Early into this new season there are serious issues with Bilbao and much pressure on their manager Marcelo Bielsa.
Last season fans across Europe were entertained, captivated and fell in love with Athletic Bilbao. Their high pressing, attacking style of play captivated the hearts and minds of many. They were so good that Bilbao made the Europa League actually enjoyable and watchable. However, early into this new season there are serious issues with Bilbao and much pressure on their manager Marcelo Bielsa.
Last season the height of Bilbao’s season came when they overcame the mighty Manchester United, performing with such pace, pressure and determination to make United look mediocre. Those two legs made people sit up and wonder what was happening over at San Memes, the truth was that their style of play was down to one man, the Argentinian Marcelo Bielsa.
When Pep Guardiola finished playing he sought to enhance his understanding of the game. After being inspired by Juan Manual Lillo's style of play (where he would go to play under him in Mexico) he sought to find a coach of whose methods and style were known yet which very few could or would implement. In 2006 Guardiola went to visit Marcelo Bielsa in Argentina, a meeting which lasted over eight hours, in which time the two talked tactics, football and more football. The passion and obsession of these two men were unquestionable and the man who made Barcelona such a force these past several years has Bielsa to thank for guiding his thinking.
El Loco arrives, madness ensues!
Bielsa arrived last summer and Athletic's players still have not completely worked him out. They have never seen anything like him and do not think they ever will. He is disconcerting, praising awful performances and bemoaning brilliant ones. Above all, he is intense. Compulsive. Obsessive. Mad. "He lives for football," the striker Fernando Llorente says. There are days, adds the midfielder Javi Martínez, when he does not leave the Lezama training ground until the small hours.
Marcelo Bielsa is possibly football's most precise, rigorous coach. Having previously coached Argentina and Chile in World Cup 2002 and 2010 respectively, he is known as "El Loco", the crazy one. As many have said before, perhaps this is an understatement. His training methods and intensity towards the game are famous.
When he arrived, Bielsa had watched their 38 league games of the previous season, writing all the details on colour-coded spreadsheets. He watches thousands of games, if a player does something new, he labels and stores it, learning from it. Teaching from it, too. Few are so didactic: he once drew on his shoes to show players exactly which part of their foot to use, wearing them for days after.
Bielsa took over Athletic Club last summer, taking on a side which had just finished 6th in La Liga. The new president at Bilbao sought to bring in Bielsa because he wanted to implement a style which had won over neutrals in the 2010 World Cup with Chile. He sought to take Bilbao forward and believed Bielsa was the man for this.
Bilbao did not need an overhaul, in fact their youth academy and recruitment network (the club’s rule means only players of Basque origin can play for the club) meant Bielsa inherited a very good group of players already. What he sought to do was mould them in his way. It would be not be easy.
Bielsa's ways are not easy to implement but they are exciting
After five league games Bilbao had not won a game and questions were being asked. Could the players adapt to the new managers style and philosophy? A philosophy which meant an extremely high line and pressing all over the pitch. He loves the 3-3-1-3 formation, but this is flexible depending upon the nature of the opposition (he wants one more defender than the opposition has strikers).
Therefore, it's 3-3-1-3 against two strikers, and 4-2-1-3 against a lone striker, with the fullbacks pushing very high up and marking the opposition wingers. His style is very much in the style of European football, notably English football; high pressure, attacking play, yet perhaps with the passing being shorter.
It is much different though to the South American and Spanish culture of slow patient build up. His methods and philosophy were so extreme that he could not find a place in the Argentinian side for one of greatest stars, Juan Roman Riquelme. He believed Riquelme, in the 10 role, slowed down the game too much.
Intense training methods
Bielsa is known for high intense training sessions. He preaches high pressure, constantly interrupting and demonstrating. His idea is always to attack, no matter where the game is played and who the opponents might be. He wants the play to take place in the opponent's half of the field. His team will always seek to play at a high tempo, with a central striker and two wingers and the aim of creating two-against-one situations down the flanks.
For him defending is less about marking or reacting to opponents than about pressing to regain possession. He needs to be able to get players high up the field quickly, partly to attack an opponent in possession and partly to offer passing options when possession is regained. That is the logic Barcelona followed last season.
Last season Bilbao entertained many, yet in his quest for intensity and all out attack, he was guilty of over working his players. His ability to have his players buy into his methods enabled Bilbao reaching the two cup finals. Yet it was also their downfall.
A season of bliss, a summer of trouble
Although Bilbao reached two cup finals; the Europa League and Copa Del Rey, they finished 10th in La Liga. The side lost both finals and finished the season with nothing. A season which was so enthralling and inspiring ended in relative failure. The players could not handle that kind of intensity for a whole season. They sacrificed the league position for the trophies, a gamble which failed.
That failure meant that the two stars of Bielsa's team last year were inclined to leave. Martinez and Llorente were impressive for Bilbao last season and it was no doubt that the top sides came in for them this summer.
Llorente showed how prolific he could be, how he could play as a target man or outclass defenders with skill and pace. Javi Martinez showed his ability to play in defence or midfield, a position which has been mastered by Barcelona in recent years in the case of Busquets and Mascherano. Both players showcased their talents to the world, it was no doubt therefore that they would be sought after.
Bielsa changed how Llorente would play, Llorente did the "opposite" of what he did before. It was an achievement of Bielsa to mould a player like Llorente and argualy Bielsa created a striker of which has become one of the most sought out forwards in the game. Last season his role was to close down from the front, no matter the time, weather or amount of games (Llorente played over 50 games for Bilboa last season). Llorente had worked hard, scored goals and did his part for the team, his reward he felt was to move on and move to a bigger side.
Although Bilbao became the neutrals favourite last season, the truth was that the side failed to achieve anything of note. Importantly Champions League football. Bielsa chose success in Europe over the league. It was a massive error of judgement which sounds slightly harsh considering the Atletico fans were so close to winning that elusive trophy of which they have not won since 1984.
Yet is there a possibility that if Bielsa had taken the performances into the league then Bilbao could have achieved the fourth place finish which was taken by Malaga? Instead all was abandoned for the Europa League, of which the side looked over hyped and ultimately exhausted. With nothing to offer the quality of player like Llorente and Martinez meant this summer was always going to be difficult for the club.
When a side like Bilbao perform like they did they will ultimately face the inevitable task of keeping the top clubs from their stars. Amazingly Bayern were willing to pay £40m for Martinez, a truly crazy sum yet one which was necessary to get their man as Bilbao were adamant that their stars would only leave if the release clause was met.
Juve offered £18m for Llorente, a sum half of what his release is. One star left, one stayed. Yet how much of the player seen last season will help Bilbao is questionable. Llorente will be available on a free next season, meaning that come January every top side in Europe will be hunting for his signature. He may opt to not play for the season, knowing he will find the move he seeks next summer. It all leaves Bilbao and Bielsa with a team devoid of their stars.
A year of difficulty ahead?
Judging on how the season has started so far, Bilbao are now in a shambles. A summer where the top players wanted out and issues between the manager Bielsa and the board causing friction in the club, performances have clearly being affected.
Bilbao still have some real talent; the impressive Iker Muniain and Oscar De Marcos are real attacking talents. Muniain is the key player. Brought in from the wing to a more central role he is vital because he is the only player who doesn't immediately move directly forward. Instead, he drifts from side to side, playing quick passes from and to the wide players.
Yet the importance of Llorente and Martinez are hard to replace. Especially because the problem for Bielsa was that because of the rules of the club in terms of recruitment, Bielsa could not bring in players he had previously worked with or players who would fit his system.
Although Bilbao struggled last season, not winning in their first five games, it was understandable that the tactics of Bielsa would take time to adapt to. However, this excuse cannot be allowed this year, quite simply it seems Bielsa is already struggling. Last week Bilbao faced a motivated, organised and prolific Atletico Madrid, who simply outclassed and outworked Bilbao. As Bielsa said, "We were," Bielsa admitted, "impotent in the face of the dimension of our opponent."
Marcelo Bielsa's philosophy is radical – too radical, sadly, for most players, as Athletic Bilbao seem to be finding out (he may be the greatest theorist in football today, but the practicality of dealing with players who persist in being human undermines his coaching).
There are three other teams with no points and a long way to go; Bielsa's done it before too. This summer, they had three players at the Olympics and two at Euro 2012. It was, some say, bound to take a while to re-find their feet and their fitness. They'll come good. But Athletic have conceded nine goals already and the issues of the summer seem to have left a serious headache for the club.
For the time being Bielsa is staying and thus Athletic's project will continue. But Bielsa's methods are wearing and the fatigue, both mentally and physically, among the players is real. His relentlessness has proven successful but it can also be enormously stressful. Last season was a revelation for the club, yet it appears it will be difficult to replicate that again this year. Keep your eyes on Athletic and Bielsa, because there are bound to be more "crazy" happenings in the coming months.