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.
“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 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?”
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. 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.
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.