El Centrocampista

¡Viva la Revolución! – Marcelo Bielsea breaks the mould in Bilbao

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What happens when one of the broadest thinking, revolutionary football managers in the world meets arguably the most traditional, rigidly-structured clubs in World football?

An inevitable collision of philosophies or a match made in heaven?

This combination so far has been a portrayal of a perfect paradox which has cast the club’s resulting fortunes into sharp focus across the continent and beyond. A relationship, which in theory should be divisive has, through creditable adherence on the part of the players’ it must be said, taken them on a pilgrimage across Europe and throughout Spain, displaying an attacking brand of football with much of the verve, swagger and intensity of that of the world’s current foremost club side, Futbol Club Barcelona.

Indeed Guardiola, the captain of the all-conquering Barça ship, has even acclaimed Bielsa “the world’s best trainer”, and wholeheartedly and publicly states his admiration for the energy and panache with which the current los Leones team goes about its business. These are sentiments echoed by one of Bielsa’s own charges, the talismanic Fernando Llorente, who has revelled in his new coach’s innovative and relentless approach to the game, saying: “ Guardiola is right. Marcelo changes the way you perceive football completely. You learn a lot from him. It is incredible to see the changes in this team in just one year. We have been playing under him for less than a year and the team’s growth is amazing”.

Bielsa himself, one of football’s deep thinkers and innovators, introduced the world to revolutionary tactics such as 3-1-3-3, more akin to those deployed around the middle part of the twentieth century. Prominence accordingly placed on the roles of ‘inside forwards’ and how movement, rather than rigid structure, would be the fundamental focus upon which the team strategy would be built. Within such systems Bielsa has developed and adopted previously unexploited footballing phenomena such as ball-playing midfielders utilised at the heart of defence; full backs (if the second layer of three can be so regarded) overlapping their wingers on the INSIDE, (penetrating gaps created by the wingers ability to stretch the opponents midfield and defence); a tactical nous for immediately and efficiently altering formations to combat adjustments made by their counterparts on the opposite touchline.

When such progressive methods are applied in alliance to good, old-fashioned toil – evident in Atheltic’s incessant and intense pressing-game – the results are manifested in the comprehensive and swash-buckling fashion that resulted in the destruction of Manchester United, and to a lesser extent Schalke, on the road to a Europa League semi-final.

True, Bilbao have somewhat struggled to find a consistency in this level of performance, as recent league form and their ever-decreasing aspirations of Champions League qualification for next season would suggest. However, the manner, more-so than the result against last season’s finalist in the aforementioned competition, points to exciting and uncharted promise of things to come, with ‘the madman’ at the helm.

Athletic, for their part, may be just the perfect fit for Bielsa and his radical and unflinching philosophies and quirks. A platform perhaps, upon which he will be given time and support to implement his methods. Concessions that he may not have been granted at one of Europe’s superpowers (Andre-Villas Boas at Chelsea being a case in point).

Indeed some detractors voiced dissatisfaction over the early part of the season at the absence of the uncompromising attacking football promised upon arrival of the Argentine. All good things though take time, and the ferociously fast and flamboyant brand of attacking football now regularly displayed at San Mames, has endeared Bielsa to the cub’s supporters and firmly silenced any early-season critics. This new found appreciation is partly attributable no doubt, in stark contrast observable in the Bielsa way to the British-style football with which the club is synonymous. Such incongruity has only served
to heighten the reverence for an aesthetically appealing, diverse brand of football, as opposed to an archaically direct and predictable slog, to which Athletic’s faithful have traditionally been subjected.

Changing the face of football

Make no mistake, much of Bielsa’s approach is revolutionary, and is particularly welcome in an age where destruction seems to carry more value than construction. Yes, even facets of Guardiola’s unparalleled Barça side have been developed from Bielsa’s principles. Perhaps, intimating that many of Europe’s top coaches are pragmatic, at best, is unfair or at least simplistic, but Bielsa, and Guardiola too for that matter, warrant tremendous credit for their insistence on style as well as substance.

Bielsa, may go on to achieve nothing tangible in his time in Bilbao, but he has certainly given the fans of the club, and further afield, a footballing experience rarely enjoyed in modern times.

Despite his introverted nature and idiosyncrasies, his ingenuity has probably alerted the continent’s top clubs of his talents, and from a fan’s perspective hopefully the continent’s coaches, of the merits of this approach.

Ingenuity I say? Well they do say that there’s a little bit of ‘loco’ in any genius.




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