Athletic Bilbao's coach faces a unique dilemma
3 July ~ When Marcelo Bielsa took charge of Athletic Bilbao last summer, two possible outcomes were predicted. The compelling, idiosyncratic figure would either flourish in Spain or watch his experiment fail spectacularly. It seemed that Josu Urrutia, elected club president after promising to bring the Argentinian to Bilbao, was taking a considerable risk. The outcome has fallen somewhere in between. Bielsa is known as an assiduous coach. He compiles extensive, colour-coded documents about opponents and watched 42 videos of Europa League rivals Schalke last season. He has certainly shown some method in the madness.
His attacking philosophy inspired Athletic, a team without silverware since 1984, to two finals. He did so with a squad of Basque heritage and no major transfers. A golden generation, it seemed, was emerging. "Marcelo Bielsa is the best coach there is in the world at the moment," said Pep Guardiola in March, when Athletic were in the top three of La Liga.
Yet Bielsa, who has recently signed a one-year contract extension, did not experience a flawless debut season. For all the praise among purists, his side's league form was average at best, much like that of Napoli's. They finished in mid-table following their worst start in more than three decades. They were in the relegation zone after picking up only two points from the opening five games. There were few positives to be taken from this transition, except a postponed visit to the Bernabéu on opening day; it could, after all, have been worse.
Patience was rewarded with a victory over Real Sociedad in October, and fortunes began to change for the better. "We needed to win for many reasons," said Bielsa in his post-match press conference. Later performances against Manchester United and Barcelona in particular were imbued with similar promise. Despite resurgences in form throughout the season, Athletic remained inconsistent. They are far from the finished article, and may never be.
Bielsa has not yet been lured away, but will that be the case with homegrown talents such as Javi Martínez and Fernando Llorente? Both have often been linked to larger clubs, which provides a dilemma. Whereas La Masia allows Barcelona to compliment signings with youngsters, Athletic's Basque-only "quarry" means that players cannot be replaced quickly, regardless of how much is paid for them.
Manchester City spending £25 million on Martínez, say, is irrelevant: in the context of the club, he is priceless. With a conveyor belt that has produced many players for the national team, and allowed Athletic to never be relegated, most supporters see this as inevitable. That the team came so close to the Copa del Rey and Europa League is a bonus.
Next season has sentimental significance for Athletic. It will be their last played at San Mamés, the oldest stadium in Spain, before its demolition. For the sake of purists, at least, achieving long-term success with Bielsa would seem deserved. Tom Parfitt