Marcelo Bielsa begins to steer Athletic Bilbao back on course

The character of the Athletic Bilbao boss remains unchanged since his days in charge of Argentina

By Simon Jalie
Marcelo Bielsa
Bielsa took the reigns at Athletic Bilbao this summer Photo: Bagunçêiro, via Flickr

Marcelo Bielsa

Bogota, 29 June 2000. It is a humid night in the Columbian capital.

Argentina are in town for a World Cup qualifier and the atmosphere inside the cramped Estadio El Campin is predictably hostile. Marcelo Bielsa’s team have a 100 per cent record in qualifying so far but the home fans sense an upset.

Bielsa keeps his players waiting for longer than usual in the dressing room. El Loco is out on the pitch carrying out one of the more eccentric of his pre-match rituals, counting the paces from touchline to powdered touchline.

When he finally crosses the threshold of the vestuario in the swollen belly of the Campin, a nervous preparatory bustle gives way to an eerie hush.

Some of the great voices of the world game have fallen silent. Gabriel Batistuta is there. So, too, Diego Simeone, ‘Piojo’ Lopez and Seba Veron. Even Ariel Ortega, a player of sublime technical genius whose potential is destined to go unfulfilled, is mute in Bielsa’s presence.

The players anticipate one of the manager’s notoriously convoluted tactical stratagems. It does not come. Instead, Bielsa produces a few words which none of the 18 men assembled in that room will ever forget:

“In the war of the street, there are two types of combatants. The one who strikes, sees blood, then gets scared and backs off. The other strikes, sees blood and goes in for the kill. Well, boys, I’ve just been out there and, I swear to you, it smells of blood.”

That olfactory pre-match speech is now ingrained in Argentinean folklore. The Albiceleste excelled in the bubbling Columbian cauldron, winning 3-1 to tighten their stranglehold on the CONMEBOL classification for the 2002 World Cup.

A lot of water has passed under Bielsa’s bridge in the intervening decade, but the character of the current Athletic Bilbao incumbent remains very much unchanged.

There is madness in his methods and method in his madness. Often it is hard to distinguish between the two. His managerial style ranges from the utterly bizarre to the downright stubborn, but his obstinacy goes hand in hand with his visionary ingenuity.

It required a long period of bafflement in Bilbao before the Athletic fans were rewarded for their patience.

Five weeks had past, five matchdays with the length of five long seasons, before his team recorded a first league win in 2011-12. It was typical of Bielsa’s penchant for the dramatic that his first domestic victory came in the form of a 2-1 derby reverse at Anoeta.

Donostian blood was shed in San Sebastian by the Leones and it was the hitherto innocuous Fernando Llorente who inflicted Real Sociedad’s wounds.

Whether or not that vital first win was indicative of an upturn in Athletic Bilbao’s fortunes remains to be seen, but we did finally see signs that Llorente is starting to adapt to playing on his own up front without his trusty partner of many years, Gaizka Toquero, by his side.

The next test for the Rojiblancos comes at home to Osasuna this weekend. Ander Herrera, the missing piece in Bielsa’s tactical puzzle, should be fit to start after weeks of rehabilitation.

Despite the numerous points dropped, the former Chile coach has indelibly stamped his authority in Lezama in the opening weeks of the season. He has started from scratch, dismissing his predecessor’s tactical model and ostracising some of Joaquin Caparros’ regulars.

The focus now is very much on ball circulation and measured build-up, as opposed to the traditional Basque approach of direct football combined with a ruthless exploitation of physical and aerial superiority.

Such fundamental changes have demanded a period of experimental transition. The players have taken hesitantly to being deployed in unfamiliar positions but are left in no doubt that the manager’s authority is absolute.

Until he feels he has achieved something, this project will continue to engage the peculiar mind of Bielsa. It is only when El Loco has brought a measure of success to Athletic that the club should fear to lose him.

He was quick to renew his Argentina contract after the World Cup humiliation of 2002, then walked away from the most promising group of young players in the world in 2004 after claiming Olympic gold.

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