There is a Legacy

Lush green turf sweeps majestically before him. It’s his domain even if there are others involved. It’s where he operates. He doesn’t rush, he strolls. The blue and the red providing his vivid colours. The noise and colours that surround him blur into the background. He’s the primary actor. The focus of our attention. We sit in front of the TV. He comes from another world. And we watch.

I’ve toyed with this for a while, delaying unnecessarily if I’m honest. The answer was easy which often makes it the most difficult situation to act upon. My own reluctance to accept the outcome yet simultaneously being the outcome that I actually want. Is it really that time? Already? Did I achieve all that I wanted to? I had no targets when I began but did I achieve anyway? It was always a hobby that became increasingly regular. One, sometimes two, articles per week. It was sustainable. For a while.

And so, this will be my final article on my blog (for the foreseeable future anyway).

I still intend to write for a few other websites just no longer here. There’s no disappointment involved. Only relief. Which is pretty unusual given I’ve only written 3 or 4 articles over the past 12 months. This brings clarity though. Definition. This is the final article. I’ve said it. No more delays and false promises of future articles if only you wait that little bit longer. This is it.

I simply no longer have sufficient time to watch an entire game and analyse it properly before writing an article. And if I’m honest with you, I don’t want to do that anymore either. Maybe my unknown subconscious targets were achieved after all? Maybe my targets have changed. My priorities certainly have.

And the big question, is of course, How? (Note in Glasgow, you don’t say Why? you say How?)

Step forward, or perhaps I should say crawl forward, little Chalk.

With his first birthday just past, it’s time to admit that I cannot continue running this blog any longer. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to watch games and write reviews when I could be playing with my son. Or watching the TV with that central dominating figure present. I’ll be honest, I’d never seen him before but I’m a huge fan now. Around 6.20pm on a midweek night, I no longer watch Revista de La Liga anymore. It’s In The Night Garden now. Xavi has been substituted. For Iggle Piggle. And I simply don’t care.

The obligatory thank you is necessary at this point. As custom dictates, there are simply too many to mention so I’ll keep it to a minimum for those few people who have helped with my blog in one way or another. Some have managed to tolerate me this long and still do whilst others reacted to the urge to avoid me some time ago. Firstly, Iain McMullen who discovered this literary genius and unleashed me via, the now sadly neglected, elcentrocampista.com. Amit at ThinkFootball.com who provided me with a platform at the outset. Gags at EPLIndex.com for the offer of support when needed and providing technical assistance on my blog. Even Ruhi too, who should be happy with my confession below even if my customary ambivalence thereafter will not.

Donald Rumsfeld once spoke about there being known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. I’d actually like to agree with him even if it makes me feel temporarily dirty. I’ll clear up two things immediately. I’m male as quite a few people apparently thought I was female early on (probably owing to my inner bitch). And I have never supported West Brom either.

Thereafter, some of you will be aware of my known knowns. My fondness for chocolate cookies and muffins. That I favour managers and their ideas above teams. Therefore it is Rayo Vallecano in Spain above all others due to the tactical and sartorial genius that is Paco Jemez (although I do have an extremely soft spot for Athletic Bilbao principally due to Bielsa and now Valverde) A few people are aware some of my known unknowns. In England my team always was Arsenal. Nowadays I’ve grown weary of Arsene Wenger and his apparent inability to adapt. Despite my incessant mocking of Wenger and Arsenal these days, there was, is and hopefully will continue to be much to admire at the Emirates.

The unknown unknowns? Well, they’ll stay that way. For a while longer at least. Maybe one day they’ll be revealed. Maybe.

My final thanks goes to an unusual fellow who has suffered considerably at my sarcastic hands over the past couple of years. Step forward young Mr Gene Oliver. Perhaps one day he’ll even learn my name but then, if he did, he would be half as clever as me. And we simply can’t have that now, can we?

And so in this particular battle, little Chalk wins. Iggle Piggle is now the dominant figure on the television. Xavi Hernandez finds himself relegated both at Barcelona and in my home.

Xavi once spoke of there being something greater than the result. That there had to be a legacy.

He was right.

Real Madrid vs Athletic Bilbao

Ahead of their Champions League match against Man City , Real Madrid produced a performance which was enough to comfortably see off Athletic Bilbao with a convincing 5-1 victory.

Mourinho made a couple of changes to his starting eleven with Modric and Benzema recalled, most probably to allow him to rotate slightly providing some players with a short degree of rest. For Athletic, Bielsa had no such luxury and was forced into a number of changes. Amorebieta returned from international duty injured whilst Herrara sat out due to suspension after being sent off for the second time this season. De Marcos also missed out.

Athletic have lost their last seven games against Los Blancos conceding 25 goals in the process. There were no initial inferiority signs as the Basques began brightly, passing the ball with pace. However, that illusion was short lived.

Athletic Bilbao

Athletic came into this game on the back of two consecutive league wins but even allowing for that, expectations were low. How things change from a season ago when Athletic arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu and took an early lead when playing some stylish, attacking football before they eventually succumbed to a heavy 4-1 defeat. On Saturday evening, there was no belief that this current Athletic side could produce anything close to that level.

A couple of elements of the Athletic game are worth closer scrutiny.

Under Bielsa, Athletic are known to play a highly aggressive pressing game allied to a direct short passing game. This season Athletic have failed to match the level of intensity that is required to implement Bielsa’s plan sufficiently but recently there have been signs that they are delivering a higher level of performance. This began with an improvement away to Valencia when the side lost following the concession of two late goals.

Against Madrid the passing was again better with 420 passes completed from an attempted 526. Athletic enjoyed more possession than their hosts too. Yet despite these positive aspects, many of the “normal” problems were evident again.

A key component of Athletic’s game is to press the opponent high up the park and win possession back quickly. When successful with this approach, it can be very effective with Athletic regaining possession close to the opponents’ goal. When it fails, it can leave the team exposed as it often did on Saturday. If an opponent can avoid the first line of pressing from Athletic, there is ample space to exploit. The full backs are caught high and there is a gap in the centre of the pitch.

The graphics below show interceptions and tackles made by Athletic. Too often these occurred in the Athletic half of the pitch:-

Athletic Interceptions vs Real Madrid                   http://www.squawka.com

Only five interceptions were made in the Madrid half of the pitch. Worse than that, only one tackle was made in the Madrid half.

Athletic Tackles vs Real Madrid                                  http://www.squawka.com

Athletic were successful with tackles and interceptions but they occurred far too deep and prevented Athletic from halting their opponent from playing and building up momentum of their own in the attacking third of the pitch. Time and time again, Athletic were forced to begin constructing attacking moves from their own half.

When they did move forward, Athletic were not afraid to commit men to attack but there was a lack of quality in the final third evidenced by having just one shot in target in the whole game which resulted in a goal for Ibai Gomez. Compare this to Madrid who had 17 attempts on target from an attempted 30. There was no midfield creator with Muniain failing to step into the void left by the absent Herrara.

With Athletic not stopping Madrid high, Los Blancos evaded the first line of pressing from Athletic and enabled them to attack with fast transitions where Athletic are extremely vulnerable. Two of Madrid ’s goals came from such an approach with one scored by Karim Benzema and the French international providing an assist.

Karim Benzema

Whilst his team mates may not have been operating at full throttle, Benzema did and in doing so delivered a highly polished performance combining technique, finishing and workrate. An all round excellent performance and the key stand out player from a Madrid perspective. Benzema moved across the front line offering mobility whilst also linking the play when required s can be seen in the graphics below:-

Benzema Passes vs Athletic 171112                                 http://www.squawka.com

Benzema made five key passes but linked well in various parts of the pitch. As the central striker, he offered much more to his game than purely finishing within the penalty area.

Beyond his contribution outside of the penalty area, inside of it Benzema was equally good with two of his four attempts at goal on target. Three of his attempts came from the right hand corner of the box including his goal. A possible reason for this is explored below.

Benzema Shots vs Athletic 171112                               http://www.squawka.com

The first goal in the 11th minute was simple in its construction and perfectly executed by Benzema even if Aurtenexte had the final touch. A long ball from Modric exposed the high line from Athletic and Benzema pulled to the left of San Jose , finding space in the channel between the centre back and Aurtenexte at left back. He deftly lobbed the ball over Iraizoz for the opener. His second goal was a superb piece of skill. Receiving the ball with his back to goal in the channel between San Jose and Aurtenexte just inside the penalty area, Benzema shifted the ball with his right foot before swiveling and curling a shot beyond Iraizoz with his left.

The Frenchman turned creator in the 55th minute to provide for Ozil following a brief period of Athletic pressure. Again, space was found to the left of San Jose and the ball was squared just inside the penalty area for the oncoming Ozil to finish. The goal was the ideal demonstration of Athletic being caught high upfield. Gurpegi should have been occupying the space that Ozil broke into but the veteran midfielder lacks the mobility and pace to perform the role fully and lagged behind Ozil as the transition took place.

Arguably the perfect build up for Mourinho and his players. A comfortable win, no injuries reported, game time for all the key players and five goals shared amongst four players.

For Athletic and Bielsa, it’s about taking the positives and addressing the negatives. Slowly, the team appears to be getting better but team selection is still blighted by injuries and suspensions. Add to that, Bielsa’s bizarre second half line up when he switched to a 4-1-4-1 with Aduriz appearing to be an attacking midfielder and the element of confusion persists. With no European football to distract them this season, Athletic must now begin the process of improving their league form and climbing the table.

All graphics and statistics taken from www.squawka.com

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.

Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona: Tactical Analysis

And so, in his 247th game in charge, Guardiola secured his 179th win as manager of Barcelona. In doing so, Barcelona won the 110th final of the Copa del Rey and collected their 14th trophy in four remarkable seasons under the stewardship of Guardiola.

The Copa del Rey final between Atheltic Bilbao and Barcelona lived up to the hype surrounding the game with a thrilling, if somewhat one sided at times, game which was ultimately over after an explosive first 30 minutes.

Barcelona claimed their 26th win in the competition whilst Athletic remain stuck on 23 wins. For Athletic, the wait for a trophy continues and it will shortly be 29 years since their last trophy. Opportunities have been missed in this game and the recent Europa League final against Atletico. But in truth, Athletic nerve had a chance against a reinvigorated Barcelona which played the sort of intensive, attacking football which was their hallmark throughout the Guardiola era.

As Sid Lowe stated prior to the game, the Copa final was the culmination of a journey for Guardiola. From his meeting with Bielsa which inspired him to become a manager, to beating Athletic in the Copa del Rey final in 2009 to win his first trophy as Barcelona manager to the present day. Facing Athletic, again, in the Copa del Rey final in his last game in charge. An Athletic side guided by Bielsa. The journey ended with Guardiola winning. Again.

Despite all the trophies, Pep still enjoys being thrown around

Starting Line Ups

In Guardiola’s last game in charge, the starting eleven had to contend with a couple of injuries.

Barcelona Starting Line Up – Copa del Rey Final 2012

The most notable omission from the Barcelona team line was of course, that of Puyol, sidelined following an operation on his knee. Pique was the replacement here. Alves failed to recover from injury and so Martin Montoya started at right back.

Pinto was in goal as is normal in Copa del Rey games. Up front, Pedro and Sanchez supported Messi from the flanks.

Fabregas was only on the bench which surprised some however he inevitably drifts into a central position on the pitch. Barcelona needed two wide players who were fast, direct and would stretch the game whilst also offering workrate to compete on both attacking and defensive fronts against Athletic’s full backs. Sanchez and Pedro were easy choices in that respect.

The Athletic line up contained two notable omissions. Iturraspe and Ander Herrara both overlooked due to illness although Herrara made the bench.

The neccessitated a minor reshuffle of personnel with Ekiza and Amorebieta forming the central defence allowing Martinez to push into midfield.

Further forward, Ibai Gomez took the left wing berth with Muniain adopting a more central position from the outset. Ibai offers a more vertical approach on the left than Muniain who tends to drift laterally.

Athletic Starting Line Up – Copa del Rey Final 2012

Despite the changes in personnel, it initially appeared that Athletic would utilise the same 4-3-3 system which has been their mainstay since early October as outlined here. However, they altered this to form more of a 4-2-3-1 with Muniain in a much more advanced position and the wingers slightly more reserved than normal.

As the game unfolded, it seemed that Bielsa was preoccupied with denying Messi space to the extent that the remainder of the team’s structure suffered. This will be examined in the themes below.

Pressing

The game started at a frantic pace with both sides pressing aggressively.

Twice in the opening five minutes, Athletic pressed Pinto and twice this resulted in them securing possession higher up the pitch as Pinto failed to find team mates with his clearances.

It is well known that Pinto is not as accompolished as Valdes with his distribution yet Athletic did not grasp this opportunity as the match progressed.

Pinto – Almost as mad as Bielsa. But not quite.

Their pressing was muted. Llorente would attempt to split the centre backs as normal but De Marcos was deeper in midfield alongside Martinez and they offered no support to Llorente. Ibai and Susaeta were isolated on the flanks.

Pressing in such a half hearted fashion allowed Barcelona to pass their way around Athletic. Was this a deliberate tactic by Bielsa? This was the 63rd game of the season for Athletic and their first choice players have all played more than 50 times. Markel Susaeta has played in every game. Was this a case of one step too far for them?

Barcelona, by way of contrast, pressed in a coordinated fashion early on and the mood was set for the remainder of the game as a consequence. When Barcelona’s pressing dropped off, the Athletic players continued to react in the same fashion as if they were being pressed. Used to being pressed quickly and simply clearing the ball, despite now having slightly more time in possession, the same reaction occurs. Amorebieta’s poor clearance prior to the second goal being the perfect illustration of this.

The pressing of Barcelona was reminiscent of their early success under Guardiola. Intensive pressing around the pitch with the front players working hard to close down opposition defenders quickly.

Barcelona had rediscovered their intensity which was missing for large parts of the season. Allied to their intensity was a ruthlessness not seen often enough either.

Athletic Loose vs Barcelona Compact

Athletic were extremely stretched in the first half with large spaces between the lines which Barcelona continually exploited especially through the movement and probing passing of Xavi and Iniesta.

Yet it was not just the Barcelona midfield duo who were at their imperious best. Montoya started high and regularly forced Ibai Gomez, a very direct player, onto the back foot.

A central tenant of Athletic’s play this season as been the quick combinations between two or three players near the opponents penalty area with the full backs, particularly Iraola, pushing on. Yet here, neither Iraola or Aurtenxte were seen in the Barcelona half of the pitch during the opening 30 minutes. There were no combinations due to Barcelona pressing high.

Athletic were open with too much space between players, an immediate impact of their desire to be direct with the resulting loss of possession. There were few combinations and each pass became difficult to achieve given the distance between the players.

This was rectified somewhat after the half time break as Athletic switched to a more structured 4-5-1 with coherent pressing. They quickly regained they shape too when required. The damge however, had already been done. Barcelona, although under slightly more pressure on occasion, still possessed an attacking threat but the damage had been inflicted.

Amorebieta

The Venezuelan International, who endured a torrid evening against Falcao in the Europa League Final, had a similar experience against Barcelona.

From the outset, Amoebieta appeared to be man marking Messi, often following him around the pitch but on some occasions letting him go free. Amorebieta followed Messi to the halfay line in the 1st minute with Barcelona exploiting the resulting space to create an opportunity.

The decision to employ a tall, physical centre half in a man marking role on Messi was wrong. A more nimble, mobile player should have been utilised.

Amorebieta’s misplaced clearance in the 19th minute, despite being under no immediate pressure, led to Barcelona’s second goal.

Amorebieta was dragged down the pitch by Messi vacating space which Xavi looked to move into during the first half. This aggressive, forwarding running by Xavi provided the assist for the 3rd Barcelona goal, laying the ball off to Pedro on the edge of the Athletic penalty area.

When Amorebieta followed Messi, Athletic required to reshuffle to compensate. They achieved this by tucking their full backs in to provide a narrow three. This in turn meant the full backs were deep and unable to support the wingers. The end result of this was that Athletic struggled to get higher up the pitch.

The player who should have been used to man mark Messi was Iturraspe.

The Midfield Battle

With Martinez and De Marcos in midfield facing up against Iniesta and Xavi, the midfield battle seemed perfectly poised. Barcelona, however, consistently had better options in this area due to their intelligent movement against a somewhat static Athletic.

With Athletic not pressing coherently as outlined above, Pique and Mascherano were faced only by Llorente. Both are comfortable in possession and were happy to take on Llorente and step into midfield. As soon as Llorente was passed, either Martinez or De Marcos had a decision to make. Challenge the man in possession or stay with their direct opponent. There was no consistent strategy here. When Athletic closed down the man in possession, Xavi or Iniesta would make forward runs or drift into space.

Athletic were very linear with clear space between the defensive and midfield lines. Exactly the area which Iturraspe would have occupied had he been fit. However, with Muniain playing higher up, Martinez was forced to stay alongside De Marcos to provide support.

The introduction of Herrara at half time provided more composure to the Athletic midfield and assisted their ball retention. The direct nature of their play in the first half was tempered with a little more guile.

Conclusions

A tremendous performance from Barcelona provided Guardiola with the ideal send off – his 14th trophy as manager in just 4 seasons. A sensational achievement and one which is unlikely to replicated for some considerable time, if at all.

Xavi Hernandez. Small man, big trophy

A performance of quality in possesion matched by hunger without possession was simply too much for Athletic.

For Athletic, a crucial period is almost upon them. With an average age of just 24 years old, the potential within the squad to build and develop is consdierable. Whether the squad remains intact is the first issue. Intertwined with this is whether Bielsa continues with the project at Athletic remains to be seen.

Perhaps Bielsa, encapsulated the level of perforamnce from Barcelona perfectly: – “comparing players rarely serves to eulogise the chosen one, rather to belittle the other one”.

We seek faults within the Athletic performance instead of marveling at the display from Barcelona perhaps because we expect it from them. Last night, in Guardiola’s final game, they produced a truly great performance.