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Marcelo Bielsa shows there’s method to his madness at Bilbao

Nicholas Rigg

bielsa1 getty 300x225 Marcelo Bielsa shows theres method to his madness at Bilbao Athletic Bilbao and manager Marcelo Bielsa are the flavour of the month. Looking good for a Champions League place in La Liga, in the final of the Copa del Rey and with a 3-2 lead over Manchester United going into the second leg of their last-16 Europa League tie. It’s exactly why Chelsea are being linked with the Argentinian boss and it’s exactly why I’m writing this article.

A week ago those who didn’t take a keen interest in Spanish football will have known little about Bilbao. Little about their style of play, little about Bielsa and little about just how good they are. Their triumph at Old Trafford not only put them on the European football map, but it caught the imagination of English football fans, and perhaps even Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who’s looking for a new man to replace Andre Villas-Boas. La Liga’s all about Real Madrid and Barcelona? Yeah, right.

Villas-Boas was the flavour of the month when he won the Potuguese league and the Europa League with Porto last season. Jose Mourinho was the flavour of the month when he did the same with Porto, only winning the Champions League in place of the Europa – and, admittedly, Mourinho is more than just a flavour of the month now. You can see a bit of a trend here, and it’s no surprise that Bielsa is being linked with the Stamford Bridge job.

His job in less than a season with the Basque side has been nothing short of fantastic. Let’s get the cynical part out of the way first, though. He arrived at San Mames after Los Leones (The Lions) had finished in a very respectable sixth in the previous season under the guidance of Joaquin Caparros, who left the club last summer following presidential elections that saw Josu Urrutia take control of Athletic and promptly bring Bielsa in.

Still, he’s taken the Lions up another gear this season and they’re a joy to watch. Athletic is the Spanish club that perhaps sticks closest to its roots of being formed by Englishmen that had arrived in Bilbao due to its shipping industry. Known for playing largely in a non-Spanish way, with high-intensity play, big and strong English-type centre forwards, physical players, and a team not afraid to use the long ball, Bielsa has stuck with this to an extent and complemented it with the easy-on-the-eye passing style and high pressing similar to the current Barcelona side – a style evident at Old Trafford.

It’s a winning formula, and it’s a formula that should result in success for Bilbao this season, whether they come out of it with or without a trophy. Many United supporters were left saying the Basque side’s performance at Old Trafford was one of the best by any side there in recent seasons. If things continue, both sides could well meet in Europe’s premier competition next season – the Champions League.

Bielsa’s success hasn’t come through flashing the cash and bringing in the best players from around the world. Most know of Bilbao’s strict Basque-only policy within their squad. It means they have a population slightly larger than that of Greater Manchester to choose from – that’s if the better players haven’t already gone elsewhere. Making Thursday’s win at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ an even greater feat.

Just €350,000 was spent on bringing Oscar de Marcos to the club from Alaves, the versatile Javi Martinez cost €6 million – a guaranteed snip at his valuation now, goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz cost €4.6 million from Espanyol and Iker Muniain and Fernando Llorente are amongst the many names that have come through the club’s impressive youth system. It’s a fascinating job, of course not just done through Bielsa’s short time at La Catedral, but through many passionate people associated with the club. Bielsa is just helping take that hard work to the next level. The job now will be to hold on to them when the so-called bigger clubs from around Europe come sniffing.

Financial, and player, constraints is of course something he won’t be faced with should he opt for a move to the Premier League with Chelsea. His previous managerial spells with Chile, where he’s now got ‘cult status’ thanks to helping the nation to an impressive, entertaining, performance at the 2010 World Cup, and his home nation Argentina, where he helped them to Olympic gold in 2004 and worked alongside such players as Lionel Messi and Angel di Maria, also devoid Bielsa of action in the modern transfer market, making it a potential test for the Argentine under the watchful eye of Abromovich.

A move to England would certainly catch the imagination of the British press. Not in the same way as Mourinho, for sure, but he’d be a hit nonetheless. Nicknamed ‘Loco Bielsa’, ‘Madman Bielsa’, the Argentine is widely regarded as one of the most innovative coaches in football, even though the man himself will often play that down. He’s known for not offering much in the way of conversation to his players during the week. He’ll be in first thing to lay out the training methods for the day, and he’ll be the last to leave, however. He uses an iPad to help him, he draws up pages on pages of information on the opposition, and he’s said to make the defenders, midfielders and strikers all train separately. The only time he offers real tactical information directly to his team is on a matchday, and it’s said to be something that inspires his side. It’s a good job really, because Bielsa can speak little English. Taking the manager-player divide to a totally new level. It’s certainly different, and it’s certainly working. Whether it can work at Stamford Bridge is another thing entirely.

He also has plenty of time for the press, albeit only in the organised pre and post-match press conferences. These have been known to go on for hours, with Bielsa passionately staying to answer all questions asked of him whether his side has won, lost or drawn. He has no favourites with the press, either, saying: “Every section of the media should get the same attention from me, from the capital’s most prominent TV channel to the smallest newspaper in the provinces.”

Typically, while I’ve been writing this up, Los Leones have lost 2-1 to Osasuna in Pamplona, dampening their hopes for a top-four finish somewhat. A case of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’, perhaps. Bielsa and his troops will be keen to show their success against United was no fluke when they welcome Alex Ferguson’s men back to the San Mames this week, however. I’m sure it was no fluke, and I’m sure we we’ll be hearing more success stories where Bielsa’s concerned, whether it be with Bilbao, Chelsea, or any other clubs he decides to go on and manager. This is a man who’s managerial talents are here to stay.

Picture:Getty Images

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  • EH1985

    Great article, really interesting read

  • snippets123

    You fail to mention that this is a totally and exclusively BASQUE team with no players who cannot demonstrate their basque lineage being allowed into this team.The only exception is the manager. So no multi million international signings–all are local boys, for better or worse.

  • garrafa10

    I was never a supporter of Bielsa either as manager of Argentina or with his club Newell’s Old Boys in our hometown of Rosario.  However, the performance of Bilbao against Manchester United was a masterful display of football.  Precise passing with many triangulations; possession of the ball with the intent to score and not just miserly speculation; and an intense pursuit and pressure to recover possession clearly demonstrate he successfully inculcated his philosophy with his players.  Well done.

  • vvspaxman

    Chile were magnificent in the world cup. This guy is something special.

  • PaddyMiguel

    Big difference between Athletic players and Chelsea players is their attitude. Athletic Bilbao is often cited as the Basque National Team and the players have pride in their club and their culture. Compare and contrast with the overpaid prima donnas of Chelski.

  • David_of_Holwick

    The founding Englishmen he does refer to came from Sunderland hence the twin facts that the club is an ‘Athletic club’, not the spanish word ‘atletico’ and that their shirt colours are the red and white stripes of Sunderland.


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