Bielsa set to thrive in Bilbao

August 8, 2011

Marcelo Bielsa in his Chile days

It has been 13 years since Marcelo Bielsa has managed a club side.

Six years as coach of Argentina and four in charge of Chile endeared him to the world, but with international football placing obvious restrictions on how much a manager can shape his team, there has always been a lingering question – what would Bielsa do with a club side?

His previous experience, with Espanyol, was rather unsuccessful. He only lasted six games before he left for the Argentina job, leaving the club in 18th position in La Liga. The players struggled to adapt to his methods, he struggled to adapt to the demands of European football. Back in Argentina, however, he’d been a successful club manager with his hometown club Newell’s Old Boys, as well as Velez Sarsfield.

His arrival in Spain as the new Athletic Bilbao manager is one of the most exciting developments of the summer. At one point, it seemed that he would become the new Inter coach – but he had promised Josu Urrutia, a candidate for Bilbao’s presidential election, that he would take over at Bilbao if Urrutia won. He did, and true to his word, Bielsa came.

The suspicion is that Bilbao is a better home for him than Milan, on various levels. These range from the very basic details (Spanish-speaking manager will immediately be able to communicate in Spain rather than in Italy) to the composition of the side. Athletic are a young, energetic team who played high-tempo, vibrant, Bielsa-style football under his predecessor Joaquin Caparros, whereas Inter are used to playing slow football and defending deep, and also have an elderly side.

There is more to it than that, however, because Bilbao are no ordinary club. Their policy of using only Basque players gives them a defined identity that few clubs can match. Their insistence on bringing through youth players has already been embraced by Bielsa, who has not asked for any specific new signings. As an incredibly thorough coach, he should, in theory, thrive in an environment that encourages cohesiveness - and on another note, a club that doesn’t see winning as the be-all and end-all of being a football club.

There’s possibly an ever deeper link than that, though, when one considers the history of Athletic as a club. It is 100 years since Rafael Moreno Aranzadi – aka Pichichi – made his debut for the club. As Phil Ball recounts in the excellent ‘Morbo’:

“Pichichi began a tradition at Bilbao of goalscoring centre-forwards who were to benefit (allegedly) from the club’s allegiance to la manera inglesa (the English way), as taught to them by a succession of British managers and embarrassingly referred to as ‘the old 1-2-3′. This meant three touches from goalkeeper to centre-forward, who would then of course unfailing bang the leather mercilessly into the onion bag.”

Specific tactics don’t survive for a century – thankfully – but general style can. Ever since those days, Athletic have been regarded as a side that play direct football, particularly in contrast to the tiki-taka style of the national side of recent years. That reputation survives to this day – to the point where, when Spain need to switch to a direct style of play, they bring on Bilbao’s striker, Fernando Llorente. Bielsa, a man notorious the speed and directness he demands from his players in possession, is surely at the right club.

Formation and positioning

Bilbao's starting shape

So, what exactly is he going to do at Bilbao? Let’s start with the formation. Bielsa is most famous for the unusual 3-3-1-3 shape he’s used with both Argentina and Chile, although there is a caveat to this – and therefore a reason why he probably won’t use it as his first-choice system in Spain. With Chile, he always wanted a spare man at the back – a back three against two strikers, a back four against one striker (with the full-backs pushing high up into midfield, effectively leaving 2 v 1 at the back). This meant a switch between 3-3-1-3 and 4-2-1-3 depending upon the opposition – note the World Cup game against Honduras, where he responded immediately to Honduras’ tactical switches to keep his cover at the back.

South America is still – largely – based around two-striker formations, which meant that the 3-3-1-3 was his favoured formation. Spain is overwhelmingly dominated by 4-2-3-1, which makes the situation more complex.

All this might turn out to be irrelevant, however, because so far Bielsa has favoured something called a 4-1-4-1 in much of the Spanish press, although it retains many of the characteristics of the 4-2-1-3. ZM was at the friendly against Tottenham on Saturday to see the side in action, and Athletic lined up with the system on the right.

The two most interesting roles on that teamsheet are the two defenders on the left-hand side – Javi Martinez and Oscar de Marcos. Neither are defenders. Martinez is naturally a holding midfielder, and has played for the national side in that position, whilst De Marcos is a young winger/forward who wears the number ten shirt.

Bielsa often used midfielders in the defensive line for Chile, believing they were more mobile than some of his centre-backs, and also better at starting moves. The shift for Martinez is perhaps not surprising, because Bielsa always wants a very defensive-minded holding midfielder – a pure stopper, like Gary Medel. Martinez is more of a ball-player, and therefore, whilst it may seem strange to move a player into the defence because his strengths lie in playing the ball rather than winning it back, it’s not completely unexpected. At 6′3 he has the ability to challenge in the air, although in this friendly Roman Pavlychenko got the better of him with high balls.

Bilbao's second half line-up

The use of De Marcos at left-back was more surprising. He performed reasonably well, seemingly having a good relationship with the left-winger, Igor Gabilondo. Like wingers in many of Bielsa’s teams, Gabilondo stretched the play and stayed wide, meaning that De Marcos’ runs were often diagonal, towards goal rather than down the line, as the space was on the inside of Gabilondo, rather than the outside. This helped De Marcos, as he is right-footed, and therefore wanted to come inside anyway.

On the other flank, Iker Muniain was the brightest player. He usually went down the line, but also came inside to the middle of the pitch, and sometimes switched with Ander Herrera, the playmaker. Again, this is classic Bielsa – he doesn’t want to burden one player with the sole playmaking responsibility, which can become a problem with the basic shape of his preferred 3-3-1-3 / 4-2-1-3. By coming inside, Muniain became another source of creativity. Andoni Iraola generally overlapped, though played more conservatively than De Marcos.

Herrera was the player with the most unpredictable movement. As well as moving wide, he also made forward runs to go beyond Llorente – indeed, he had a good chance in the opening minute from a ball over the top after Llorente had dragged defenders away. Herrera found space wherever he could – sometimes he moved deeper than Ander Iturraspe, to add some element of surprise to the way Athletic played in the middle.

At half time, Tottenham switched to a 4-4-2 having played Pavlyuchenko upfront alone in the first half. This meant Bielsa switched to three at the back – more specifically, it was pretty much the 3-3-1-3. Gurpegi became the right-sided centre-back, and there were substitutions at left-back and right wing – everything else largely stayed the same.

Athletic were much less comfortable in this system, however. The main problem seemed to be the wing-backs (or the players on the outside of the diamond, if you like) – who played too deep, forced back by Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale. This meant Athletic looked like a 5-2-3 too often, conceding the midfield ground and being completely overrun in the second half. This supports the idea that 3-3-1-3 might be unworkable in Spain – a country home to many tricky wingers. In comparison, as the Copa America showed, South America is not currently the place to go for top-quality wide players, at least at international level, so that is something of a new problem for Bielsa.

With the ball

Athletic were more patient in possession than we have come to expect from Chile – they were happy to hold the ball in midfield in the first half, and knock it back to the centre-backs to start moves from deep. There was more of an emphasis on changing the tempo of attacks rather than being direct straight away – they would work the ball into an area of the pitch where 2 v 1 situations could be created, and then charge towards goal. Creating overloads in specific zones has always been one of Bielsa’s main priorities – even a five-minute stretch of Athletic’s warm-up consisted of players practicing give-and-goes at high speed.

There was a focus on passing out from the back, with the two centre-backs coming deep to collect the ball and the full-backs pushing wide. The full-backs look as if they charge forward constantly, but actually they’re simply intelligent with the timing of their runs – only moving forward when there’s space to exploit (whether on the outside or the inside of the winger ahead of them).

The focus on possession means that a three-man central midfield is probably necessary. The first half featured a holder (Gurpegi), a runner (Iturraspe) and a playmaker (Herrera) and things went well. When the runner was removed in the second half – or rather, when the runner became the holder – Athletic looked disjointed. Herrera had to come deeper to get the ball, Llorente was starved of service and couldn’t become involved. The removal of Muniain, who picked up a knock in the first period, also meant their best out-ball was no longer an option.

Without the ball

Pressing was, of course, high on the agenda – although it was not as frantic as we often saw with Chile. Athletic seemed happy to let Tottenham’s deepest man (often Michael Dawson) to have time on the ball, and Llorente would focus on cutting off the passing angles, as would the midfielders in deeper positions. Tottenham constantly conceded possession in the first half, largely because of the pressure in midfield.

The second half collapse was probably also due to Athletic not being at full fitness, and therefore unable to press for the duration.

As mentioned previously, Athletic were extremely prone to pace down the flanks. The two goals they conceded were assisted by Bale and Lennon, and the latter also won a penalty which Niko Kranjcar missed. That was most evident in the second half, but was also a problem in the first – and Bielsa may need to drop his ‘runner’ in midfield deeper to give the full-backs extra protection if this continues to be an issue, which would make the system very much the 4-2-1-3.


Despite the eventual defeat, this was an encouraging performance from Athletic. They controlled the game in the first half, passing and pressing well. There are too many variables to accurately judge why they fared so poorly in the second half – Bielsa changed shape but Tottenham did too, introducing their two most valuable players (Modric and Bale) in the process. On this evidence, however, the first half system is better for Athletic – it gave more midfield options and the side was less compartmentalized. The 3-3-1-3 would need much more positional work.

Still, his job in Bilbao is hugely exciting. Often seen as an inflexible manager who sticks to his methods even when they aren’t the logical option, he’ll have to show that he’s adaptable enough to incorporate the qualities and attributes that took Bilbao to sixth in La Liga last year. That might mean a back four and more patient build-up play. Whatever happens, it will be a fascinating season for Athletic Bilbao.

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