On Bilbao and Bielsa

Written by  //  March 16, 2012  //  Sport  //  1 Comment

Years ago when I was making a mental list of football stadiums that I’d one day like to visit, San Mamés featured somewhere near the top. Quite conceivably, when—and if—I get a chance to go to Bilbao, Athletic may have moved to the newer San Mamés Barria, which is presently under construction. But yesterday, watching Athletic rip Manchester United to shreds served both as a timely reminder of the beauty of the old, creaky stadium, and of the club’s incredible and quaint philosophy. Even though, I was stuck at a café in the upper west of Manhattan, watching the game on mute, an often-irritating experience, I could almost sense the atmosphere at the stadium they call The Cathedral—40,000 all dressed in magnificent red and white stripes partaking in an experience of religious intensity.

Athletic is a quirky club—they still only play with Basque players, even though the qualification as Sid Lowe has explained is now more flexible. To recognize the club’s ethos, it is important to briefly delve on its history, and to note that the Basque country was the first in Spain to be consumed by industrial development. As a result, Bilbao had an extensive relationship with Britain that saw a number of miners and shipbuilders from Sunderland and Southampton working there, and playing football in their spare time. Soon Bilbaínos who were returning from periods of study in England challenged the Brits to games, leading to the formation of two football clubs: Bilbao FC, and Athletic Bilbao. Although the former dissolved slowly, Athletic Bilbao rose in strength, winning four King’s Cups it its first decade, even as PNV, the political party representing Basque nationalism rose in power. The party’s potency was rooted in the smaller businessmen in Bilbao, the same group that made up Athletic’s membership. In 1913, San Mamés was opened; the ideological belief of La Cantera—the “unwritten” restriction that sees Bilbao use only Basque players—was established and the idea of the “Basque” club was born.[1]

But although the club shred its Englishness, in adopting La Cantera, its style of football was for many years linked to the indelible marks laid down by Fred Pentland, its English coach in the 20s and early 30s. As Jonathan Wilson remarked in a piece for the Guardian, Pentland “instituted a direct approach, favoring a robust, ‘English-style’ center-forward, a tradition that endures in the shape of Fernando Llorente, a remarkable combination of finesse and muscularity.”

It’s easy, though, to be pessimistic about Athletic’s commitment to using only Basque players and to see the restriction in the choice of the squad as a pitfall, because the policy also serves as a positive in that it gives the club a clear identity, and its players a defined cause to play for. In all its existence, even though Athletic have only had sporadic success, and haven’t won a trophy in 28 years, the club has never been relegated from Spain’s top division—a truly extraordinary achievement. Last season, continuing in its time-honored style, powered by Llorente’s physical prowess under Joaquín Caparrós’s management, Bilbao finished sixth and qualified for the Europa League. But after Jose Urrutia, a former Bilbao midfielder had won the club’s presidential election, Caparrós was replaced in the summer by the enigmatic Argentine, Marcelo Bielsa.

El Loco Bielsa - the supreme tactician

El Loco Bielsa - the supreme tactician

Bielsa, known as El Loco­—“The Madman”—for his idiosyncratic mannerisms did not on the face of it look a natural fit. For him, the devil has always been in the details. He is renowned for possessing an incredible collection of football matches, one that Pep Guardiola has apparently dipped into in the past. In his time as coach of Argentina and Chile, Bielsa showed a proclivity for the 3-3-1-3 with a high defensive line, involving dynamic pressing from the top. It’s a formation that he tried to impress upon Bilbao early in the season, but after a run of six winless games, he showed the acuity to adapt to the players that he had at his disposal without sacrificing his core beliefs.

With teams increasingly playing a lone center forward, Bielsa moved to a 4-2-1-3, ensuring that he had no more than one spare center back at a time. Javi Martinez, a footballer of exemplary technical proficiency, was moved from central midfield into the backline—a strategy in keeping with Bielsa’s fundamental tenets: with the high defensive line, as Michael Cox helpfully points out in this piece for ESPN, the greater the defenders’ ball-playing ability the more effective the system.

By the time the two legs against Manchester United came up, the Bilbao players had warmed to Bielsa’s methods. When they lost the ball, they pressed furiously from the front—a high-tempo style that can be hugely exhausting, but when employed well, also hugely rewarding. And when with the ball, the players moved it around with pace, and precision, but crucially with directness that gave each move a thrilling purpose. There is always variety in Athletic’s game, in that they like to shift the ball by forming little triangles across the field—especially with their prodigiously talented youngster Iker Muniain, and Markel Susaeta flitting in and out of the wings—but they are also not averse to going long on occasion as they showed in the opening goal of yesterday’s second leg: Fernando Amorebieta’s long, diagonal ball was met sumptuously on the volley by Llorente who had subtly pealed away from Rio Ferdinand’s grasp.

In defense, Bilbao likes to mark man-to-man, while pressing from the top. This video showcasing their defensive system against Barcelona earlier in the season exemplifies their methods. Watching Amorebieta and Martinez shift Fabregas between them is a particularly delightful sight. The video also shows Bilbao’s directness in attack as soon as they win the ball back.

All of this makes for an exhilarating viewing experience, but the toll on the players cannot be underestimated. Playing a high-tempo game every week is no easy task, and as Michael Cox suggested in his analysis for Zonal Marking, it may well be the reason why Bilbao are only seventh in La Liga. But having reached the Copa del Rey final, where it will face Barcelona on May 25, and now with an excellent chance of success in the Europa League, Bielsa’s methods have been vindicated. There will be plenty of suitors for many of its players in the summer, but unlike at other clubs of Bilbao’s size where a chance to play for Barcelona, Madrid or Manchester United can be very tempting, at Bilbao the players are part of something unique and immense. They are indissolubly linked to their Basque identities and Bilbao’s inherent philosophy. Now with Bielsa, there is an added tactical dimension that enhances the club’s quixotic charm. To borrow the phraseology from one of English’s football’s most absurd, and yet strangely delightful chants: there is only one Athletic Bilbao.

[1] David Goldbatt, The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, p. 147 (2006)

About the Author

Suhrith Parthasarathy is a journalist currently living and writing in New York. Suhrith grew up in Chennai, India and studied law at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata. He practiced as an attorney for two years before giving up the law for journalism. He is presently studying for his masters at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. You can find him on Twitter (@suhrith) or on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/suhrithparthasarathy)

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One Comment on "On Bilbao and Bielsa"

  1. Arghya March 17, 2012 at 12:35 pm ·

    Suhrith, amazing article!

    What do you make of Bielsa though? He had Chile playing beautifully with his high defensive line, up-field pressure, and quick movement, but Argentina in the 2002 WC was bitterly disappointing given there was no direction, no movement and little energy and though the 2004 Copa was better, Bielsa still seemed to eccentric with crazy substitutions, changing too many tactics mid-game etc. Do you think those were formative years in fashioning his footballing philosophy or is a little bit of madness an intrinsic part of the package called El Loco?

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