The Brief but Intense Story of Bielsa in Bilbao

By Harry Collins

The Theatre of Dreams rose in unison, applauding the victors with mutual appreciation and respect, despite a deep midst of unsettling disappointment and frustration. For a fan base that fiercely craves aggressive attacking football, there was a sense of great privilege at what they had just witnessed.

The masterful intensity of Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao had been somehow matched by the vociferous travelling support as the Basque side humbled Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, running amok on the hallowed turf of Old Trafford.

This was only the first leg of the Europa League Round of 16 but there was a sense of impending inevitability surrounding the return fixture in Bilbao where El Loco’s team would once again outclass the Premier League Champions. The 5-3 aggregate result failing to emphasise the gulf in quality between the two sides on the pitch. It was arguably the pinnacle of the Argentine manager’s tenure at the Spanish club, a result that highlighted the transformation of the team into perhaps the most exciting in Spain.

Athletic Bilbao is a club that proudly embodies the deep working-class roots of the area; under the former Chile national coach they represented their passionate supporters with distinction and a harmonious blend of collective synergy. The raucous support derives from a sense of community, a community with the club at the heart, the focal point.

For a short period at least, this club appeared to have the perfect figurehead and leader, a man of great integrity and charisma with the ability to excite and unite. El Loco (The Crazy One) held the talent and the passion to turn fans into believers and believers into disciples, a feat that he has achieved all over the world. His success with Newell’s Old Boys led the club to rename their stadium the ‘Estadio Marcelo Bielsa’ at the end of 2009 and his time in Marseille would later see The Stade Velodrome decorated with flags and murals, underlining the esteem in which the studious manager was held, initially.

As the former physical education teacher began his term in Bilbao, the club was transformed almost instantly with a new sense of vibrancy and unmatched work ethic. El Loco is always working; he is obsessive and compulsive in his duty with no stone left unturned and no detail left to chance. Whether it is sat engrossed in hours of video footage on his laptop or pacing the technical area, the manager is watching.

He’s now most famous for sitting on cool boxes or overturned bins but in Bilbao there was another ritual that caught the eye. Still unexplained and with an air of fascination engulfing it, Bielsa would take exactly 13 steps each time he crossed the expanse of his technical area, prowling and pacing before squatting in a corner to change his view of the action.

His first day in charge saw hundreds turn up to witness his introductory training session. Torrential rain consumed the training facilities yet this event was unmissable, such was the appeal of the man from Rosario, Argentina, the same home city as Lionel Messi, Che Guevara and Jorge Sampaoli.

When Bielsa interviewed recently for the Leeds United managers position, the panel were blown away by his preparation and knowledge of the Championship, once again his hours of research reaping reward. Upon arrival in Bilbao, his research was equally as extensive as the Argentine digested every one of Athletic’s 38 league games from the previous season and detailed his findings on colour-coded spread-sheets.

Huge change demands a settling period and Bielsa’s time at Bilbao started with a desperate struggle. The club’s worst start in 32 years with two points from the opening five games saw the instant impact generate an uneasy pressure for the new boss, but calmness prevailed.

Then, the Basque derby. The midday sun on the Bay of Biscay meant that the Athletic players and their new coach were able to detox in the best way possible. The new regime demanded work-rate and the fixture demanded respect. The well-earned victory for Bielsa and his side would leave the players exhausted but would provide a catalyst for the rest of the season.

Whilst managing the Basque side, the football was breath taking, impossible to ignore and there was a similar sense of fascination surrounding the man in the dugout. As the eleven on the field relentlessly pressed and hunted their opponents with a ruthless tenacity, it was somehow difficult not to be drawn to the conductor of this meticulously organised symphony of intensity.

The word intensity is unavoidable when deliberating over Bielsa and his Bilbao side, a team that mercilessly and persistently forced their way onto the top table of European football. For a small period they rocked the boat and threatened to upset the balance, especially in Spain.

The fanatical boss is infatuated with movement, personally transforming the notorious English playing style of the club into a fluid, attacking spectacle, only bettered by Barcelona and Real Madrid for completed passes and goals scored in La Liga. Yet there was one statistic that the two El Classico sides could not match, the work-rate – a vital cornerstone in El Loco’s tactics, alongside the essential movement, rotation and improvisation.

After the victory in the Basque derby, momentum had shifted. Bielsa’s methods began working and the Bilbao machine started to click into gear. The months that followed highlighted the dedication in training and the belief in the boss’ system. Just three La Liga defeats in over twenty league fixtures, bookended by Basque derby victories, the perfect reward.

This run of form paid dividends to the work ethic instilled by Bielsa, no body could match their stamina or output. The movement in possession saw midfielders Óscar de Marcos and Ander Herrera constantly seeking space between the lines and forming triangles with the centre forward Fernando Llorente. This space and movement provided over lapping opportunities for the advanced full-backs Andoni Iraola and Jon Aurtenetxe. Bielsa’s favoured system saw the side operate in a 4-2-3-1 formation with de Marcos given the freedom to work as an attacking midfielder in front of Herrera and defensive midfielder Ander Iturraspe. The wingers Iker Muniain and Markel Susaeta provided consistent quality from the wide areas with Llorente thriving as a result. Javi Martínez was moved from his accomplished role as a central midfielder into a central defender with remarkable success, providing another option from defence. Whilst very adept in his defensive duties, the Spanish footballer (who now plies his trade for Bayern Munich) was key in transition and starting offensive situations. Martínez would begin possession with a diagonal pass to either advanced full back or into the feat of Iturraspe, the base from which to build an attack.

The carefully constructed build up gathered pace when entering the final third, a tireless siege on the opposing area that married to the industrious press and unrelenting hassling out of possession meant that squad rotation was key in order to retain the high levels of application. The poor squad depth though meant that fatigue became an unavoidable issue towards the end of what became a very long season. With such a demand for work rate, Llorente, a key figure in Bielsa’ philosophy was regularly substituted for Gaizka Toquero in order to maintain the striker’s levels for a full 90 minutes. Mikel San José was also a popular substitute for the Argentine manager who, dependant upon the situation, would replace an attacking player with the defender and push the versatile Martinez forward into the midfield.

To highlight the depth issues juggled by the man from Rosario, just 15 players would appear in more than 20 La Liga fixtures in Bielsa’s first season in Bilbao. To emphasise this point further, the club would feature in more than sixty fixtures, with the latter stages of two cup competitions taking an undeniable toll on the players.

Everything was going well, the charming mastermind was becoming a man of the people, his energy a perfect match for city. One morning the Argentine was approached by a group of boys requesting him to sign their sticker album, as always the former Chile manager had a better idea. He borrowed the album and told the boys to meet him tomorrow, same place, same time. Always true to his word he arrived the following day with the boys waiting for him. To the joy of the group, the whole album had been signed by Bielsa and his Bilbao side.

Confidence was soaring but the signs of fatigue were now an increasing concern. The master tactician continued to demand focus and gusto as the season built towards its dramatic conclusion. Athletic Bilbao were fighting on multiple fronts, despite a turbulent year and a disappointing league position. With a squad straining and clawing for the last remaining energy, they reached two finals; two finals that would define Bielsa in Bilbao; two finals that ultimately, would be too far for the Basque side.

Going into the crucial period, the players needed to match the charming characteristics of their manager. The manager, who has inspired Pep Guardiola, Roberto Martínez and Mauricio Pochettino, was bold and daring as well as revolutionary. His players would need to show the same attributes in order to retain their place at the top table of European football.

In truth, those momentous wheels had fallen off much earlier than the May finales.  The players were suffering; it may not have been immediately obvious from the outside but their legs had gone, there was nothing left. The tank of energy that had built a season and a great team was running on empty.

El Loco’s side, the most exciting Athletic team for three decades, won just 3 of their last thirteen La Liga fixtures with a miserable three draws in the miserable run that began on the 11th of March with a 2-1 defeat away at Osasuna. The defeat in the El Sadar stadium came just a week after victory in the second Basque derby of the season with two goals from Susaeta enough for a 2-0 win over the club’s arch-rivals. The poor run of form left Bielsa’s side finishing tenth in La Liga, a poor position for a side that ranks as one of the most exciting of a generation, the team that completely outclassed the Premier League champions and strolled to a European final.

May; the crucial and defining month of any season, the month where winners and losers are formed and months of works culminates in champagne occasions and footnotes in history. The 9th of May saw the relentless force of Bielsa’s Bilbao take on Atlético Madrid in the UEFA Europa League final, an all Spanish affair that saw the Basque club as early favourites. Expected to win, expected to dominate, the resounding nature of the defeat left a dark stain on what had been a season full of light and promise. Atlético ran out deserved and clear 3-0 victors with a brace from Radamel Falcao and a late clincher from Diego crushing the Bilbao players now bereft of energy and confidence. There was another cup final to come against Barcelona but this was the occasion where they were expected to succeed. It was a poor performance; a performance and result that left the players shell shocked and the manager furious. A time of such promise had turned into such regret, one that would be difficult to escape.

Sixteen days later and another final and the Copa del Rey climax at the Vicente Calderon in Madrid. This time Bilbao were underdogs, maybe the team preferred that status, free from the shackles of expectation and pressure? With the 3-0 scoreline from the European final still ringing in the ears of fans and players alike, the worst imaginable situation arose. Inside half an hour, two goals from Pedro sandwiched a Lionel Messi strike to leave the second half as a procession for the Catalan club. As the final whistle sounded, another 3-0 defeat hung bitterly in the air and Athletic’s season was over.

The result and reaction from the players, some overheard laughing in the days that followed, saw a ferocious response from the manager. Angered by the attitude, the boss began a tirade of fury towards the players, underlining the disconnect between modern-day players and the loyal fans they represent. In Bielsa’s mind they had let the fans down and he included himself in that blame. The romantic notion of El Loco in Bilbao was starting to fade, the magic beginning to fizzle out.

The summer should have provided a positive period of reflection for the players and management but the closed season proved to be a disruptive influence for both Bielsa and his squad. Two of the key performers from last season made the headlines: Javi Martínez departed for Bayern Munich for €40m in a move that threatened to unbalance the rest of the squad. Fernando Llorente became entangled in a contract dispute that saw him frozen out by Bielsa in favour of Aritz Aduriz, who would become the club’s top scorer for the 12-13 season. The pressure was on and it was very evident. The ordinarily calm persona of Bielsa was showing signs of strain as Bielsa prepared his side for pre-season training at the Lezama complex. The Argentine manager was left enraged after discovering that the scheduled work at the facility had not been completed to the deadline, prompting a furious exchange between himself and the site manager. The dispute became heated and allegedly physical, a clash that saw the club react quickly in order to convince the site manager not to press charges. Rumours began to circulate that the esteemed boss had handed in his resignation in the aftermath of the row, a feud that saw the club publicly condemning the Argentine’s actions.

The season started poorly and failed to improve, the heights of the previous year were now a dark cloud of discontent replacing a far-flung delirious memory as the euphoria and passion dwindled in Bilbao. The season was strewn with disappointment as Athletic failed to qualify from their group in the Europa League and were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by third tier side, Eibar. The league campaign was increasingly desperate, the romantic 11-12 season eclipsed by the gloom of this one. Athletic finally clinched La Liga safety with just three games left in the season, finishing in a very underwhelming 13th with a lowly points return of just 45 from the 38 fixtures.

This led to the board unanimously deciding not to renew the Argentine’s contract with a change of direction sited as the main factor in the deliberation.

Time is a great healer, it allows for the opportunity to overlook certain negative aspects. Looking back on Marcelo Bielsa’s time in Bilbao leaves you with a feeling of achievement, a sensational team that will stand the test of time for many years to come.

There are plenty of new chapters still to be written about Bielsa’s managerial career, they will all contain confrontation and intensity with attacking football as the main focal point. El Loco’s Bilbao side that threatened to topple the hierarchy of Spain and overwhelmed European giants will not be forgotten in a hurry and neither will the Argentine’s time in Spain. The Basque club, for a short time at least, the perfect project for the revolutionary and bold manager who transformed the English playing style into the most attractive in Spain.

Artwork by: Isias Javier

This article is part of a series on Basque football made in collaboration with Row Z.  Click the link if you would like to see some of the most unique football content that the worldwide web has to offer!