The statistics from last season in La Liga bear testament to the changing face of Athletic.

With an average of 57% possession and 79% pass completion rate per game, Athletic shifted to a short passing style of play, making an average of 434 short passes per game, and only trailing behind the big two of Real Madrid (474) and Barcelona  (655) in this regard.

Yet, despite this progression, Athletic appear to exhibit what has been coined as “sterile domination” in some games. The possession must be a means to an end. It has to assist delivery of the objective yet too frequently, Athletic fail to make their possession matter.

Athletic has an average of just 12 shots per game. The possession is not hurting teams as much as it should be. When you consider shots at goal, Athletic are languishing at thirteenth in that respective table. Whilst not all shots on goal are of equal value and some teams may have a high number of opportunistic strikes at goal, the numbers for Athletic are worryingly low. This is exacerbated when Athletic’s goalscorers are examined. Llorente was successful on seventeen occasions in La Liga last season but there is a substantial drop to second place where Susaeta sits with just six goals. There is an over reliance upon Llorente for goals.

A cursory glance through the defensive aspects reveal further concerns. Athletic concede an average of 15 shots per game. This is the third highest average shots per game conceded last season. Only Granada and Racing Santander conceded more.

The league form was erratic throughout, as Los Leones were seldom able to sustain a run of victories, and littered with draws and defeats. And as the league season had started, so it would finish with a sustained run of poor form. From their closing five games, Athletic mustered a solitary win alongside four defeats. The book ends of the season had witnessed Athletic collect a measly five points from a possibly thirty.

This is what Athletic must address in the forthcoming season. The key issue for the team this season is to retain the same level of control in games but convert the chances they are creating.

Perhaps unfairly, although to a degree understandable given the above, Athletic were therefore considered solely as a cup team last season. Whilst it was in cup competitions that Athletic displayed their real quality, the term is often applied in a derogatory fashion for plucky underdogs.

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, but very good teams must deliver consistently and in this regard, the jury remains out on Athletic. The deliberations continue.

The movement away from this tag of a cup team is the next step for Athletic. The ability to deliver the high level of performance which they have produced sporadically, on a regular basis in the league.

To do so, Athletic must address key tactical and personnel considerations.

Pragmatism vs Idealism: The Tactical Debate

Should Bielsa alter his beliefs slightly and accommodate a more pragmatic streak within his football?

Bielsa – Faith in his Ability or Resistant to Change?

For so long an advocate of pro-active attacking football with a strong emphasis on the vertical approach, does Bielsa need to alter his thinking and shift his tactical plan to allow for a more defensive perspective when required?

Or is Bielsa a fundamentalist. A man who recognises the inherent problems with his preferred system but remains unwilling to compromise. Determined to maintain his views to the bitter end even if the eventually cause his downfall?

From the outside, Bielsa appears so fundamentally attached to his views, that he will take them to their logical conclusion, defending them and his team irrespective of the havoc it could create. It is the re-emergence of the stubborn streak. It is Bielsa’s genius and his burden.

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 cited Bielsa as the “best coach in the world”. And the same dogmatic approach that is apparent in Bielsa was obvious too in Guardiola as his Barcelona tenure drew to a conclusion. The faith in the system which meant playing with fewer defenders and adopting high defensive lines against deep lying counter attacking teams. The beauty of the game cherished although it was always viewed through a pragmatic prism to a certain extent. The beautiful football delivered therefore to continue success, keep playing more beautiful football. Athletic need to exhibit this trait.

The reactive football of Atletico Madrid in the European League Final highlighted the conundrum perfectly. Atletico were content to let Athletic dominate possession in deep areas before springing counter attacks when Athletic overcommitted. Athletic weaved pretty patterns across the pitch but lacked sufficient nous to break down the mass ranks of Atletico.

Was this a tactical problem or were Athletic showing signs of fatigue?

Iker Muniain – Europa League Final defeat

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.

Secondly, when Athletic press, both Herrera 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.

To prevent being exploited by counter attacks when forward moves break down, Athletic must press opponents quickly. It’s an extremely demanding strategy.

A greater degree of control in the central area is required, both when in possession and when out of possession. Retaining shape quickly is the legal method of maintaining control. The illegal method would be conceding calculated fouls high up the pitch. Athletic are an average side in terms of fouls committed and disciplinary sanctions. This contrasted sharply with Chile under Bielsa who adopted a broadly similar system but who committed numerous fouls high up the pitch to allow the team to regain shape. It was a strategy adopted by Barcelona in the early days under Guardiola. Eto’o, Messi and Henry each committing more fouls than anyone else in the Barcelona team during one season.

It’s a ploy which is negative and will be publicly criticised especially when juxtaposed against the beautiful game. It’s also a ploy which would work and strengthen Athletic considerably. Sanctions will accumulate and player suspensions will occur more frequently. Last season, Iturraspe gathered more yellow cards than any other Athletic player. Why? Because he was caught out of position when he pushed too high in the central area of the pitch.

As Muniain matures, it is surely only a matter of time before he adopts a more central position from the outset of games. If he does so, Ibai Gomez is ready to slot into the left wing berth. This would force a personnel decision to be made. Iturraspe is essential in a deep lying position offering vertical movement between defence and midfield. For Muniain to be integrated centrally, Herrera or De Marcos need to be dropped.

This is where Bielsa must modify his outlook and his team selection dependent upon the opposition. When Athletic need to take the game to opponents, Muniain should start centrally with De Marcos dropping to the bench. When a more conservative approach is needed, Muniain should begin on the left and De Marcos would provide the hard running approach from midfield, able to close opponents down quickly, supporting both defence and attack.

This rotation of players forms a crucial aspect of Athletic’s development too. Markel Susaeta played in all sixty four games for Athletic last season. This may seem like a normal amount of games for a player operating at the top end of the game. Indeed over the last four seasons, Xavi Hernandez has averaged sixty six games per season.

Markel Susaeta – 64 not out.

But consider the manner in which Athletic play.

The intensity, the pressing, the incessant running. Delivering sixty four high level performances under such conditions is extremely challenging. It’s perhaps why Bielsa removed a number of older players from the squad. Could the older players manage to adapt to such a demanding philosophy? Indeed, would older players willingly accept what Bielsa was demanding from his players?

Squad rotation has to be introduced earlier in the season and with greater frequency.

Running in tandem with these tactical changes, there is also the need to acquire wisely to supplement the shallow squad.

When operating with a pool of around 18 first team players, rotation becomes difficult and the drop in quality between a first choice player 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.

Transfers

The signing policy of Athletic is well documented although often misconstrued. For some, it’s a symbol of racism and prejudice which has no place in the modern era. A further testament to the ongoing social problems which Spain still faces. For others, it’s a celebration of the belief in the ability of local population.

The unofficial club motto of Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación roughly translates as With home grown talent there is no need for foreign imports.

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.

With a relatively small squad to chose from, Bielsa has limited options. That he did not ask for any signings during his first season in charge whilst also ostracising several senior members of the squad could legitimately be questioned when he faced rotational difficulties. Whether they were considered unable to adapt to the Bielsa methods physically, or would challenge his methods intellectually, is open for debate.

In the season ahead, there are two challenges which Athletic must confront. Retain the existing first choice players whilst simultaneously acquiring players of a suitable quality to supplement the squad, primarily in defence and attack. The ability to find and polish the diamonds from la cantera will always prove a challenge. Gems such as Iker Muniain do not arrive very often and so Athletic must enter into the transfer market during the close season and make a few key acquisitions.

The ability of Javi Martinez to switch between defence and midfield provides a degree of comfort but when he moves into midfield, the central defensive pairing becomes Amorebieta and San Jose . The pairing lack the finesse which Martinez offers. The other option of Borja Ekiza is limited also in terms of the style which Bielsa demands. None of the alternative central defenders possess the technical ability of Martinez. If no central defenders are purchased, we could see more of Jonas Ramalho in the first team squad.

In attack, there was no alternative to Llorente last season. This has been addressed with the arrival of Aritz Aduriz, who returns to Athletic from Valencia for a fee of £2.5million. The most intriguing aspect here is whether Aduriz represents a genuine alternative for Llorente or a replacement? Are the Athletic Board expecting their resolve to be tested with a substantial bid for Llorente?

Aritz Aduriz returns to the San Mames

The attacking midfielder, Ismale Lopez, is another who returns home. The 22 year old attacking midfielder spent five seasons at Lezama arrives before departing, returns from CD Lugo. Lopez, a member of the Spanish U17 side which won the World Cup in 2007, is unlikely to claim a starting berth but should provide another option from the bench.

Speculation continues around Cesar Azpilicueta, the 22 year old full back who was a product of the Osasuna cantera and presently plays for Marseille, and Raul Garcia, a central figure in the resurgence of Osasuna last season and presently under contract at Atletico where a recent reurgence perhaps hints at a longer stay at the Vicente Calderon. Both would make excellent additions to the squad but both fail to address the central defensive position.

Yet amidst all of the discussion around how Athletic can strengthen via incoming players perhaps we should pause for a moment and consider the debilitating effects of players leaving Athletic.

Should the likes of Javi Martinez or Fernando Llorente leave as has been widely rumoured, it significantly weakens the starting eleven at San Mames. You simply cannot remove two World Cup winners and European Champions from a team and expect there to be no adverse impact, both on and off the park.

Athletic will shortly begin their final season at la catedral before moving to the new San Mamés Barria stadium in time for the start of season 2013 / 14. Immediately adjacent, the new stadium is presently under construction and will have a capacity of 55,000.

With the departure of Unai Emery from Valencia , the struggles of Villarreal and the project at Malaga imploding due to financial problems, there is an opportunity for a club to claim 3rd place in La Liga.

The foundations are now in position for Athletic. Construction work continues apace on and off the field in Bilbao.

Spain: Anything in Reserve?

It’s close.

The fans know it. The players know. And the manager knows it. Yet, it is still so far away. There is still so much to overcome to grasp it, obstacles both real and imaginary which must be navigated to realise it.

“Others have improved, the gap has been narrowed” they claim.

Germany have continued to grow as a team over the past few years with Joachin Low moving towards a more patient possession based game in the mould of Bayern Munich. Holland retain the physicality of Van Bommel and De Jong, even if the approach has softened slightly, with the guile and craft of Sneijder, Van Persie et al. France appear renewed under Blanc and Italy will surely not flop as they did in the World Cup 2010.

“You won’t last the pace, you have given too much already” is their next assertion.

The stalwarts of the Spanish side have played almost continuous football for club and country since winning the European Championship in 2008. A never ending succession of increasingly important matches. Copa del Rey finals, Champions League finals, World Club Championships, Confederations Cup, European Championships, World Cups. The games continued apace with no respite. Can the bulk of the squad lift themselves one more time?

Spain Euro 2008 Winners – No rest for the victors.

“Your preparations are amateurish” perfectly encapsulating the announcement of a provisional squad for two friendlies prior to Chelsea competing in the Champions League Final and the Spanish season finishing with the Copa del Rey Final between Athletic and Barcelona. A situation needlessly arising with RFEF failing to take control and reschedule the Copa del Rey Final once Barcelona’s involvement in the Champions League had ended.

Both Athletic and Barcelona were in agreement. Bring forward the final. Allow the players more recovery time. Set to be staged at the Santiago Bernabeu, a shift in date needed the consent of Real Madrid. It was not forthcoming. The final was subsequently played at the Vicente Calderon. Petty internecine rivalries between Real and Barca hindering the pursuit of history by la seleccion.

That some members of the provisional squad remained, after del Bosque announced the final squad, to complete another friendly game is, in many respects, nonsensical and highlights the lack of organisation within RFEF. Why Monreal, Benat, Soldado and Dominguez all played against South Korea when del Bosque could have been fine tuning his squad seems a little foolish. The key players in the squad benefitted with more rest, will be the counter argument. Let’s hope it is an argument which remains sound.

Those three criticisms are entirely predictable and entirely plausible.

And then it gets blurted out. The defining piece of evidence in their argument. So infallible, that it cannot be countered.

“You don’t have a Plan B”

The European Championship 2012 Part 1

The forthcoming European Championships being held in Ukraine and Poland offer Spain the opportunity to create footballing history. To become the first international side to win three major international tournaments consecutively. The obstacles in their path, as touched upon above, include the continual improvement of both Germany and Holland as genuine contenders to succeed la furia roja as European Champions. However the biggest impediments to the successful defence of their title may come from within Vicente del Bosque’s immensely talented squad – fatigue, the tactical set up deployed and the somewhat infamous Plan B.

And it’s the same critique that was levelled at Barcelona during the closing weeks of the season, primarily the lack of variation in their tactical approach which saw Real Madrid and then Chelsea claim crucial results over them which defined their season.

Barcelona and Spain are both different footballing entities. With such short time periods in which to develop a coherent game plan at international level, an international side will never be able to assimilate the philosophical and footballing philosophy of La Masia. Yet Spain do show several glimpses of the Barcelona philosophy which is completely practical given the large Barcelona contingent within the squad. Some elements of the Barcelona game though, are too difficult to develop at international levels with any real understanding. The fluidity of the back four becoming a back three is unlikely to be replicated by Spain who will remain true to the 4-3-3 formation, instigated by Luis Aragones and continued by del Bosque, and which has brought them such success over the past few years.

Miguel Delaney has covered the issue of fatigue in some depth. The salient points revolve around the continuous football played by some members of the Spain squad over the past few years most notably the Barcelona contingent. Xavi Hernandez, for example, had made an average of 66 appearances in each of the last four seasons. Such continued operation at the highest level is unsustainable in the longer term and we saw clear evidence of Xavi toiling as the season drew to a conclusion.

The performance of Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF) continues to look like a collection of amateurs overseeing the organisation of one of the best leagues in the world and the best national side in the world. From the inability to schedule games properly in advance to the needlessly scheduling of endless friendly games for la seleccion following their recent triumphs, off the pitch RFEF have considerable work to undertake to match Spain on the pitch.

Factors outwith the control of del Bosque. Yet the factors within his control are arguably the most important.

Do Spain need a Plan B?

The constant speculation around this issue is actually deflecting attention away from the crux of the issue. In order to satisfy his entire squad, and also avoid criticism at home, del Bosque has packed a glittering array of talent into his first eleven.

This notion of a Plan B seems to be in vogue in the UK media currently following on from Barcelona’s elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Chelsea and their subsequent victory over Bayern Munich in the final. It was claimed in many quarters, that Barcelona, and to a lesser extent Bayern Munich, lacked a Plan B to navigate through Chelsea’s massed defence with David Pleat going so far as to label Barcelona brainless.

Quite a bold statement from one normally so reserved. Also, quite a wrong statement from one who normally contributes so thoughtfully.

What is a Plan B? A deviation from the norm and yet in the aforementioned game, Barcelona made many tactical changes to try and counter Chelsea. Ultimately, none were successful and so Barcelona were seen to have failed by those unable to see the tactical nuances of the game.

What was the alternative? What would the proponents of the Plan B support?

The mainstream conventional view is that Barcelona did not possess a tall, physically powerful striker who they could aim long balls towards in the hope that this leads to knock downs and the creation of half chances.

This must mean that when a team who play long balls then fail to break down an opponent, their Plan B is to instigate a dramatic switch in style and begin a patient passing game?

Why do we see football in such simplistic terms? Football is not a straightforward choice between two opposing ideologies. The short pass vs the long ball.

A simple approach that misses the point?

It’s worth considering footballing styles as existing on a wide spectrum. Whilst the short passing game and the long ball exist on opposing ends of the spectrum, there are multitudes of permutations in between.

Spain have a Plan B. It’s just not the stereotypical Plan B that many commentators would like them to have. A style and approach which is so radically different from their normal approach, that it can be easily identified by lazy media pundits. Del Bosque has demonstrated before that he can make small changes which have significant impact upon games. It’s just that Spain will not forsake the approach that has delivered them silverware. And nor should they.

For not only do Spain possess a Plan B, they also possess a range of players to actively enforce their alternative arrangements. It’s just that Plan B is a subtle, discreet change and not a massive switch in their interpretation of how the game should be played. Spain can utilise the pace and direct nature of Navas on the right wing, the physicality and strength of Llorente and Negredo, the attacking surges from deep by Alba, the lateral movement of Cazorla.

For in the forthcoming European Championships, the strength of the Spanish squad does not exist in the 7 or 8 players who are widely known. It is the depth of quality and versatility in the newer players and those on the fringes of the starting eleven where the strength exists.

Spain may be running low on reserves of physical energy but the reserves they take to Poland and Ukraine could play a pivotal role if they wish to successfully defend their title.

The Current Position

There were few surprises when Vicente del Bosque announced the Spain squad. The expected names were all there.

Vicente del Bosque auditions for the left back slot.

Juanfran was confirmed in place of the injured Andoni Iraola. This was the perfect platform for Iraola to demonstrate why he is the best Spanish right back. It also offered Spain the option of having two excellent attacking full backs on either side. In the forward department, Soldado and Adrian were both overlooked despite recent goalscoring debuts with Alvaro Negredo joining Llorente, Torres and Pedro.

There was no place in the squad for Iker Muniain. His form shaded towards the end of the season as Athletic struggled physically and mentally.

Del Bosque will remain true to his favoured 4-3-3 formation and despite the injuries to key players, the bulk of the Spanish starting eleven can be stated with a degree of confidence. There is only likely to be a couple of positions where there is any doubt and these revolve around attacking positions. Who does del Bosque choose on the right and who starts, nominally at least, as the central striker?

Spain 2012 Euro’s – Expected Line Up

The team will broadly follow the same system as utilised successfully during the 2010 World Cup.

The back four will contain two full backs who attack but its unlikely that both will do so simultaneously with Alba more likely to push forward than Arbeloa. The left flank will be more attacking than the right, the reverse of the position in 2010 when Ramos stormed forward on the right and Capdevila was more circumspect on the left.

Busquets will sit deepest in midfield with Alonso just in front of him. A slightly lopsided double pivot. Xavi occupies a central position which is more advanced than that which he fulfills for Barcelona.

Iniesta will adopt the wide left attacking position and naturally drift diagonally inward as he does at club level.

The remaining two positions are those where there can be some movement.

The use of David Silva, previously expressing his disquiet about being overlook for la seleccion, in the false 9 role gives further credence to the flirtation with a Barcelona-esque model for the national side but there are specific differences between both primarily the choice of personnel which both teams have at their disposal. Alternatively, could Fabreagas be used here?

Assuming Silva does start as the false 9, on the right wing, it becomes a straight choice between Pedro and Navas with the man from Tenerife probably shading it.

With the startling line up and likely system confirmed, the faults within the system can be identified.

The Problems

It seems slightly ridiculous to be closely examining one of the most successful international sides ever and finding faults.

Let’s be clear. These faults are stopping Spain from fulfilling their true potential and playing at their maximum. It has so far not stopped Spain from winning, but at this Championship, Spain may need to operate at their peak. It is testament to the talent within la seleccion that a side with faults can be both the reigning European and World Champions and enter the forthcoming tournament as favourites to defend their crown.

The problems have been slow burners. Not openly seen in the 2008 European Championships because of the attacking options, they saw their birth under Luis Aragones. Coming to the forefront in the 2010 World Cup, the difficulties were overcome with del Bosque making some key substitutions such as introducing Llorente against Paraguay or bringing on Fabregas and Navas when a more vertical approach was needed.

In 2012, the problems are easily identifiable. Del Bosque sees them and yet, for whatever reasons, chooses to seemingly ignore them and push forward.

Over Indulgent Midfield?

Do Spain really need to play both Xabi Alonso and Busquets together?

This is the starting point from which the remaining issues all stem. Yet it seems inconceivable that del Bosque would remove either from the team. Del Bosque himself has stated “If I were a player, I would like to be like Busquets”.

Playing Alonso and Busquets together necessitates that Xavi plays in a more advanced position than he does for club. Xavi is the conductor of the orchestra, yet with the national side, he has both hands tied behind his back.

Xavi receives the ball from Busquets or Alonso. He needs to be able to see the full pitch, to see the options available, the darting runs of Pedro and Iniesta ahead of him, the surging runs of Alba from full back, the presence, if they play, of Llorente or Negredo centrally. Yet by starting so far upfield, receiving the ball in the opponents half, the darting runs of Iniesta and Pedro start immediately adjacent to him, the surging run of Alba occurs yet Alba is still slightly behind him. Llorente and Negredo remain a possibility but opponents mark them tightly and Xavi has few options. He is forced to return the ball to Busquets or Alonso. His creativity stifled. The opponent’s hard work achieved by Xavi’s own team.

If Xavi is tightly marked, Busquets may pass to Alonso who then may look for a diagonal ball, the type of pass he has hit with such precision all season for Real Madrid.

Xavi is bypassed.

Xavi Hernandez – What role in Euro 2012?

This maybe an extreme example but is it one which will play out in the coming days. Both Alonso and Xavi need the ball to function properly but only Alonso is in his correct position.

Why does del Bosque persist with his selection of Alnso and Busquets? Is it politically motivated to a certain degree, del Bosque selecting the Real Madrid man lest fielding the Barcelona trio in midfield?

With Xavi struggling from fatigue and dogged by a persistent achilles problem, is the unthinkable possible? Could Xavi’s position be under threat from the form and dynamism of Santi Cazorla?

Furthermore, the inclusion of Busquets and Alonso requires Iniesta to adopt the wide left attacking position which he sometimes occupies for Barcelona. Iniesta will drift inwards and Alba can provide width overlapping from full back. But opponents know this. Iniesta will rarely take on the full back on the outside or hug the touchline and pull the full back towards him. He moves centrally to be involved in the action.

As Iniesta moves centrally, Silva drops deep into the area which Xavi is occupying. Spain are left with no central focal point in attack and unless Alba pushes forward there is a lack of genuine width.

This will be exacerbated considerably if Spain line up without a recognised forward in their team.

How del Bosque chooses to implement his 4-3-3 system is crucial as he lacks key components within his squad to fully implement the Barcelona system. What we are left with is a hybrid which is not functioning properly as del Bosque shoe horns his best players into the starting eleven rather than focus upon selecting his best team.

The Solutions

Options

The Spanish squad is arguably the most talented in world football presently. Del Bosque has a plethora of players available who would probably make other international squads yet cannot break into la seleccion. Mikel Arteta of Arsenal is a prime example of this. A fine midfield who can play in a variety of positions, he is destined to remain with only U21 caps.

Should Spain play with a false 9 and if so, who is the best option?

If you assume that Iniesta plays wide left and Silva is a false 9, what transpires is a glut of players converging on the centre, in the same area that Xavi is, wrongly in my view, occupying. Graham Hunter referred to Xavi as the inverted sheepdog, sending his players out away from him and picking them out with passes. As the play becomes congested, the ball circulation begins to lose efficiency, the play narrows and the opponent, although deeply positioned within their own half and working extremely hard, has temporarily halted the Spanish advance.

The false 9 needs to be both creative and provide a penetrative cutting edge. Silva only fulfills one part of the bargain. He lacks the cutting edge to operate as the primary striker for Spain.

If Silva is to play for Spain, he needs to be stationed out wide, most probably on the right, but this again contributes to the central congestion and Silva will operate as an inverted winger always seeking out the opportunity to move infield and onto his favoured left foot.

The Lack of Width

The problem with having so many central midfielders, is they all want to move into the centre of the pitch irrespective of where you initially station them. And so with Spain, we see the central area of the pitch clogged by Spanish players and opponents. If the flirtation with the Barcelona model continues, we could see Spain fielding four defenders and six, predominately, central midfielders.

What we will then witness is Spain securing plentiful possession but the majority of which will be horizontal passing about 35 yards from goal as the opponent regains shape and structure.

Where is the space?

Spain must use the full width of the pitch to overcome obstinate opponents

On the flanks.

This is a genuine issue which del Bosque must address if Spain are to be successful.

How can Spain introduce more width into their game when there is a glut of creative, technical, creative central midfielders at his disposal and only one true winger, Jesus Navas, in the squad.

Spain need to find a balance and probably adopt an asymmetrical attacking formation. This is particularly true if Iniesta is used on the left, which seems highly likely, Spain cannot select a similar player on the right and have two inverted wingers. If Cazorla or even Juan Mata was stationed on the right, Spain would become far too narrow. This cannot happen. The solution on the right would be the selection of Navas or Pedro. Both offer pace and a direct approach, especially Navas, which is lacking in others.

If del Bosque was truly radical, he could utilise both Alba and Juanfran to push forward as attacking full backs. Both are converted wingers themselves and could play with inverted wingers ahead of them, overlapping to provide options and stretch the opponent defensively. This seems a step too far unless Arbeloa is struggling for form, injured or Spain are trailing and need to push on. Juanfran is inexperienced at this level and suspect defensively.

Alba will go on the outside of Iniesta and if Navas or Pedro play on the right and stay wide, there will be space between the opponents full back, pulling wide, and his centre back which the likes of Xavi, Silva, Cazorla etc can exploit.

If further evidence of the need for width was needed, Fifa’s technical report on the 2010 World Cup  said: “In modern football, it is very difficult to get behind the opposition defence as teams are often very compact with eight or nine players behind the ball”

“That is why teams now need outstanding individual players who can make their mark one-on-one, particularly down the wings where they can create space that often does not exist down the centre.”

Combating Defensive Opponents

If the inclusion of more width is one method of overcoming opponents, what other methods can Spain employ?

With their belief in tiki taka, the short, sharp passing and constant movement, Spain will enjoy more possession than their opponents in their games. With the similarities to Barcelona, it will not be unusual for opponents to utilise increasingly defensive formations against them.

It is well known that del Bosque prefers to play two midfielders in defensive positions. Alonso’s lack of mobility means he is poorly equipped to singularly perform a defensive midfield position. Indeed, he is more of a deep lying regista, knitting play together with his short and long range passing technique. A change in this aspect of the system is unlikely.

Perhaps Spain need to consider the beliefs of Andre Villa Boas when teams use a low defensive block against them.  The provocation of the opponent utilising the ball as bait to bring them out. Typically with continuous circulation of the ball.
 
The superb Ajax team of the 1990’s under Louis Van Gaal recycled the ball at increasing speed, pulling opponents from side to side waiting for the right moment when the opening appeared in the opponents defence which could be exploited. Van Gaal also instructed his players, even the most technically gifted, to seek the pass rather than commit an opponent to help retain possession. For an ultra low block, this will not work and the provocation needs to be the mixture of ball circulation combined with penetration via driving runs etc to create the space for exploitation.

It was the failure of Barcelona to address this key point which contributed to their failure against Chelsea. Too many Barcelona players adopted very high starting positions and, as a result, there was no explosive movement, no driving runs from deep to overlap the full back. All the play took place in front of the Chelsea block with horizontal recycling of possession. Retaining possession but Chelsea controlled the space and controlled the game.

There are already articles asking if Spain can be overcome the Chelsea way.

Spain need to learn from this.

If Croatia or the Republic of Ireland set out defensive formations, Spain cannot simply push forward and camp in the opponents half of the pitch. There needs to be space for the driving run, for that explosive moment.

Chaos Theory

What about someone bringing disorder to the tactical structure of the Spanish set up?

Someone who brings a more vertical approach to the patient probing play of the Spanish. Could Cesc Fabregas prove instrumental from the bench for the Spanish?

Cesc Fabregas – The bringer of chaos?

This is the player who Barcelona’s technical staff claimed was causing “anarchy” when he joined from Arsenal such was his perceived lack of tactical discipline. Yet this “indiscipline” can also be a positive. The ability to do something different and almost un-Spanish, such as a forward driving run and shot from distance, whilst retaining the technique to make short, sharp passes on route.

By far the most vertical of Spain’s central midfielders, Fabregas brings a different mentality to the team, one which should be harnessed to provide an alternative approach. If the space exists in the opponents defensive line, exploit it. Fabregas will attempt this.

He has also played as a false 9 on occasion for Barcelona this season and although his form declined as the season progressed, he can harness the discipline required as part of the team with the “anarchy” needed to provide something different.

Mobile vs Static. Or both.

Spain have two players in the squad who can offer something different from the small technical players we have come to expect from Spain and which is helping to forge an almost stereotypical view of the average Spanish player now.

Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Llorente are both physically strong and robust players. Although they are both mobile, they offer a central focal point for attacks and can be utilised in such a way. Both are also proven goalscorers.

They are not strikers who you aimlessly lump high balls towards. They can both offer mobility, Negredo more so and from a deeper starting position, and they both link play well and can hold the ball up. But they will not drop deep, the way in which Silva operating as a false 9 would. By remaining in the penalty area, they present the opposition with a constant problem. Opposition defenders now have both a static and mobile problem to contend with. Llorente has demonstrated how effective he can be this season providing one two’s for midfield runners for Athletic Bilbao, something which Spain could harness and reap reward from.

Fernando Torres – Out of form at club level, does the Euro’s offer redemption?

They can provide a quality which Torres, out of form for such a prolonged period now, cannot. With deep defences likely, there is no space for Torres to accelerate into. He cannot link play as well either. Torres seemed resigned to beginning this tournament stationed on the substitutes bench, awaiting a moment of inspiration which can help reignite his stalled career. Can the Euro’s offer that moment?

He is the most experienced striker in the squad. Surely he will get his opportunity and sooner rather than later?

The European Championships 2012 Part 2

Which brings us to the European Championship.

Drawn in a group containing Italy, Ireland and Croatia, Spain will be expected to progress comfortably.

Against Italy, expect Spain to look for control of the game. This is not the moment to be radical. Silva will likely start as the false 9 and Torres will be benched.

Republic of Ireland will likely adopt a narrow, reactive 4-4-2 against Spain. A similar formation to that chosen by the USA and Switzerland when they delivered competitive defeats to Spain in the Confederations Cup 2009 and World Cup 2010. The long balls and aerial ability of the Irish could cause Spain some unsettling moments.

If they secure two wins, the final group game against Croatia allows Spain some breathing space to rotate and also, the opportunity to play an opponent who, whilst possessing a number of attacking options, is weak defensively. With a muddled build up prior to the tournament, this is the game for experimentation and rotation.

Beyond the group stage, it becomes slightly more fraught with dangerous opponents lying in wait. At the quarter final stage France or England are likely to lie in wait. To retain the Championship, Spain will most probably need to navigate past Holland and Germany.

This is when del Bosque will earn his corn.

The others have improved but if Spain perform to their maximum, they were and still are the best side in international football.

Rotation in the group games can help keep key players fresh whilst also ensuring that all players in the squad feel they have made their contribution however few minutes they receive on the pitch. In tournament football, players within the squad who see little or no time on the pitch can often be as important as players on the pitch. Maintaining team morale within the camp cannot be underestimated.

Perhaps this one of the reason’s why Soldado did not travel. Prior to Emery’s departure from Valencia there were suggestions he was losing the dressing room and Soldado openly questioned Emery in the media. Perhaps with little playing time in the pipeline, Soldado could have adversely affected morale?

A footballer on the sidelines seeing no playing time can become frustrated and detrimental to the squad.

For so long the nearly men of international football, to the current European and World Champions. This is the era of Spain and of tiki taka, the phrase wonderfully crafted with scorn by Javier Clemente which now stands as a monument to their technical superiority and the success of a patient short passing game.

If Spain are to retain the European Championships, the players who arrive in Poland and Ukraine and who were considered squad players, albeit supremely talented squad players, maybe the very players who help deliver the Championship for Spain. In future years will the names of Navas, Pedro and Alba be mentioned alongside Puyol, Xavi and Villa?

Marcelo Bielsa – Method in the Madness

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 Bielsa

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 Bilbao

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.

The Start

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.

Weaknesses

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.

Cup Team?

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.

Next Steps

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,916 other followers