The Year of Los Merengues?

It’s time for that split decision again. Sometimes you would be as well just flipping a coin to decide as the difference is minimal. Despite having 20 teams, La Liga will be won by either Barcelona or Real Madrid this season. Again. The remaining 18 teams are simply competing for positions 3 – 20. Atleti may harbour ambitions of breaking this duopoly but their squad is still someway short of a successful season long challenge. With regard to the remaining teams, there is no credible challenger in sight.

So pick up that coin and flip it. Or are things not quite as tight between the big two as some would have you believe? Is there actually a gap developing between the sides? And one that becomes more apparent as the clock ticks down to the start of the season? If I were a betting man, my money this season would be on Real Madrid to reclaim the La Liga title. Why?

Here are five reasons why los blancos will recapture the title from their rivals and win La Liga this season:-

Carlo Ancelotti – A Unifying Force

Stepping into the managerial cauldron that is the Santiago Bernabeu is Carlo Ancelotti. Whilst replacing Mourinho has proven to be a tough challenge elsewhere, the limited success that the Portuguese enjoyed in Madrid coupled with the fractious nature of his final season means the Italian may find a hospitable reception awaits him. Combine this with his much easier going demeanour and the dressing room wounds of last season are likely to heal over quickly.

A key attribute of Ancelotti has always been his ability to squeeze major players into his starting line up often in an effort to satisfy the demands of overbearing Presidents. At Milan, Chelsea and PSG, Ancelotti has succeeded in shoe horning a number of seemingly incompatible players into his starting eleven. To accomplish this successfully, altering his tactical set up has become a necessity. The Italian has used the 4-3-2-1, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 although interestingly, he has seldom used the 4-2-3-1 which was the default starting line up for Madrid under Mourinho. More of the same or a departure for Ancelotti?

Pragmatism and the lack of adherence to a particular system are his strengths. He will assess the players at his disposal and design a system around their skills. In that respect, Ancelotti is not your typical Italian coach who is married to one system. His versatility and flexibility will aid a Madrid side that became increasingly one-dimensional last season. Opponents knew how to close Madrid off. They were a reactive, counter attacking side. In truth, not that dissimilar to the PSG side that Ancelotti was building. At Madrid though with greater resources at his disposal, Ancelotti will construct wisely.

With league titles from Italy, England and France, who would bet against Ancelotti adding Spain to that list?

Tactical Options

This brings us to how Ancelotti will shape Madrid up this coming season. Ancelotti has utilised the 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation in pre season and is known to favour this formation but his versatility has enabled him to deploy various formations over the years to maximise the players at his disposal. Assuming that Ancelotti does decide to primarily use the 4-3-2-1 formation, one of the key questions would appear to be the deployment of Ronaldo. If Madrid acquires Gareth Bale, it wouldn’t be to play him at left back which would mean a position behind the sole striker. This would surely mean Ronaldo as the no9 to avoid conflict between the two. Even if Bale does not arrive, serious consideration must be given to Ronaldo being the striker.

Carlo Ancelotti - Reassuringly unimpressed

Carlo Ancelotti – Reassuringly unimpressed

Alternatives at the moment for the striking role remain Benzema, Morata and Jese should he be elevated from the B team. Yet given his goal scoring ability in Madrid with 201 goals in just 199 appearances, it makes sense from an attacking perspective to place Ronaldo at the tip of the tree. Could Ronaldo outscore Messi if he is given the opportunity of being the central attacking player? It also makes sense from a defensive perspective too with Ronaldo frequently failing to undertake defensive duties and leaving his left back exposed when he has been deployed on the wide left position, a matter that has been capitalised upon by opponents most notably Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League semi final in April.

Further back, the midfield trio can incorporate two holders and a more creative force. The burden upon Xabi Alonso to build and create from deep should be eased and Madrid can become a more fluid side as a consequence. Width can be provided by Di Maria operating from a deeper starting position or by the full backs safe in the knowledge that there is a strong platform behind them to compensate when they push forward.

The basis for the greater tactical options now open to Madrid is also partly attributable to the quality and depth of the squad.

Quality and Quantity

The squad has seen the departures of Callejon, Albiol and Higuain. The loss of Albiol and Callejon who both had very limited playing time last season will not be missed but both the goals and assists that Higuain provided could be more of an issue particularly as it leaves just three players for the striking role in Benzema, Ronaldo and Morata. The squad is strong and could become even more so if the proposed acquisition of Gareth Bale proceeds as Madrid clearly want it to. It’s not a necessary signing though. Even without Bale, Madrid is strong throughout their squad.

Cast your eyes across the squad and you see position after position has quality and alternative options available. Who will start the season in goal, Casillas or Diego Lopez? There is Carvajal or Arbeloa for right back whilst Marcelo and Coentrao will do battle for the left back slot. Only really in central defence could there be a slight weakness with perhaps one more centre back being required to provide cover for Ramos, Varane and Pepe.

In midfield there is Alonso, Khedira, Modric, Ozil, Isco, Illarramendi and Di Maria all challenging for positions. The strong has genuine quality throughout and gradually now shows a stronger Spanish core too. Quality and identity now exists.

Spanish Acquisitions

In a surprising turn of events, Madrid is the side showing foresight and vision in their transfer policy with the acquisition of Carvajal, Isco and Illarramendi. Three members of the Spanish U21 side that just defended their European crown and potentially members of the Spain squad that travels to Brazil next year have joined their ranks. That three young Spanish players have been acquired signals an intent by Madrid to secure a core set of Spanish players over the longer term. A set of players who will form the heart of both Madrid and potentially the Spanish national side for years to come. It’s also about buying players who shone for the respective clubs last season within a system. Madrid has been a club that relies upon individual talent over the team but these signings indicate a tempering of that philosophy.

Isco - The Future Part 1?

Isco – The Future Part 1?

The fourth member of that victorious U21 side is already in the first team squad. Alvaro Morata continues to impress and will surely be granted valuable playing time this season to hone his skills. Will the names of Carvajal, Illarramendi, Isco and Morata soon be known for their exploits with both los blancos and la roja? This optimism should be considered cautiously though. It wasn’t that long ago that Madrid were signing the likes of Canales only to use him sparingly and effectively stall the players career during a key development phase. The same mistakes must not be repeated.

Illarramendi - The Future Part 2?

Illarramendi – The Future Part 2?

Barcelona’s Structural Problems

And this brings us neatly to the problems facing Barcelona. Whilst Madrid strengthens, their rivals appear to be caught in the headlights. They have already sold David Villa and Thiago and speculation continues to surround Fabregas. Somebody, somewhere in the whole Fabregas scenario is not telling the whole truth and the debacle rumbles on. Meanwhile, the circus of their failure to strengthen their defensive position continues. It’s unlikely that Puyol will last another full season without either succumbing to another injury or substantial rest and rotation. Bartra has been given limited first team exposure to date and add to this the departure of Abidal and the defensive fragility becomes clear.

The arrival of Gerardo Martino as coach should see a strengthening of the defensive unit but reinforcements are a necessity and not a luxury. It’s not just one centre back Barcelona needs, it’s two. Martino must also address the structural problems that Barcelona experienced last season. The player who could enable Xavi to rest has been sold to Bayern Munich.  Barcelona has to regain that freshness, the intensity to their game that has faded and gain a greater element of thrust and verticality to their attacking play.

The acquisition of Neymar could prove to be an excellent signing but it was in an area of the team not needing surgery. Are Barcelona falling victim to the cult of the galactico as Madrid demonstrate a commitment to younger players.

Whilst Barcelona sits and fails to resolve problems, Madrid strengthens. The negativity that engulfed Madrid as the Mourinho era came to a close will be eradicated with the arrival of Ancelotti at the helm. Harmony and balance can be restored both on and off the pitch. The balance of power is shifting once more. The title is heading back to Madrid.

Levante vs Real Madrid

At the end of the season, when the prizes are being handed out, there are inevitably a number of moments during the course of the season which, with hindsight, can be considered crucial. These are seldom games marked by technical proficiency or complete domination over an opponent and a large winning margin. Rather, these games are epitomised by displaying other qualities such as character and strength. Qualities traditionally associated with the British game and not those you would normally use in connection with a La Liga game.

Yet those are exactly the qualities which Real Madrid displayed in defeating Levante 2-1. In doing so, Los Blancos recorded Mourinho’s first win at the Ciutat de Valencia on Sunday evening.

How significant a win this was will be decided at the end of the season. What is certain is that had Madrid failed to win, it would most likely have been significant even at this stage of the season. To fall 10points behind Barcelona at this stage would have been a very significant hurdle which may not have been surmountable.

Postponement?

Should this game even have started? There had been torrential rain in Valencia for most of the day and it showed no signs of abating as kick off approached. With the pitch already waterlogged in places, particularly along the Main Stand side, this game should have been postponed. At a time when La Liga is trying to increase it’s appeal and enter into new markets around the globe, is this really the image which the authorities wish to send out?

Some will wrongly claim that the conditions are the same for both sides but such an assertion is based upon a belief that both sides adopt the same style. Clearly a waterlogged pitch will adversely affect a team with a short passing style more than a team with a direct style of play. Both teams must adapt but one side requires a greater shift in philosophy.

An incident early in the first half accurately captured the farce of the event. A Levante attack broke down and Di Maria gained possession on the left and sought to break forward quickly into space. Except that when he ran, the ball stuck in a puddle and as Di Maria adjusted to gather the ball again, he lost his balance and fell over. Levante then took possession again.

Even allowing for the lack of space within the fixture calendar for a rescheduled game, the match should have been postponed. That it went ahead confirmed that this was a night for a particular type of football. A direct approach which meant clearing your lines as quickly as possible by playing the ball forward. In theory, this approach should have suited Levante as it does not differ that substantially from their normal gameplan. Yet it was Madrid who not only adapted but a number of key payers appeared to relish the task in hand.

Madrid Adapt

It was a matter of which side could adapt best to the conditions. This was not a night for attempting to play intricate short passing or to run with the ball and this is clearly borne out by the statistics. Levante completed just 170 passes from 342 attempted (50% completion) whilst Madrid fared a little better with 212 completed passes from 386 attempted (55% completion)

It was a night for showing workrate, strength and above all determination. Qualities which were shown in abundance by two Madrid players; Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso.

The graphics below show the passing of Ramos and Alonso. From 87 passes between them only 11 were played backwards. The rest were primarily long balls being played towards the Levante backline. It was a simple approach but given the conditions it was an essential approach. Ensure that you make few mistakes and try to force your opponent to make mistakes. It was a night for playing the percentages.

Ramos Passes vs Levante                                      http://www.squawka.com

Xabi Alonso Passes vs Levante                             http://www.squawka.com

The number of long balls which both attempted was both defensive and attacking. Firstly, it cleared Madrid lines and secondly, it placed pressure on Levante.

There was also a degree of margin for error with long passes given that whilst some would normally overrun, on such a saturated pitch, many were stopping abruptly and remaining in play.

By placing the ball in the Levante half of the pitch more often, there was also a greater likelihood of Levante conceding fouls, something which they did in abundance.

Levante Defending

Levante have built their success in La Liga upon having a strong defensive unit. Primarily a counter attacking side, they have one of the lowest average possession figures in the division and are also a very direct and physical side. As discussed earlier, they should have, in theory, been able to adjust better to the conditions.

Their last two games have seen Levante gain 0-0 draws away from home when attacking intent was limited. To follow such an approach, the team must defend as a unit and especially at set pieces. Yet on Sunday evening, Levante seemed unable to defend set pieces effectively.

Madrid scored both their goals from free kicks. Leaving aside the defensive issues temporarily, Levante were placing themselves in considerable difficulty due to the number of fouls they were conceding. The graphic below demonstrates this. Levante gave away 27 fouls compared to Madrid ‘s 13.

Levante Fouls For and Against                           http://www.squawka.com

The opening goal arrived when David Navarro dropped deep at a free kick and played three Madrid players onside whilst his team mates held the defensive line at the edge of the penalty area. The ball broke to Ronaldo who displayed fantastic technical ability to control the ball on his thigh before volleying home. Beyond the skill, the goal showcased superb awareness. If the ball had dropped onto the ground, it would most likely have stuck in the water and the chance would have gone.

The winning goal in the 83rd minute was sub Morata’s first touch. Again Levante failed to deal with a free kick and Morata was free to nod home from close range with no marker.

Between these goals, Pepe and Ramos both hit the bar following corners as Levante struggled badly defensively.

 

Last season whilst Barcelona chased Madrid they travelled to Pamplona to face Osasuna on a treacherous pitch which was frozen over. Barcelona failed to adapt to the conditions and lost 3-2. Madrid successfully navigated a similarly awkward fixture on Sunday. This was not the sort of game which can win you a title but it was the sort of game which can certainly cost you the title.

All graphics and statistics taken from www.squawka.com

The Rain in Spain

Ronaldo and Navarro Challenge for the Ball                                          http://www.Realmadrid.com

Valencia vs Athletic Bilbao – Three Short Observations

Valencia emerged victorious from an open and enjoyable game at the Mestalla on Saturday evening.

Athletic started brightly, playing at a high tempo and at a level much closer to the side which performed well during last season. Key players such as Muniain and Herrara are back in the side, close to full fitness after injury. There was a greater sense of urgency to their play and with Herrara providing the link in midfield, reducing the temptation to always go long, there was a better balance, structure and variety to their attacks.

Valencia gradually settled and would eventually go on to dominate possession with 55% compared to Athletic’s 45%. The key moment in the game was the sending off of Ander Herrara after 66 minutes which enable Pellegrino to make more adventurous substitutions and forced Athletic onto the back foot.

The concession of two late goals would normally raise a degree of consternation yet Bielsa declared himself happy despite the defeat, in doing so acknowledging that this was possibly the best that Athletic had performed all season.

Aritz Aduriz

“He played very well. His performance was extremely valuable to us”

Marcelo Bielsa

There seems to be a constant discussion on Bielsa’s decision to select Aduriz ahead of Llorente to the extent whereby Bielsa commented on the performance of Aduriz on Saturday evening. Lost within this discussion is the fact that Aduriz has already scored eight goals with season, two of whcih arrived at the Mestalla.

Aritz Aduriz Heat Map                                                     http://www.squawka.com

The heat map above shows Aduriz’s movement around the pitch. He is much more mobile than Llorente and able to close opposing defenders down quickly which was one of the reasons for the livelier start from Athletic on Saturday. They pressed and closed down Valencia who were unable to develop any pattern of play particularly due to both Gago and Costa sitting deep and Jonas not really being involved.

The flip side of this argument is that Llorente is technically superior and with a greater physical presence, ideal for using as a target man. Athletic still persist with going direct to Aduriz at times. Despite being involved in 9 aerial duels on Saturday, Aduriz only won 2 of these. Athletic need to play more short passes to him as he is unable to hold the ball up as well as Llorente.

Ander Herrara

The return of Ander Herrara to the Athletic team has provided a much needed boost of creativity and composure to the side. Without Herrara proving a calming influence in the midfield alongside the energy and industry of De Marcos and Iturraspe, Athletic are too direct and one dimensional.

Herrara Passes vs Valencia                                        http://www.squawka.com

Herrara moved laterally across the midfield area, providing an outlet for team mates under pressure and generally recycling possession. His short and long range passing enables the team retain possession although Athletic are still toiling in this regard this season. Their pass completion rate on Saturday evening was just 67% as they conceded possession too easily and much too often.

Yet all his good work was undone when he was red carded following a moment of stupidity, kicking out at Tino Costa. From that moment, the initiative, although already moving in Valencia’s favour, went completely towards Los Che.

Athletic moved towards a 4-1-4-0. Aduriz was withdrawn and Aurtenexte came on. This resulted in the young Basque moving to his favoured left back position and Inigo Perez moving into midfield. De Marcos became the default attacker, looking to break forward from midfield when Athletic had possession.

The formation led to Athletic falling deeper as the second half wore on with Valencia enjoying a significant territorial advantage whilst seldom appearing to cause great concern to Iraizoz in the Athletic goal.

Valencia – A Work in Progress?

With ex-player Mauricio Pellegrino now in charge at the Mestalla, the side remain a work in progress as he attempts to install his philosophy on the team.

Retaining the same shape as his predecessor Emery, Pellegrino has set this team out in a 4-2-3-1 formation. There are of course, a couple of differences.

The loss of Jordi Alba to Barcelona has been a huge blow. Individually, a superb player but collectively his loss is acutely felt on the left side where he had developed an excellent relationship with Mathieu.

Athletic attacked the Valencia left early on and managed to carve out some half chances before the opening goal was scored when Muniain delivered a pass on the inside of Mathieu. The Frenchman managed to get a foot to the ball but could only divert the ball into the path of Aduriz who calmed scored with a lovely curling shot.

The problem against Athletic is that ahead of Mathieu was the attack minded winger, Juan Bernat. His natural inclination is to move forward leaving Mathieu exposed which is exacerbated by Athletics’ tendency to overload their right flank. Guardado would provide more support but was benched after international duty with Mexico.

The second Athletic goal should be a concern for Pellegrino as the defence of a corner was extremely poor. The ball dropping onto Aduriz who knocked the ball in with Guaita stranded.

Whilst the acquisition of Gago has the potential to be an upgrade on the departed Mehmet Topal, much of his work is done defensively and performing a similar role to Tino Costa. Without Ever Banega in the team, the balance is not quite right. Returning from a long, and self inflicted, injury, the brief appearance by Banega demonstrated why he is so important for the side. Completing 11 from his 12 attempted passes, the Argentinean has the ability to unlock defences with his accurate passing.

All graphics and statistics taken from www.squawka.com

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.