Monday, 14 November 2011

Ten Games Unbeaten: The Rise of Athletic Bilbao under Marcelo Bielsa

After the 1-0 loss to an expensive Malaga team in September, everything seemed like it was going wrong for Marcelo Bielsa and his new way of thinking at Athletic Bilbao. Last season, Athletic were viewed in La Liga much in the same way as Stoke or a Sam Allardyce team in England: nothing but physical play, long balls and 1-0 wins. A tag which, could rightly be argued, was more than a tad harsh. With the summer appointment of Bielsa (formerly coach of Chile and Argentina) a new style of play based on pressing and short passing has graced San Mames. At first it looked like Athletic would struggle to adapt to the new style of play and the new coach and his strange ways. After consecutive league defeats against Espanyol, Betis and Malaga and a draw against Villareal came Europa league wins against big-spenders PSG and a Basque derby win against rivals Real Sociedad. After that came another win against fellow Basques; Osasuna. After an unlucky draw against Valencia at the Mestalla came a resounding 3-0 win over Atletico Madrid.

One of Bielsa’s most successful new tactics has been the incredibly fluent attacking midfield trio consisting of Muniain, De Marcos and Susaeta, supporting Fernando Llorente, the lone striker. This was evident against Atletico and even when a tired looking Muniain was substituted after an hour, Toquero came on and hustled and bustled the Atletico defence with great success. Llorente was the real star though, scoring his fifth and sixth goals in as many games. Atletico looked tough to beat in the first half, but were undone in a ten minute spell of play punctuated by clever through balls from Ander Herrera. Athletic are also masters of playing down the wings, crossing in balls for Llorente and Andoni Iraola made some dangerous runs from right back. One of the main advantages to the new attacking midfield trio behind Llorente is the use of Muniain in a central role. Though, if truth be told, he looks dangerous anywhere in that formation and as they are constantly swapping roles, this makes him dangerous to mark.

“We never lose when it rains” Andoni Iraola told new boy Ander Herrera before then Barcelona game. Rain it did and lose they did not. Despite weather like a summers day in Manchester, a fantastic game of football ensued. Possesion repeatedly gained and given away by both sides due to the surface water all over the pitch. It made for exciting viewing. Athletic lined up in a 4-3-3 formation mirroring Baras every move. The usually superlative Xavi and Iniesta  were practically marked out of the game. Messi was also unusually ineffective (despite getting the last minute equaliser), played on the right hand side of the front three rather than his usual deep-lying centre forward role, with Fabregas playing as the ‘false nine’. Athletic’s marking and pressing game worked wonders with a Barcelona side who were not having a good day at the office.

Bielsa has been successful in making Athletic an even better team to watch than they were last season and seems to be making the most out of his most talented player, Munian. The real worry is though, if Llorente gets injured, they don’t really have anyone else to provide the goals. But after a slightly shaky start to the season, they are in good form and looking to challenge for a Champions League place. Something they shouldn’t have trouble achieving if ‘El Loco’ keeps up his tactical nous.

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