Many coaches were pursued by clubs requiring fresh leadership and direction in 2011, but perhaps none were quite as sought-after as Marcelo Bielsa.
The enigmatic Argentinian was available following a four-year spell at the helm of the Chile national team during which La Roja enjoyed a rebirth, culminating in qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Courted by Inter Milan, the 56-year-old instead opted for a team who could match his idiosyncratic nature: Athletic Bilbao.
The Spanish side is famous for its historic policy of only recruiting players with Basque heritage, an eccentricity added to by Los Leones’ style of football, a mix of swift passing and physical play adopted during the two reigns of Englishman Fred Pentland in the 1920s and ’30s and used ever since. These two attributes made Athletic an attractive proposition for Bielsa, who agreed a first return to club football, and La Liga, since a short period at the helm of Espanyol in 1998.
Although the club and the coach seemed a complementary fit, things did not begin well in Bilbao for the man nicknamed El Loco due to his overwhelming passion for the game. Their league campaign started without a win in five matches as the squad took time to adapt to Bielsa’s unorthodox methods and unusual 3-3-1-3 formation, previously used with success by Chile on the international stage.
Several players, including captain Carlos Gurpegui and Spain starlet Javi Martinez, were also being used in unfamiliar positions for the first time. The latter, for example, was transformed from a holding central midfielder into a defender given licence to play the ball out from the back. In truth, Athletic had merely needed some evolution not a wholesale revolution having finished a respectable sixth place in La Liga the previous season, and Bielsa’s changes were unsettling.
The breakthrough finally came at the sixth attempt, however, in the crucial regional derby with Real Sociedad, as talisman Fernando Llorente struck twice to hand the former Argentina coach his first victory and spark belief among his team-mates. Confidence grew as the weeks went by and impressive domestic triumphs over Atletico Madrid and Sevilla were coupled with progress in both the Copa del Rey and UEFA Europa League.
Young winger Iker Muniain, who has been a major beneficiary of Bielsa’s new tactics, recently explained the renaissance to FIFA.com: “It took us a while to adapt to the coach’s ideas, which are based on possession and passing football, but since we got the hang of it, it’s been going wonderfully well. We hope to keep this going for many years and hold onto this group of players, as we know we can finally achieve something great.”
Europa League excitement
Fans at San Mames have been starved of trophies since their team followed La Liga glory in 1983 with a league and cup double the next year under the stewardship of Javier Clemente. But something great might be just around the corner again if Athletic’s scintillating performances in the Europa League continue.
After topping a first-round group containing Paris Saint-Germain and then eliminating Lokomotiv Moscow in the knockout stages, Bielsa’s men produced the shock result of this year’s competition by beating 2011 Premier League champions and UEFA Champions League runners-up Manchester United in both legs of their round of 16 tie.
An unerring display of counter-attacking football, which perfectly encapsulated Bielsa’s vision of passing, pace and wing-play, bewildered United, who were beaten 3-2 on their home ground Old Trafford in the first leg before the job was completed with another victory in the return, this time 2-1 in Spain. As if to prove the result was no fluke, Athletic then repeated the trick against German side Schalke, with a 4-2 triumph in Gelsenkirchen helping the Spaniards into the final four.
Athletic’s path to the final in Bucharest on 9 May is blocked by Iberian neighbours Sporting CP, who themselves saw off Manchester’s other contenders, City, on their way to the semi-finals. A late double means the Portuguese side hold a 2-1 advantage after Thursday’s first leg in Lisbon, leaving Bilbao with work to do when the pair meet again next week.
That second leg will represent just one element of a busy climax to the campaign for Bielsa and his youthful charges. Currently sitting seventh in La Liga, Athletic retain an outside chance of finishing in the top four and securing Champions League qualification, while harbouring expectations of at least booking a berth in next season’s Europa League competition.
No matter what the outcome of the next few weeks, an eventful first year under Bielsa will conclude with the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona, whose coach Pep Guardiola neatly distilled his counterpart’s reputation. “Athletic are the revelation this season,” the former midfielder said. “I admire Bielsa enormously and I try to learn from him. Bielsa could manage any team in the world and make them better.”