Atletico Madrid vs Athletic Bilbao – Tactical Analysis

Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao met at the Vicente Calderon for the first time last night since that evening in May when Atleti won the Europa League crushing Athletic Bilbao in the process.

There were a number of key tactical issues during that game which can be reviewed here.

And, as inconceivable as it may seem, judging by last night’s performance, Bielsa and Athletic failed to learn anything from that defeat. The same mistakes were evident again as Atleti delivered a performance of incisive play and quality surpassing their display  in Bucharest and epitomised throughout by the superb Falcao.

Line Ups

Atletico made four changes from the side which drew 1-1 away to Levante on the opening day. Silvio, Cata Diaz, Adrian and Tiago all dropped to the bench to be replaced by Koke, Suarez, Luis Filipe and Juanfran.

Atleti Starting Line Up

Atleti change their system also, moving away from their opening day 5-4-1 to their usual 4-2-3-1. It appears likely that Simone will adopt a more cautious approach for away games this season whilst being more attack minded at home.

Bielsa made just one change to Athletic with Aduriz replacing Toquero as the striker but there were a number of positional changes within the system. Inigo Perez switched places with De Marcos moving from midfield back to left back.

Athletic Starting Line Up

In central defence, San Jose and Gurpegi also switched positions in central defence with San Jose moving back to the left side.

Despite the various alterations to the line up and within the line up, Athletic utilised their normal 4-3-3 variation at the Vicente Calderon.

The Stats

Athletic dominated possession yet failed to muster a single shot on target. The failings of last season returned with a vengeance for Athletic. More possession, more passes but ultimately less penetration as the opponent has more shots and wins the game.

First Half

Atleti began the first half pressing their opponents quickly with both Filipe and Juanfran pushing forward from their full back positions when the opportunity arose. This is important to note. Atleti are content to defend but will commit men forward when the opportunity presents itself.

In the defensive phase, Atleti would fall back to a fairly deep 4-1-4-1 with Falcao being their only  player remaining in the opponents half. With Falcao on such devastating form, it is easy for Atleti to retreat and Falcao to remain the reference point in attack.

The first warning for Athletic arrived in the 14th minute when Falcao collected a long pass and spun past two opponents before Gurpegi cynically blocked him. The resulting yellow card prevented Gurpegi from competing effectively for the remainder of the game, fearful of a second caution and the resulting red card.

The opening goal arrived via some woeful defending by Athletic combined with some lovely play by Falcao. A long throw in found Falcao. MIkel San Jose, who was now man marking Falcao, was turned far too easily before Falcao scooped the ball over Iraizoz.

Athletic gradually settled after this but offered little of an attacking threat. Despite the importance of Iraola and Susaeta last season, neither offered much in an attacking sense. It was on the left with Inigo Perez supporting Isma Lopez where Athletic offered patches of decent play. It was also the Athletic left which Atleti deliberately chose to attack down with Arda presenting numerous problems to Inigo Perez. In the absence of Aurtenexte, Simeone may have pinpointed Inigo Perez as a weak point. Despite the number of attacks in this area, Perez successfully won a number of tackles in the left back area as key battle developed between him and Arda:-

Atleti Dribbles vs Athletic

However, Inigo Perez was cautioned in the 35th minute for tripping Arda.

Throughout the first half, Los Colchoneros pressed their opponent in a highly structured and coordinated fashion. There was seldom any aimless pressing by just one player and when required, everyone dropped deep. With less possession, Atleti were much more vertical with an emphasis upon moving forward quickly but by interplay and surging runs rather than long passes.

Athletic by contrast to their hosts, played numerous passes but failed to turn their possession into territorial dominance or chance creation. Their first meaningful attack materialised in the 14th minute.

Defensively, following Gurpegi’s caution, San Jose man marked Falcao whilst Inigo Perez man marked Arda. This led to the bizarre scenario of Inigo Perez trailing Arda over to the opposite flank on one occasion in the first half, leaving the left flank completely exposed.

Atleti scored their second goal shortly before half time. Although well finished by Falcao, Godin was offside in the build up. A corner was cleared and when the ball was returned, Godin opportunistically hooked the ball across the face of goal and Falcao scored from an acute angle.

 

Second Half

Athletic made two changes at half time with Susaeta and San Jose being replaced by Ibai and Muniain. This resulted in yet more shuffles of the team with De Marcos moving to left back, Inigo Perez going to midfield, Iturraspe moving to central defence (where he partnered Gurpegi, another central midfielder), Ibai on the right wing and Muniain supporting the anonymous Aduriz.

The changes had no effect upon the game failing to stem the tide which flowed towards Iraizoz. Ibai, as ever, looked lively when he arrived but with little meaningful possession his impact was limited.

In the 57th minute Gurpegi was penalised for handball, and judging by some earlier decisions, he was lucky to avoid a second yellow and remain on the pitch. Falcao scored the resulting penalty. Yet the penalty all stemmed from Atheltic’s inability to clear their lines following a throw in. Athletic had three separate opportunities to clear the ball and failed on each occasion.

There then followed a succession of chances for Atletico with a number originating down the Athletic right with Iraola caught extremely high on each occasion. Chances arrived in the 61st, 65th and 68th minutes all from the right.

The fourth goal was another example of poor defensive play from Athletic. The Atleti substitute Diego Costa ran across the edge of the penalty area evading pitiful attempted tackles by Gurpegi and Inigo Perez. Costa’s shot was eventually blocked with the resulting loose ball slammed into the net from twenty five yards by Tiago.

Falcao

Its difficult analysis this game without some reference to the Europa League final given the striking similarities between both games. There were many differences that night but the performance of Falcao. Again, Falcao had a massive impact upon this game.

His ability to collect the ball and move into the channels whilst support arrives is invaluable to a team that wants to defend deep and with numbers.

Prior to the season commencing, Falcao was asked whether he could compete for the “Pichichi” this season:-

“Pichichi’? Why not?”

The heat map bellows shows where Falcao operates. He receives the ball just wide of either central defender outside of the penalty are. Then, when inside the penalty area, he is positioned centrally.

Falcao Heat Map vs Athletic Bilbao

Falcao collects the ball just inside the opponents half of the pitch and distributes to team mates running off him, quite often on the flanks before making a run towards the penalty area. From his 23 passes, only 4 passes were either into or inside the penalty area:-

Falcao Passes vs Athletic Bilbao

Almost all of Falcao’s passes are outside of the box yet all of his shots, with the exception of two, are from inside the box.

Falcao Shots vs Athletic Bilbao

There were suggestions when he arrived that Falcao would not contribute outside of the penalty area and the key issue for Atleti was developing a system which maximises his strengths and links the team to him. Simeon appears to have struck this balance perfectly.

With the likes of Arda, Adrian, Rodrigues and Koke running off him, Falcao has plenty of options and an excellent supply line.

Athletic Structure

Athletic were missing five key players against Athletic but the manner of their performance suggested something much worse than just missing players, however important those players may be.

The changes made in the second half were strange, bordering on the bizarre at times. Constant reshuffles must have a detrimental effect upon players at some point, when instructions stop making any sense through a confused haze.

The withdrawal of San Jose , who was not enjoying a good game, can be debated but why replace him with Iturraspe in defence? You then have two central midfielders operating in defence whilst Ekiza remains on the bench. What made this worse was positioning Inigo Perez at the base of midfield when he had already been cautioned. In a role which requires tackling, Inigo Perez was not going to be able to cope fully.

As the second half progressed, Athletic lost all sense of structure and became a collection of individuals on the pitch. Iraola was posted missing on a number of occasions, allowing Rodriguez to break into acres of space. Aduriz appeared totally isolated throughout with barely any combination play involving him and any other Athletic player. On the one occasion when he linked up, Muniain threaded a pass through and Aduriz moved behind the Atleti defence but his shot was blocked.

Athletic spent the entire game playing in front of Atleti but lacked the creativity and guile to unlock a defence. This was not the only quality which was absent from their game.

Muniain can be a spiky character when things are not going well for him on the pitch but there was little aggression from him. There was a general sense of inevitability about Athletic from the moment the opening goal went in. The team lacked any sort of desire or mental strength.

Conclusion

Atleti can look forward to the European Super Cup game against Chelsea with confidence. The team is playing well and there are ample solutions on the bench which now contains real quality. The final scoreline probably flattered Athletic Bilbao a little and there will be real optimism within Atleti that under Simeone, this can be the season when they secure Champions League football once more.

The optimism and jot which engulfed Athletic last season is now all but gone. The performance was insipid and represents the low point of Bielsa’s reign in Bilbao. Bielsa recognises this:-

“At no time were we in this match. They were more powerful than us in most aspects of the game… we were impotent in the face of the dimension of our opponent”

And yet with the loss of Llorente and Martinez all but guaranteed, the solution for Athletic would be to sign quality replacements such as Benat but Bielsa, as ever, defies conventional wisdom:-

“For a team that is in the cycle we are, it is impossible not to be generate concerned. I have no expectations to resolve this through the arrival of signings.”

Unlike last season when Bielsa arrived and the team struggled at the start of the season, there was always hope that the season would improve. It looks like hope has all but drained from Athletic now.

Barcelona vs Real Madrid – Three Short Observations

Shape

Real Madrid adopted a very deep and defensive approach for the first half and began the second half in a similar fashion. Madrid were content to drop off Barcelona and only press when Barcelona crossed the halfway line. In many respects it was a typical first half Barcelona performance as they dominated possession (70%) but ultimately lacked penetration. Madrid offered a threat on the counter attack but this waned as the first half progressed.

It was noticeable that in the opening minutes, neither Barcelona full back pushed forward yet once the Madrid shape was recognised, Alves and then Adriano began to move forward and provide overlaps for Sanchez and Pedro respectively.

Mourinho has entered games against Barcelona with a range of tactical strategies to deliver the desired results with just two victories in eleven meetings to date. Recently, when Madrid have attacked Barcelona and pressed them aggressively, Madrid has enjoyed a greater share of possession and favourable results. Last night, this was abandoned in favour of a defensive minded strategy.

Which inevitably begs the question of why did Mourinho choose such a defensive set-up last night?

Firstly, given it was a two legged tie, Mourinho would have wanted to keep things as tight as possible early on. In the first leg of the Champions League semi final in April 2011, Real Madrid were very defensive, only conceding to Barcelona late on following the dismissal of Pepe. Afterwards, Mourinho claimed the strategy was to attack Barcelona in the last thirty minutes of the game with attacking substitutes. A ploy which was denied when Madrid had been reduced to 10 men.

It seems reasonable to suggest that Madrid trying to replicate this last night.

Despite being level at 1-1, Madrid were more aggressive after the hour mark. With the scores level and the away goal secured, Madrid were operating from a position of strength yet the game became increasingly stretched which provided Barcelona with more space to attack and seek openings. Benzema and the anonymous Callejon were replaced by Higuain and Di Maria in the 60th and 65th minute as Madrid injected fresh impetus into their attack as they began to tire.

With the tie delicately poised, it will be fascinating to see how Mourinho approaches the second leg.

 

Pedro

A fine start to the season for Pedro has seen the Canary Islander score two goals in the opening two games suggesting a return to form and fitness.

Last season was something of a disappointment for Pedro both collectively and individually. The season was disrupted through injury and a loss of form. Despite making 48 appearances, Pedro started in only 32 of them and was often substituted himself. As the season drew to a conclusion, Pedro offered glimpses that he was rediscovering form particularly in the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao.

Now, fully fit and on form, Pedro offers Barcelona a significant goal threat from the wide area reducing the reliance upon Messi.

His goal last night encapsulated the best of his qualities, playing off the shoulder of the deepest defender and accelerating away to collect a through pass before slotting the ball home.

Yet to only consider the attacking qualities that Pedro brings to the side would be a considerable injustice. Although not the greatest technician within the Barcelona side, Pedro understands the role that he is expected to perform perfectly. He combines his attacking role by undertaking the defensive aspects diligently. His pace is essential in closing down defenders and pressing high up the pitch providing the first line of defence.

 

Victor Valdes

The outcome of the entire tie could hinge upon the events of the 84th minute last night. Casillas saved from Messi and Pique, on yet another foray forward, was unable to make contact and force home the 4th goal for Barcelona . Madrid , who were dangerous throughout on the transition, launched a counter attack which petered out when the ball was played back to Valdes in the Barcelona goal. Despite being closed down by Di Maria, Valdes sought another touch on the ball before attempting to dribble beyond Di Maria. The end product was the concession of another goal and the tie, which should have been over, is left hanging in the balance.

After the game Andoni Zubizarreta told reporters: “Mistakes are part of a goalkeeper’s career. Victor has saved us far more goals than he has conceded over the years – I’m sure that after tonight he will go on to have a perfect season.”

Déjà vu?

On 10 December 2011, Valdes mishit a pass at the Santiago Bernabeu after just 22 seconds which resulted in Benzema giving Real Madrid the lead. Yet Valdes continued to hit short passes for the duration of the game. Afterwards, Guardiola commented that

“The best thing was that Valdes kept on passing the ball after the goal. That showed his strength and the strength of the team,”

Valdes will make more mistakes in the future but don’t expect any change in the way he plays. It’s necessary for Barcelona to possess a goalkeeper who is comfortable with the ball at his feet and to continue making passes.

Barcelona vs Real Sociedad: Tactical Analysis

Montanier made the unusual choice of beginning the game with the club’s joint top scorers from last season both on the bench alongside him. Griezmann started in attack alongside Illarramendi with new signing Castro making his debut on the left wing.

Sociedad adopted a 4-4-2 formation at the outset of the game.

Real Sociedad Starting Line Up

Real Sociedad Approach

Whilst examining the Barcelona performance in closer detail, it must be remembered that this was a Sociedad side that were prepared to use two strikers and tried to attack. It’s doubtful if many opponents will arrive at the Camp Nou this season with such an outlook. The approach was tempered somewhat after the half time interval when Illarramendi dropped deeper to form a midfield five to stem the tide flowing towards the Sociedad goal. A 4-5-1 formation was utilised from this point onwards with Griezmann becoming isolated as the lone striker.

First Half

The game began in explosive fashion with four goals in the opening fifteen minutes. What was most interesting though was the intensity which Barcelona were displaying. The side appeared reinvigorated and pressed Sociedad as soon as possible, forcing the Basques onto the back foot. The passing was quick throughout as Barcelona seemed to rediscover the hunger and desire that had been lacking during parts of last season. Barcelona also sought to open up the play with crossfield diagonal passing occurring to both full backs and wingers, stretching their opponent and turning the Sociedad defence.

With a 4-1 half time lead, the second half revolved around retaining possession for Barcelona, mindful of the upcoming Super Cup fixture against Real Madrid. The final goal was scored by Villa who made his first competitive appearance since his injury in December 2011.

Given that this was as straight forward an opening fixture for Barcelona as you are likely to witness, it is worth considering a few key points which could be indicative of how Vilanova wants his Barcelona side to play. Clearly, these are early days in the Vilanova regime and we must not make any rash judgements nonetheless there are learning points here.

Tello

Speculation has surrounded Tello during the close season and he still retains a B team squad listing although he has been advised he will feature for the first team. Whilst his starting role may have surprised many, it was entirely justified following an excellent performance which witnessed two assists in the first half.

Making the breakthrough at the same time as his colleague Cuenca inevitably leads to comparisons despite both being very different players. Tello was able to thrive against Sociedad as the Basques were very attack minded which allowed Tello to use his pace to good effect. Holding a wide position, there was ample space behind the Sociedad back line for Tello to drive into. Against a deeper lying defence, Tello may find his pace is not as useful with limited space on offer. He provided snapshots of close control and played a lovely cross for Pedro’s goal. His decision making and final ball are two areas needing further development if he is to be considered as something other than just an extremely fast player. Last night suggested he may have a role to play in the longer term.

Full Backs

Both Dani Alves and Jordi Alba pushed high up the pitch and supported their respective winger especially Alba who impressed on his home debut and overlapped Tello on a few occasion when the opportunity arose.

Over the past few seasons we have become accustomed to witnessing Alves bomb forward on the right whilst Abidal adopted a more conservative position on the left alternating between holding the left back position around the halfway line or forming a defensive trio by slotting in as the left sided centre back. With Alba playing, this option of conservatism is removed.

Whether such an approach would be encouraged against higher quality opposition remains to be seen.

Sociedad scored the equalising goal when Castro moved in behind Alves, hitting the ball high into the roof of the net. The space existed not because Alves was caught high up the pitch but due to poor positional play. Alves moved infield, far too close to Puyol which provided Castro with the space to control the pass from Illarramedi before scoring.

Will the left flank of Barcelona prove to be stronger than the right flank this season? Given the role which Dani Alves has fulfilled over the past few seasons, it seems inconceivable but last night Alba provided evidence of his attacking ability allied to the defensive side of his game which he learned under Unai Emery.

Furthermore, can Barcelona really play with both full backs being so attack minded?

Will the midfield need to compensate?

Midfield

There were two interesting features in the Barcelona midfield. Firstly, Fabregas was in the team as a midfielder and in place of Iniesta. This required Fabregas to drop deeper on occasion which he did although he still linked with Messi when permitted. There appeared to be greater fluidity between the three midfielders.

This was aided as, secondly, Busquets played in a fairly high position on occasion especially during the first half when he pushed up to lend support to the trio of Xavi, Fabregas and Messi. Although still ostensibly the defensive midfielder in the team, there was greater movement between Busquets and the other two midfielders.

This increased movement was necessary as the duos of Alves and Alba and Pedro and Tello were holding very wide, high starting positions. Without Busquets pushing on, Barcelona would have been left numerically outnumbered in the centre of the pitch.

The impact of pushing Busquets further forward meant that Barcelona only had Maschearno and Puyol defending.

Are Barcelona going to play more aggressively this season?

Conclusions

There are relatively high hopes for Sociedad this season. Coach Philippe Montanier has a talented, if mainly youthful, squad at his disposal and coaxing the maximum from those at his disposal could reap rewards. The disappointing result from last night must not be allowed to adversely affect team morale.

The first step in the Vilanova era for Barcelona and one which hinted at some subtle alterations whilst demonstrating that the side has lost not of the hunger and desire which drove them to such success over the past few years. This was no tactical success in this game. Simply, Barcelona had vastly superior players to their opponent.

The upcoming Super Cup games against Real Madrid will provide a significantly sterner test of Vilanova’s tactical acumen.

La Liga Season Preview

It’s nearing that time again.

That time of the season when blind optimism takes over and you become engulfed in a sea of fervour towards your team. The deadwood from the previous season has been cast asunder and the new signings arrive fresh and ready to add impetus to the team. To help the club move towards the next level.

Or you could follow a team in La Liga. The league where the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Real Madrid or Barcelona will win La Liga this season. That much is certain. Whatever else happens in the league is anyone’s guess. Could Levante match last season’s incredible events and somehow manage to finish 6th again. Will Athletic deliver in the league and eradicate the cup team tag which now follows them? Is this finally the season when Atleti manage to live up to expectation and actually deliver in their desire to finish in the Champions League spots? Will the project continue at Malaga? In his debut season, could Pellegrino secure a 4th consecutive 3rd place finish for Valencia? There are a multitude of issues surrounding the league this season.

And that is just on the pitch.

Will off the pitch events have any bearing on the league? Will games really kick off at 11pm on Sunday and Monday evenings?

Madrid will correctly start as favourites as a degree of uncertainty envelopes how Barcelona will react to the appointment of Tito Vilanova as successor to Pep Guardiola. The concerns are not so much in how the team will continue to evolve tactically on the pitch where Guardiola and Vilanova often shared responsibilities. The concern will surface off the pitch. Guardiola was a charismatic, charming figure. His are extremely large shoes to fill and Vilanova appears much more introverted. Can he successfully bridge the gap. If he can, then Barcelona can retain the title. For Madrid, the desire to retain the title will be huge but will Mourinho share this desire? Or will he be focusing now upon the Champions League as he seeks his own personal record?

Neither side has made significant changes thus far with more outgoings than incomings.

Alba remains the one key signing for Barca. A further boost to the defence has been the promotion of Marc Bartra from the B team. Speculation continues to surround the future of Tello at the Camp Nou and the saga around the possible signing of Alex Song from Arsenal drags on further. The squad welcomes back Villa and Afellay to full fitness whilst Keita departs but given his limited appearances, his absence will not be missed.

For Madrid, Altintop has departed and Sahin appears to be moving to the Premiership on loan. Fernando Gago and Pedro Leon leaves permanently for Valencia and Getafe respectively. None of those players made any sort of impact last season and, as with Keita above, will not be missed.

If Madrid secure Modric, how he will fit into the team will be interesting. Will he partner Alonso at the base of midfield or is he a replacement for Alonso? It’s most likely he will be a squad player which aptly demonstrates the strength of the big two. First choice players elsewhere (Modric and Song, if he joins) are only considered squad players now.

With a full squad of fit players to select from, Barcelona should be stronger than last season and the title race could once again see the big two break domestic records. Great news in terms of an exciting title race but the continuation of a developing trend whereby nobody in La Liga can match the big two on or off the pitch and thumping defeats become the norm. Mourinho’s summary was perfect. Any team in Europe joining La Liga would finish third at best. The big two are operating at a different level from everyone else.

That’s the title, the easy aspect, and depending upon your perspective maybe the most boring matter too, out of the way. For the remaining 18 teams, it’s probably easiest to consider them into three separate groupings:-

!. Teams chasing the Champions League places.

2. Teams fighting to avoid relegation.

3. The teams in the middle where a positive run of form can elevate you to a European contender or a negative run of form will leave you struggling for survival.

The one trend which has been evident in Spain during the close season has been the gradual drain of the top players from clubs outside of Real Madrid and Barcelona. You’re a top player in Spain but neither Barcelona or Real Madrid want to sign you. Therefore, you leave the country. Replacements have been of a lesser standard in many cases as financial reality starts to bite hard. It means a number of squads are thin with limited numbers. There could be a greater reliance by clubs on la cantera to boost numbers. An inconsistent season could be in store for a number of sides as they struggle to establish any pattern of form.

Somewhere, in the midst of all of this, we need to find a place for Malaga. The financial implosion of the club and the continuing fall out has massive repercussions not just for the club itself, but for La Liga as a whole. The sale of Santi Cazorla did not solely represent a cash boost to the Andalusian side, it represented a fatal blow to the hope, however faint it was, that someone could challenge the big two. Malaga were supposed to be that team, challenging on the back of substantial investment.

Race for the Champions League

Every season, Valencia sells their best players and begin rebuilding and every season they finish third in the league.

This season perhaps marks a change. The appointment of Pellgrino to replace Emery may have left some within the Mestalla faithful a tad underwhelmed but the appointment has received the blessing of Rafa Benitez. A coach under Beintez at Liverpool and Inter, this appointment is Pellegrino’s first steps into management. A former player for Los Che, this may buy him some breathing space if things don’t start well. The Mestalla crowd can be notoriously fickle as Unai Emery experienced first hand.

What is of greater significance is that Valencia have spent as much as they have received in transfer fees (depending upon which figure you believe for sales / acquisitions) which is an indicator of their improving financial health. Still massively in debt but substantial repayments have been made over the past few seasons.

The arrival of Gago, Pereira, Guardado, Nelson Valdez (on loan) and Canales helps address key areas of the team and strengthens the side following the departures of Mehmet Topal, Aduriz and Alba. Combined with the removal of players such as Dealbert, Aduriz, Bruno and Maduro, who moves to Sevilla following an injury affected four years, and the squad is refreshed and improved.

Guardado will start on the left wing pushing Mathieu back to left back. Can the left side of Valencia cope without Alba?

With Piatti and Parejo having settled following their first season, the future again looks bright for Valencia. A return to form and fitness for Canales and the burden on Soldado as the main goalscorer could be reduced. Another 3rd place finish should be achievable although how far they lag behind second place is important. The gap has grown too great and a narrowing, however symbolic this may be, could bring a renewed sense of optimism to the league.

Diego Simone offers the dream to long suffering Atleti fans. That this might, just might, be the season they secure Champions League football. For so long a side who performed the art of inconsistency with aplomb whilst demonstrating an ability to acquire quality strikers and poor defenders in equal measure. Falcao remains the prized asset and had claimed he aims to beat Messi and Ronaldo to the “Pichichi”. Falcao will score goals but the sale of Dominguez, their best defender, again leaves questions marks over the defence. Cata Diaz joins from Getafe but a significant improvement is required here.

Diego returns to Wolfsburg although suggestions that Atleti may try to lure him on loan again remain. For the time being, Emre will need to fill the creative void. A more reactive style may continue to develop at the Calderon with Atleti content to let opponents make the running before counter attacking sharply. It was a ploy used superbly against Athletic in the Europa League final.

Athletic Bilbao commence the season hoping to hang onto Llorente and Martinez although the sale of Llorente at some point is now inevitable with the confirmation that he will not renew his contract. The constant rumours of a move to Juventus remain whilst Martinez seems intent upon a move to Bayern. The loss of these two key individuals would certainly reap financial reward for Athletic yet leaves the issue of how they reinvest such sums unanswered. Acquisitions would leave a number of other clubs weaker with likely targets including Benat (Betis), Martinez (Sociedad) and Monreal (Malaga).

Pre-season has been anything but straightforward for the Basques. A Europa League spot is a possibility but above that seems beyond them. Much will depend upon the quality of the replacements and how they integrate with Bielsa’s methods.

Sevilla have entered a period of relative stability in the recent unsettled waters. Michel remains at the helm despite not meeting last season’s objective. Monchi has been active the transfer market as a reshaping of the squad takes place. Jesus Navas remains one of the few players who played under Ramos in the UEFA Cup winning side as the old guard leave.

The rebuilding starts with Cicinho filling the problematic right back berth as a possible successor to the long departed, but never replaced, Dani Alves. The defence is improved further with Botia arriving on loan and Maduro, if he stays fit, joining from Valencia. Behind them, Sevilla have secured the services of Diego Lopez for a ridiculously low fee. Promising youngsters Rabello and Kondogbia offer future potential but any appearances will be fleeting.

The squad is probably not yet ready to push for a Champions League spot and a Europa League finishing place is achievable although the absence of any European distraction this season could help provide them with a small advantage over their rivals.

The Relegation Battle

La Liga has specialised in providing last day drama over the past few seasons with a plethora of permutations on the final day. This season should see that recipe for excitement and nerves continue as a number of clubs could be caught in the scrap for survival.

The departure of Michu leaves Rayo with a void to fill. An equally large void had also been left following the club’s decision not to renew the contract of Jose Ramon Sandoval. Paco Jemez arrives from Cordoba faced with replacing key players with loan’s and free transfers. The quality has dropped and the cantera will be called upon throughout the season to boost the squad. A 90th minute goal against Granada in the final game of the season helped Rayo scrape into safety last season. With financial problems continuing and a lack of depth and quality to the squad, another season fighting for survival beckons.

Arouna Kone has departed Levante to join the Spanish enclave developing in Wigan under Martinez. It’s difficult to envisage where the goals will arrive now for Levante with the aging Theo Gekas brought in as Kone’s replacement. Their wonderful early start to last season camouflaged the later collapse combined with an almighty carve up amongst the teams below them. Another season of defensive football, grinding out results looks on the cards but whether their aging limbs can continue remains to be seen. Squad numbers will be boosted by free transfers as the club aim to source cheap players and sell them on.

Granada secured their top flight status on the final day last season and another fight looks likely if they are to survive again. The revolving door at Granada has been in full swing over the close season with over thirty arrivals and departures, partially explained by the relationship with Udinese and loan spells ending / starting. If the problems of players gelling is sufficiently overcome, the issue over the suitability of new coach Anquela will be examined. Anquela has never operated at this level and questions will emerge if a slow start to the season is experienced.

Valladolid return to La Liga under the guidance of former Valencia defender Miroslav Djukic. Blanquivioleta fans will be expecting much from two of their new signings from Germany, right back Antonio Rukavina from 1860 Munich and Partick Ebert from relegated Hertha Berlin. The team will be reliant upon the goals of Javi Guerra to fire them to safety but it looks a tall order and a long season appears in prospect. As with so many in the division, home wins will be crucial.

For Celta, survival will be the aim. Coached by the former Liverpool Assistant, Paco Herrera, the financially stricken club has achieved much by reaching La Liga. The motley crew of cantera products and free transfer signings will need to garner as many points as possible at home to ease pressure. Javi Varas joins from Sevilla to provide experience and a vocal presence at the back but his form has shaded over the past few seasons. The season ahead may prove to be an arduous task.

The Rest

And this is where you will find the bulk of the teams. Within a few points of each other, tightly bunched together. Cobble together a few victories and you will be propelled forward to the fringes of the European places. Alternatively, hit a run of poor form and you will be dragged into the relegation mire.

The fortunes of Cleta’s Galicain neighbours are somewhat different. Deportivo make their returns to La Liga and appear to be aiming slightly higher than just a safety and a comfortable finish should ensure. Carlos Marchena arrives to help a ropey defence whilst Nelson Oliveira will offer competition to Riki and Bopido in attack. The loss of Guardado to valencia is a blow thogh. The Mexican international led the way last season with the most assists and goals for Depor. Increasingly dull and boring under Lotina as their La Liga tenure drew to a conclusion with relegation, it was often joked that Depor considered 0-0 as being their favourite result. Whilst they will not dazzle anyone with stylish displays, there is enough about the side to ensure safety hopefully with more than a few cameo performances provided by the great Valeron as his career moves into its final stages.

Espanyol have begun brightly in the past two seasons before severe dips in form have dragged them down the table and much closer to the relegation places than they would like. Los Pericos have lost a number of keys players across their team such as Romaric, Coutinho, Weiss, Javi Marquez and Didac Vila. Replacements have arrived in the shape of Wakaso, Capdevila, Colotto and Tejera but the squad is painfully thin now. A poor start to the season will heap pressure on Pochettino who showed visible signs last season of the stress placed upon him. A follower of Bielsa, Pochettino’s Espanyol will continue to press and play a high defensive line in their favoured 4-2-3-1 system but the enthusiasm of youth needs tempered with experience. Capdevila will help but an inconsistent season with highs and lows await.

Real Sociedad have a first choice team that could spring a few surprises this term. Good acquisitions have been made in the form of Jose Angel, Chori Castro and Carlos Vela adding to the existing talent of Inigo Martinez and Antoine Griezmann. Much will rest upon the shoulders of coach Montanier to coax the best from his youthful charges. Xavi Prieto provides the experience in central midfielder. The squad, as with so many others in La Liga, is light on numbers but a finish in the top ten is a realistic possibility. An opening day visit to the Camp Nou faces Sociedad.

Getafe have moved quietly along during pre-season. Ustari has left but Moya joins permanently from Mallorca. The departure of Cata Diaz should be partially offset by Xavi Torres joining and providing the drive and determination needed from central midfield. Lafita joins up from Zaragoza and coach Luis Garcia will hope that a fit Pedro Leon can join him in midfield to provide some creativity for the Madrid side which never quite materialised last season. As with so many teams in La Liga, the margins between safety and a relegation fight could be determined by navigating the remainder of the transfer window. Getafe are no different and will hope to retain the services of Miku who appears to be interesting a number of sides.

Real Zaragoza if they can build upon last season’s miraculous run which saved them from relegation, should find safety much earlier. This season will be a further test of the cojones of Manolo Jimenez. A number of players arrive at La Romareda notably Glenn Loovens, Apono and Romaric but the onus will still be on Helder Postiga to score the goals that propel Zaragoza up the table with combative Aranda struggling along in single figures.

Joaquin Caparros begins his first full season with the Islanders of Mallorca having lost defender Ivan Ramis to Wigan. Mallorca have the unwanted distinction of signing the petenial underachiever that is Javier Arizmendi. Don’t expect much from him this season but pacy winger Nsue could finally make the breakthrough and establish himself.

With confirmation that Pellegrini is staying at La Roselada, Malaga should be able to hover around the mid-table area even allowing for the departure of their best players thus far. Cazorla, Rondon and Mathijsen have all gone and speculation surrounds the future of Monreal, Toulalan and Joaquin. Should the situation deteriorate further still as the transfer window approaches, they may slip into the bottom half of the table. Despite needing the revenue from the Champions League, avoiding the additional games may prove beneficial for the increasingly small squad. The nightmare scenario for the club would be replication of the toils of Villarreal last season in the Champions League allied to deteriorating league form.

The Reyno de Navarra will once more require to be a stronghold for Osasuna judging by recent transfer activity. Key players in Nekonuam, Lekic and Raul Garcia (loan ending) have all left and replacements of a lower quality have been brought in. Mendilibar remains in charge and the high defensive line and direct style of play will be in evidence once more. If Nino continues to start as the central striker though, the system may need to be tempered slightly as a target man is essential for it to work.

Real Betis will hope to push on towards mid table safety from the outset this season. Montero and Santa Cruz may have departed but Joel Campbell arrives on loan from Arsenal and the likes of Ruben Perez have joined from Getafe whilst Paulao has made last season’s loan move permanent. As ever, the key player for Betis will be Benat. Retaining the talented midfielder at the club will be crucial. The resolve of Betis may be tested as the transfer window draws to a close particularly if Athletic need to strengthen and have cash to burn.

Predicted Final Standings

Barcelona

Real Madrid

Valencia

Atletico Madrid

Sevilla

Athletic Bilbao

Real Socidad

Getafe

Malaga

Real Betis

Deportivo

Osasuna

Mallorca

Real Zaragoza

Espanyol

Levante

Rayo Vallecano

Granada

Celta Vigo

Valladolid

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.