After yesterday's article looked at the Basque-only policy at Athletic Bilbao, today Get the Mott and Buckett focus on the arduous task faced by new manager Marcelo Bielsa, as he tries to implement his own philosophy on one of Spain's most traditional clubs.
The fascination when Marcelo Bielsa took the Athletic Bilbao job was always the extent to which he could shape the team to his philosophy. After all, this is a side that finished sixth last season; stripping it apart and starting again is far from necessary. Not that Athletic, with its Basque-only policy, is a club to which the usual rules of the transfer market apply; Bielsa is, to a large degree, stuck with what he's got.
More than that, Athletic is a club with a clearly defined style of its own. The bowler-hatted figure of Fred Pentland, the Englishman who coached them through the glory years of the 20s and early 30s, still looms over the club, as an exhibition in the museum at San Mames makes clear. He first instituted a direct approach, favouring a robust, "English-style" centre-forward, a tradition that endures in the shape of Fernando Llorente, a remarkable combination of finesse and muscularity.
That preference for vertical football – put simply, getting the ball forward quickly without necessarily resorting to aimless long balls – means there is a potential complementarity between the philosophies of Athletic and Bielsa, but it is not an exact match, and to an extent the football they play this season will always be a compromise between the two schools.
Bielsa's game, with both the Argentinian and Chilean national sides, was largely based on 3-3-1-3. He has tried that with Athletic, but in the past two games, which brought both his first home win (2-0 in the Europa League against PSG a fortnight ago) and his first win in La Liga (2-1 at Real Sociedad 12 days ago), he preferred a 4-2-3-1, in which Oscar de Marcos broke forward from deep positions and the highly exciting 18-year-old Iker Muniain dropped deep from the attacking trident.
There were spells against PSG, especially in the first half, in which Athletic were genuinely thrilling, when they seemed to produce a spectacular version of Bielsa's famed "vertical football". The ball was shifted rapidly from front to back, Javi Martínez and Muniain usually acting as the conduits, and had the delivery of the right-winger Markel Susaeta been better, Athletic could have had four or five before half-time.
As it was, they had to settle for two, both of them goals that encapsulated the Bielsa model. The first, in particular, was a thing of beauty: Javi Martínez played a typical low ball forward – a precise pass of maybe 30 yards; Muniain dummied, pivoted and sprinted on; Susaeta helped the ball on and Muniain crossed to the back post where the left-winger Igor Gabilondo hooked a volley into the top corner. The second also stemmed from the rapid transfer of the ball from front to back. This time it was the overlapping left-back Jon Aurtenetxe who crossed, and Susaeta turned in a half-volley at the back post.
Athletic's pressing, as you would expect from a Bielsa side, was exemplary in effort, if perhaps not yet in execution. There was one moment in the first half when Fernando Amorebieta, one of Athletic's centre-backs, paused with the ball, perhaps 20 yards inside his own half. The deeply disappointing Javier Pastore dawdled a few yards from him, as though nothing could be further from his mind than closing him down. When the ball was played forward, Llorente was caught offside. As Siaka Tiéné, the PSG left-back, knocked the ball into the centre for Sylvain Armand to take the free-kick, Llorente was on him immediately, instinctively pressing even as he realised the free-kick had not yet been taken.
The sending-off of Momo Sissoko seven minutes into the second half rather killed the game but, while Athletic were well worth the win, the weaknesses of the Bielsa method were also apparent. Hard-pressing is a gamble; if it breaks down, or if an opponent despite being under pressure can measure a pass over the top, the space behind a Bielsa defence can be exploited by a rapid forward. It happened twice in the first half: after 28 minutes when Clement Chantome's long diagonal pass turned the Athletic defence only for Mevlut Erdinc to snatch at his shot, and again two minutes later, when Athletic's goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz was lucky not to be sent off after charging from his area and handling as a simple ball over the top left Erdinc through again.
In the Basque Derby a few days later against Sociedad, Bielsa recalled the club captain, Carlos Gurpegui, to midfield, leaving out Borja Ekiza and pushing Javi Martínez, who captained Spain's Under-21 side to the European Championship in the summer, to centre-back. Bielsa has a habit of playing midfielders in defence, which makes sense in as much as their positioning often takes them high up the pitch into areas usually occupied by midfielders. The problem comes when the opposing side gets on top and Bielsa's team is forced to defend, and that was evident in San Sebastian.
What was especially significant was Matinez's positioning early on, as he kept breaking forward and running up against Sociedad's two holders in their 4-2-3-1, Asier Illarramendi and McDonald Mariga. The vulnerability of a 4-2-3-1 is often in that channel in front of the full-backs and to the side of the holders; Athletic exploited that as early as the second minute, Susaeta finding space there and sliding a pass through for Martinez, whose initial shot was saved, Muniain's follow-up being deflected against a post. When they probed there again, 11 minutes before half-time, Martinez overloading on that side and then crossing, they found the opener, Llorente turning superbly and prodding a deft finish past Claudio Bravo.
One of the features of a side that presses high up the pitch is that its goalkeeper must also be prepared to leave his line and often his box, sweeping up. Iraizoz did that against PSG effectively if fortuitously, but it does leave him susceptible to long-range lobs. As Johan Cruyff pointed out when he instituted the sweeper-keeper idea at Ajax, if the opposition are reduced to shooting from 60-70 yards, then you know you're on top. The problem is that, every now and again, those long-range efforts go in, as Inigo Martínez did after 61 minutes.
It followed a slightly odd series of events: Javi Martínez went down after an aerial clash and required treatment, but Iraizoz seemingly missed touch as he tried to put the ball out of play.
Sociedad put it out, Javi Martínez was attended to, and Athletic threw the ball back to Sociedad. They then seemed to stop, almost as if they thought Sociedad would then return the ball to Iraizoz, although there was no reason for them to do so. As a result, no pressure was applied to Inigo Martínez – showing exactly why pressing is a twofold process: not only must the line be high but the man in possession must be hounded precisely so he can't measure that kind of shot.
While the manner of the goal was freakish, it had been coming, Sociedad having spent the first quarter of an hour of the second half hammering on the door. Antoine Griezmann then hit a post before, quite unexpectedly, Llorente gave Athletic the winner, applying a jabbed volley to Amorebieta's long diagonal. Bielsa insisted the win was "just", but given Sociedad, as well as hitting the woodwork twice, could also have had a late penalty for handball, that was perhaps stretching things a little.
What is true, though, is that there are recent signs that a happy synthesis is beginning to develop between his ideas and the side he inherited. It will, of course, take time: nobody can adapt to Bielsa's idiosyncrasy overnight, and he himself has admitted to errors in his first couple of months in the job.
What is notable is the support he has had from fans and club, and the comparison to the reaction to Gian Piero Gasperini's radicalism at Internazionale. Bielsa's decision to turn down the Inter job in the summer looks increasingly wise, while his reign in Bilbao is becoming increasingly interesting.