It was just over a year ago that Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao were the envy of most European clubs. With a squad assembled mostly of youth products and clever signings in-keeping with their Basque region-only philosophy, Bilbao reached the finals of both the Copa Del Rey and the Europa League by virtue of their high-pressing, slick passing football that saw Bielsa become one of the in-demand coaches on the continent.
They lost both finals but after finishing a solid tenth in La Liga and disposing both Manchester United and Schalke with a young squad drilled brilliantly into Bielsa’s meticulous approach, there was high optimism that Bilbao could push on to challenge the higher reaches of the Primera. Bilbao are a remarkable club after all, relying on cheap deals and young players educated in their excellent facilities at Lezama with an unyielding dedication to the factor that they must be born or raised in the local Basque region. In the era where huge sums of money seem to correlate with success, it was the innovative Chilean who threatened to shatter that hegemonic thinking with his own brand of relentless pressing football.
However, the dream died in one mad summer. Bielsa fell out with the board and the club president Josu Urrutia over building work at the club’s training ground, even offering his resignation at one point, from which there was a strained relationship between the Bilbao hierarchy and their eccentric coach. The popular centre-midfielder Javi Martinez left for Bayern Munich in controversial circumstances whereas main striker Fernando Llorente angled for a move all summer, refusing to sign a new contract and turning up to early-season training with a poor attitude, snapping Bielsa’s patience in October as he sent the striker back to the dressing room during one such session.
It was all indicative of the underlying discontent in the Bilbao squad that threatened to damage the harmony and cohesion that laid the foundations to the success of the previous season. Bielsa was frustrated in his pursuit of Real Sociedad’s Antoine Griezmann and Malaga’s Nacho Monreal, as well as the over-valued Benat Exteberria of Real Betis, Bilbao turning away from the 20 million Euro asking price for a player they had released a few years earlier. On the last day of the transfer window, David Lopez, Ustariz and Galder Cerrajeria were allowed to leave, further trimming an already small-squad due to cope with the demands of three competitions.
The unsettled Llorente scored just 4 league goals and has since finally been granted his move, switching to Juventus on a free, whilst solid defender Fernando Amorebieta has moved to Fulham, further dismantling Bielsa’s squad. The year after the two finals saw Bilbao limp to a twelfth placed finish after a poor domestic campaign that was accompanied by early exits in cup competitions. Iker Muniain, the bright young talent of the previous year, struggled for form, promising youth graduate Inigo Galarreta was absent through injury and goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz endured an error-strewn campaign. At the end of it, Bielsa himself departed as the club decided against extending his contract.
It will be down to a former Bilbao coach in Ernesto Valverde to lead Les Leones into the new era, the 49 year old coach who has achieved success with Olympiakos as well as experiencing differing fortunes with Villarreal and Espanyol since leaving San Mames back in 2005. Most recently he has been charged with coaching under the boardroom lunacy at Valencia, a job he quit after failing to secure Champions League football on the final day of last season.
There were signs of the consolidation Valverde can bring during his time at Valencia, guiding the club from mid-table to a Europa League spot with just 5 defeats in his 26 games in charge. In contrast to Bielsa’s emphasis on high pressure and constant harrying when not in possession, Valverde will assume a greater focus on use of the ball, something that midfield prospect Ander Herrera has noticed, “now we train more with the ball at our feet” he has said.
The 24 year old midfielder has also spoken of a role change in the coming campaign, being deployed further up the field than his usual deeper position, “so far I’ve played as a midfielder. Bielsa believed that I was closer to a defensive midfielder, but this season I’m playing closer to the striker. Three years ago in Zaragoza I played more in that position and what I have to do is get used to being near the area to have chances.” That shift of position will be permitted by the eventual £7 million signing of long-term target Benat, the combative deep-lying midfielder formerly of Betis, who will shield the defence alongside Ander Iturraspe. The versatile and creative Oscar De Marcos will operate ahead of them whilst there are big things expected from Erik Moran, the 22 year old who has just been taken from Bilbao’s fertile production line in the Basque Country.
Herrera’s advanced role will see him lie in support of Aritz Aduriz, last summer’s signing from Valencia who took the focus away from Llorente’s struggles with 14 goals. Kike Sola has been plucked from Osasuna to replace Llorente, the 27 year old centre-forward hit 11 goals last term. A key to Valencia’s good form under Valverde was the quick, direct wing play of Jonas and Sofiane Feghouli in support of Roberto Soldado. In Bilbao, it is likely to be Muniain, the 20 year old aiming to get back to his startling best of the season before last, and the gifted right-winger Markel Susaeta who are charged with linking up with Aduriz. Ibai Gomez and the hard working cult-hero Gaizka Toquero will be primed to provide attacking cover.
With a rejuvenated Muniain and Susaeta in supply of the potent Aduriz, and Herrera lurking just off the front in his new role, there will be signs of the fluid link-up that made the Bilbao of 2 years ago so fearsome. With greater impetus on keeping the ball however, there will be less need for the frenetic counter-attacking or well-drilled movement that underlined the Chilean’s system. Under Valverde, it is likely to be a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 that relies on sharp passing into space, utilising wingers with two positive full-backs offering support.
Valverde played a huge role in tightening up Valencia’s defence last year, achieving 9 clean sheets during his spell in charge and one of his first duties in the Basque Country will be to address a leaky back-four that shipped a total of 65 goals last season, only relegated Mallorca and Deportivo La Coruna conceded more. Amorebieta’s absence will be felt immensely and it will be down to Xabier Etxieta, signed for free from the newly-promoted Elche, to provide competition to last season’s centre-back incumbents Mikel San Jose and club captain Carlos Gurpegi. Aymeric Laporte, the impressive 19 year old French youth international, will also form a back-up option. Valverde will also have the aggressive full-back duo of Andoni Iraola and Jon Aurtenetxe to fly forward and provide further width. Mikel Balenziaga, a left-sided player as adept on the wing as he is deeper, has been acquired from Real Valladolid for £440,000 to challenge for Aurtenetxe’s left-back spot.
Bielsa was notorious for sticking with a strict nucleus of squad players throughout the season, often facing accusations of fatigue as the season wound down, but with Valverde inheriting the luxury of a gifted squad that has been added to shrewdly, there should be no such issues under the new coach. After failing to remain in charge at a club for longer than two years at any point during his managerial career, Valverde has a great opportunity to implement a successful project at San Mames and he may even bring back some of the excellent football that was synonymous with Bielsa, only with more ball retention, more calmness and less madness.
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