"We're not bad, us"
Athletic Bilbao are a delight. ATHLETIC Bilbao, lest we forget. Seeds sown in the shipyards of Sunderland were reaped in the Basque country; a cantera policy that places the onus squarely on grass roots development within the reinforced framework of local identity. Though darlings of the anti-federalists, Athletic Bilbao were also set apart from their peers due to a proud adherence to la manera Inglesa (the English way), which became a sort of euphemism for a suspicion of flair, best evidenced under the stewardship of Javier Clemente. An altogether different proposition from the likes of Real Madrid then, this.
Marcelo Bielsa, though, is no aficionado of the anti-flair brigade. A different beast altogether, the Argentine might be known as El Loco, but in his madness there is ample method. At times last night during the Europa League win at Old Trafford, we were watching an old-fashioned schooling. A shoeing. A 3-2 thrashing.
But hard work will only get you so far. Bielsa arrived in Bilbao last summer with a mercurial reputation, enhanced by tales of Pep Guardiola being an admirer, but no win in the first five La Liga games told its own story: the Athletic players struggled to adapt to a new system under the watchful eye of a maverick. That they have managed to persist and prevail, producing stunning football this season characterised by intense pressing, lightning counter-attacks and pinpoint short passing, is a testament to not only Bielsa’s modus operandi, but to the professionalism of the players.
For a club brought up on ‘the English way’, this Athletic side has that most un-English of traits – in a recent, football context that is. We have just seen ‘player power’ manifest most overtly in the situation at Chelsea, a groundswell of unrest and mutiny that began merely because Frank Lampard’s ego took a battering when dropped. Talk of a “lack of respect” is cheap at the top level of the game – but just imagine how the Chelsea lads would have responded to Bielsa’s attempts to get Jose Bosingwa to make lateral runs behind opposing centre backs.
Answer: he wouldn’t have lasted until the end of the January, a queue of disgruntled players lining up to bemoan the fact that apples are being made to perform the work of onions. The inherent suspicion of methods alien to the blood and thunder physique of the Premier League would bubble to the surface as it always does – the inability to adapt made out to be the manager’s failing, not the playing staff’s. The same could be said of many an English side, with players raised on 442s suddenly thinking they are continental because they can adapt to a 433. Professionalism - framed by a fierce identity - might be the foundation for Athletic’s success, but it is also the reason that revolution will not come quickly to these shores.
In a country that prides itself on having the quickest tempo in the world, Bilbao came and out-tempo’d the reigning champions. Which suggests that many people must reassess their opinion that La Liga is weak outside the fanfare of the top two - the top two are just so exceptional that rational judgement on the rest is clouded as a result. Where this Bilbao side would finish in England is anyone’s guess, but last night’s performance was scintillating nonetheless. A spectacular inability to judge those teams only seen a couple of times a year on Sky – the same attitude that has the nation’s bookmakers putting England at 8/1 to WIN THE EUROS – mean that clubs and fans alike have been unpleasantly surprised by the quality of opposition in European competition this season (see: Napoli).
The Premier League and English football is very rarely able to define clubs and personalities abroad from any other standpoint than within its insular and self-involved existence. Would Bielsa ever have been mentioned for, say, the Chelsea job? To take over from Sir Alex Ferguson? It’s no surprise that the man who appears firm favourite for both is a self-confessed – and media-savvy – Anglophile. Could Bielsa succeed, given the chance?
First off, he would be hard pressed to find a collection of players as talented as this current Bilbao crop outside of Manchester and north London. Llorente, Herrera, Munian and Javi Martinez may be the cream, but this is one hell of a side. And if the 3-2 victory last night could be passed off as fluke, you are implored to seek out a copy of the 2-2 draw with Barcelona earlier in the season to appreciate that this was no one-off. Majestic – Guardiola himself is in thrall of them: "They all run up … and they all run down again. Up, down, up, down, up, down. They're fascinating."
Bielsa and Athletic are perhaps the perfect fit: a multi-talented group, but crucially, one that is unlikely to be broken up due to the ferocity of the Basque identity. Perhaps unique in this respect, Bielsa can realistically hope to have this wonderful side together for five seasons should he decide to stay that long. In such an environment, Bielsa’s charges have flourished; something that would unlikely happen in England due to a growing contingent of sack-happy owners, impatient fans and no history of cantera. Long may the nasty shocks continue.