Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival at Athletic Bilbao was the most exciting managerial appointment of last summer. A notoriously eccentric yet highly intelligent figure, his work with Argentina and Chile had elevated him into the enviable position of being both the neutral’s favourite, and a highly respected, studious tactician.
His tenure at Athletic has been far from plain sailing. The club failed to win their first five league games of the season as Bielsa struggled to find his best system. Athletic were in the relegation places, and there was a real danger Bielsa would replicate his performance with Espanyol in 1998, where he stayed just six matches and left them in 18th place.
It all changed with two important wins at the start of October. A comfortable 2-0 win at home to PSG was a victory for strategy over spending, then three days later in the Basque derby at Real Sociedad, two goals from Fernando Llorente got Athletic their first league win of the season.
They also beat Osasuna in their next game, which was the start of a good run of form and allowed Athletic to rise up the table, from fourth bottom to fourth in the space of four months. Yet it’s difficult to explain quite why they find themselves so high in the table – since that Osasuna game they haven’t won consecutive league games. Their points per game ratio (1.43) would only be good enough for 8th in the Premier League or Serie A – the race for fourth in La Liga is very open, but not of a great standard.
But the main thing Bielsa brings is not necessarily success, it is style. Famed for his high pressing, this has been adopted in a more cautious manner in Bilbao. There is not always the relentless closing down we saw with Chile during the World Cup of 2010, but the front players get through a lot of running. It is interesting that Athletic have the third-highest possession in La Liga (behind only Barcelona and Real Madrid) despite only the sixth-highest pass completion rate. The two figures usually correlate closely, but the indication here is that while Athletic often lose the ball, they win it back very quickly.
For further evidence in that respect, Athletic make the third-highest number of tackles per game in La Liga, 25.3, despite enjoying so much possession. The fact that the two sides ahead of them here – Gijon (26.3) and Zaragoza (26) - are the two bottom clubs, demonstrates how unusual it is for a good side to be tackling so frequently.
In formation terms, Bielsa has also adapted his usual philosophy. A strong advocate of a 3-3-1-3 in South America, the predominance of the 4-2-3-1 in Spain, coupled with Bielsa’s preference for a single spare man at the back, means he’s generally played a back four himself. It’s usually regarded as a 4-2-3-1 system, though it becomes 4-2-1-3 with the wingers pushing high up the pitch to close down. However, he is entirely happy to radically change formation midway through the game depending upon how many forwards the opposition are fielding, or to increase the attacking threat – he seems to view 3-3-1-3 as the more offensive shape. Strangely, this means that sometimes a midfielder is withdrawn for a defender, but this is an attacking change – against Getafe, for example, centre-back Mikel San Jose replaced central midfielder Oscar De Marcos, but the full-backs became wide midfielders and Athletic threw more men forward.
An unexpected feature of the side has been their excellence at set-pieces – they’ve scored more goals (12) than any other La Liga side from dead ball situations, partly thanks to the good form of Fernando Llorente. But equally, they depend too much on Llorente (and set-pieces) for their goals – no other player has scored more than three times in the league.
But if Bielsa’s side isn’t pressing as much as we’re used to, he’s not playing three at the back and a major source of goals is from dead ball situations, where is the evidence of the exciting football we’ve come to expect?
For that, we have to look to his use of players in unusual positions. Javi Martinez, probably the best all-round footballer in the side and a World Cup winner as a holding midfielder, has been used more often at centre-back rather than in midfield. This is something Bielsa did a lot at Chile – he likes midfielders in the backline because they’re often quicker than traditional central defenders, and therefore able to cope with the high defensive line. They’re also more adept at circulating the ball from the back.
The positioning of Oscar De Marcos has also been fascinating – the number ten has been used at right-back, left-back, left midfield, left wing, central midfield and as the central attacking playmaker so far this season, though his usual role has been in the centre alongside Ander Iturraspe, where he can sprint forward to join the front four.
But Bielsa’s greatest achievement so far has been his modernisation of the side. At the start of the season, he told three older players – Aitor Ocio, Koikili Lertxundi and rarely-used Iban Zudiaurre – that he didn’t require their services. 29-year-old David Lopez has also seen little action. Instead, he’s brought on youngsters – De Marcos (22), Iturraspe (22) and Jon Aurtenetxe (20) have already started more games than they did in the entirety of last season. Ander Herrera, a 22-year-old who signed from Zaragoza last summer, has also featured prominently.
All this means that their squad, using the ‘five games or more’ minimum as used in this aritcle (Europe's Youngest Squads), has an average age of 24.9. Their most frequent XI is even younger, at 23.9. Even if Bielsa doesn’t enjoy success himself, his legacy will be embracing youth.
Athletic are into the Copa del Rey final, where Bielsa will take on Pep Guardiola, a man who has frequently spoken of his admiration for the Argentine coach. Guardiola says he wouldn’t describe them as ‘friends’, since they’ve only met twice before, but their long meeting in Rosario before Guardiola took over Barcelona has influenced him greatly. “Bielsa is different from all the coaches in the world,” he says. The league meeting between the two was a brilliant clash of pressing that effectively meant man-marking all over the pitch, and a 2-2 draw. Guardiola has endorsed Bielsa as a replacement if he leaves the club this summer.
Reports linking Bielsa with Chelsea this week seem strange. His approach would be largely the same as that of Andre Villas-Boas, with a focus on pressing and youth. Besides, Bielsa has a long-term project in Bilbao – though with the club’s first trophy for 28 years just one win away, Athletic’s brave appointment might reap instant rewards.