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Tentative steps so far for Marcelo Bielsa’s Basque Revolution

September 18, 2011

Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival at Athletic Bilbao this summer was an intriguing move for both parties. While presidential candidate Josu Urrutia promised that Bielsa would take charge of sporting matters should he be successful, many viewed the promise as simply being a tactic to win votes. Urrutia won the election and to many people’s surprise, he kept his promise despite Bielsa attracting offers from the likes of Inter and River Plate to name just two potential suitors. Disposing of entrenador Joaquin Caparros in favour of the Argentine is a surprising move when looking at last season’s sixth place finish in La Primera and in doing so, qualifying for the Europa League. However, the global goodwill afforded to Bielsa and his footballing ideologies have seemed to mask the genuine risk such a move is.

Whenever a new entrenador arrives anywhere with new methods and ideas, there is always a period of transition as the players get used to the new man at the helm and vice versa. This has been especially true in the case of Bielsa at Athletic Bilbao. Bielsa is looking to completely revolutionise the Basque club’s playing style with the team becoming more technical and their passing game significantly shorter.

Prior to his formal introduction as the new entrenador of Bilbao, Bielsa researched the club as vigorous as his reputation suggests. He has always been known for his remarkable attention to detail and Bielsa compiled a variety of documents after studying every game that Los Leones played last season in all competitions at least once. It was another example of the man reinforcing his nickname of “El Loco” but it is an approach that has earned high praise.

Bielsa has enjoyed a modest coaching career that boomed considerably following the performances of the Chile national team that he guided at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Chile provided entertaining football and tactics that were a breath of fresh air when taken into the context of the international football scene. The style of play displayed by Chile is the way Bielsa wishes his new club to use but it is debatable as to whether it will be such an easy development for the squad that Bielsa has in Bilbao.

His Chile team took many people’s attention due to their fluid passing and tremendous energy levels and it was very much a system that worked with the characteristics of the players available. The squad was not particularly big in physical stature but were energetic and quick, enabling such fluid movement on and off the ball as well as having in the shapes of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, two players of the highest quality.

While he has some very talented players at his disposal including the likes of Ander Herrera, Iker Muniain, Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente, it is debatable as to whether such a tactical overhaul will work with the current squad regardless of a timescale. If Bielsa were to look for new signings then he would be subject to Bilbao’s Basque-only transfer policy and would therefore be limited as to any potential recruits. The likely squad development would be through the club’s youth ranks where Bielsa would be able to mould players into the tactical ideology he looks to deploy. Furthermore, should some of his key players suffer injuries and suspensions then the small squad at his disposal will be stretched further still and it would be interesting in such circumstances as to whether or not pragmatism may come to the fore over his idealism.

Bielsa is a stubborn man when it comes to the idealistic nature of his teams but question marks will remain over him until Bilbao has a few victories under their belt. Their start of the season has seen tentative signs of progress within a mixed bag of results and performances. The season-opening 1-1 draw at home to Rayo Vallecano was largely disappointing with the use of Javi Martinez as part of a back three a perplexing choice when taking into account the talent Martinez is when in the midfield.

The second game of the La Liga season saw Los Leones visit Espanyol only to come home with no points gained. They were met with a solid Espanyol side that were impressive in their control of the contest. Athletic struggled at times particularly in regards ball retention when moving up the pitch. Iker Muniain continued his impressive individual form but he still struggled to get any real momentum going in his game due to a combination of Espanyol’s solid defensive play and the laboured build-up play his teammates produced. The Europa League campaign has gone reasonably well so far albeit their qualification to the group phase was not one of matters on the pitch with their opponents, Turkish side Trabzonspor being promoted to the Champions League due to Fenerbahce’s exclusion. A victory away to Slovan Bratislava in their opening group game will certainly give the squad confidence going in to their upcoming fixtures.

The choice of Josu Urrutia and Marcelo Bielsa has intrigued many followers of the sport throughout the globe. Urrutia who spent his entire 17-year playing career at San Mames, knows the club better than most and he obviously believes that Bielsa has what it takes to elevate Bilbao up the league while playing attractive and entertaining football. It will undoubtedly be a real test of the Argentine’s coaching abilities and while there is great uncertainty as to what fate lies ahead in Bielsa’s reign in Bilbao, one thing appears virtually guaranteed when looking at the components in this story. That one thing is entertainment.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Cruyff_des permalink
    September 18, 2011 09:58

    Bilbao are a fascinating club, very good article.

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