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|La Liga Special: What do Athletic Bilbao need to improve next season?|
"Athletic Bilbao has performed exceptional and have had a superb campaign this season in securing two finals. We're talking here about a club that is very likeable because of its structure and its policy of Basque-only Spanish players. This gives identity to a club and is the reason why I'm at Chivas of Guadalajara that follows an-all Mexican policy". The Lions is SoccerAnchor's latest La Liga team under review.
Quoting Dutch great and football visionary Johan Cruyff about how he views the transition coming up at Barcelona for next season. He then however had some final words on Athletic Bilbao feeling he had to add further note.
With it, came words that benefit everyone in the game and especially for Athletic as it further cements the club's newlyfound status as the subject of much talk in the world of football. Of course, the improvement goes by the name of Marcelo "Loco" Bielsa.
When John Toshack had his first spell with fierce arch-rival Real Sociedad and met Athletic at "La Catedral" from 1985 to 1989, he spoke vividly of the rivalry and the unique sense of Basque pride displayed at the San Mamés. In fact, Athletic's club board decided to approve Bielsa's appointment - after a short hiatus following his high-profile exodus from the Chilean national team - because he was attracted to the notion of working at a club strongly supported with an identity rooted similarly to a national team.
Bielsa had rejected with gratitude the formal offer to replace Leonardo at Inter. At Appiano Gentile arrived Gian Piero Gasperini and got the sack rather early and the casualty list at Inter went on. This is exactly what Bielsa wanted to avoid.
Negotiations were fast-tracked at Athletic and newly-appointed club president Josu Urrutia confirmed the attacking-minded tactician as the disciple to be in charge. This meant change was coming, and fast.
Under the previous direction with Joaquín Caparrós, Athletic qualified to the Europa League with a hard-earned spot and Bielsa delivered, guiding the side to memorable victories along the way to the final in Bucharest against Slovan Bratislava, Red Bull Salzberg and Paris St. Germain in the group stage, Lokomotiv Moscow, Manchester United, Schalke 04 and Sporting Lisbon before stubbornly self-destructing at the expense of Atlético Madrid.
Caparrós like Guardiola at Barcelona can be judged over a four-year spell and there is only harshly a Europa League qualification berth to show for plus the introduction of important, key youth players brought up like Iker Muniaín, Ander Iturraspe, Markel Susaeta, Andoni Iraola and Jon Aurtenetxe along with goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz bought back with Fernando Llorente deciding to stay at the club and Ander Herrera signed from Real Zaragoza for just 7.5 million Euros.
Spanish international Fernando Llorente began to shine as the frontman to Bielsa's formations with Spain under-21 internationals Ander Herrera, Iker Muniaín and Javi Martínez becoming an integral component of the vertebrae and most importantly in the hearts and minds of the proud Athletic faithful.
In preparations for the Copa del Rey final, the mood will be vital as Bielsa's men are undoubtedly wounded and bruised because losing a final is not a pleasant experience.
Bielsa had the honour and admittance to accept defeat on his onus and must be working very hard behind closed doors at training alongside his assistant Luciano Martín and fitness trainer Luis Bonini to motivate the squad, move on and repeat its breathtaking performance of total football-esque pressing against the best possession-based team in the world.
It was on the 6th of November , 2011 at home in the pouring rain, 2-2 the final scoreline and Guardiola expressed his amazement at the post-match conference.
"Athletic are beasts...They press you high up the park and they don't let you breathe," were his exact words.
What do Athletic Bilbao need?
Athletic need silverware to show for its rapid rise and improvement, it's as simple as that. If only it was that easy. In order for this to happen, the club needs more points on the table at the end of the season in the league and increase its chances for spots in Europe in years to come. Analysing both at mid-way point and at the final day, Bielsa's maiden campaign finished in 10th position with 49 points. The recently successful Europa League campaign is initial credit earned under Caparrós last season, after finishing 6th in season 2010/11 with 58 points, that is, a 9-point buffer. This legacy cannot be left underpinned.
The worrying outcome however that could possibly eventuate is no European action next season if failing to win the Copa del Rey. It would be hugely disappointing especially for the fans who have packed home games, travelled long distances on the road and see their beloved team finish the season empty-handed.
After the Copa del Rey final however, and barring Fernando Llorente and Fernando Amorebieta who is a Venezuelan international and has World Cup qualifying duty, there is only Iker Muniaín and Javi Martínez potentially not getting a rest. In other words, the rest of the squad will need to take full advantage and rest up because pre-season for 2012/13 will be intense once again.
With this comes maturity. Athletic's players had never reached a final ever before as a team. They can reflect during their break and assess why they failed at the last hurdle. With Bielsa admitting to his mistake in the Europa League final, the players can positively absorb such a once-in-a-lifetime experience and no doubt take it all on board for a challenge to be replicated. The city's fans went wild reliving their past glory days.
In attack and in the goals department, Fernando Llorente is instrumental to the forward line with 84 goals to date spanning his entire career since 2004. He is an ambassador to the club and will most certainly be in the Euro 2012 squad under Vicente del Bosque. Valued at 22 million Euros in the transfer market, it will take a lucrative offer from a bigger club for him to leave. In other words, he is still likely to stay as he is contracted until the end of 2013.
Following Llorente's price tag are Iker Muniaín at €17.5m and Javi Martínez at €19.5 million with their contracts ending in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
The new San Mamés Barria is expected to be opened for season 2013/14 with a bigger 55,500 all-seater capacity and what better way for Athletic to showcase a modern Cathedral of football with an attacking mindset year after year?
Will Bielsa stay or will he leave?
First of all, Marcelo Bielsa needs to assure his continuity at the club. His contract is up on the 30th of June.
If indeed after his maiden season at San Mamés, he decides to stay it will paves the way for the significant change already brought to the club to solidify and stabilise in the long-term.
What does this mean? That Bielsa is a man of principle. He commits himself to long-term projects when can get the maximum of potential from his players. They need legs to run and press intensely throughout 90 minutes and more if extra-time is needed and can set-up a backline four that presses.
Ideologically speaking, he does prefer a backline three according to the width and length measurements of a pitch!
So in defence, Iturrapse plays just in front of both central defenders to form a back triangular shape with both full-backs playing more of a right-midfield and left-midfield role. This position setup would be best described more as a radical 2-3-4-1 formation because there's no other way Iraola or (especially) Aurtenetxe could be called full-backs in a tactical formation.
Therefore he needs trust from his players and results come with time because the hard work ethic at training is brought to life. Bielsa needs trust in the sense that players can understand his radical thinking and keep the shape compact within 25 metres and play direct, mobile and dynamic that is becomes highly entertaining to watch.
He asks his technical staff for a detailed summary of every one of his players in the team roster before, during and after the season to study and analyse in order compare and contrast both strengths and weaknesses. From here, he develops them into team players and matures them individually.
The fruits of his labour came about after a month with training sessions completely revolutionising the paces at Lezama training ground and the players were taken aback, mesmerised with his methodology.
And testament to this is goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz; "At training, we changed to running between agility poles specifically in areas of the pitch we had never thought possible. He has opened up our minds and has permitted us to believe in ourselves and our capabilities."
Iraizoz has gone to say, "When in goal, because I get to see everyone in front of me, I see how my players take every match so intense, it makes me proud. I cannot stop praising how I see all my teammates run. It is worthy for recognition daily because of the desire to recover the ball and attack", he concluded.
Statistically, under Bielsa the number of passes in a season increased from 11,411 to 15,730 which also goes to show how the Argentinian boss is very particular detail and makes sure his messages get across. The full length of the pitch is used to maximum effect and the moving of the ball may not be as strong in terms of possession but is effective with diagonal direction in a much more vertical, front approach.
Possession porcentages went to 55.7% showing a clear intent to win back the ball with a pass accuracy of 78.5%.
Training drills were memorised off by heart and shown on the pitch with the opposing goalkeeper picking the ball from the back of the net. For example in set pieces, Fernando Llorente is the all-important dummy as the reference up-front and usually occupying the false nine role with Muniaín and Susaeta coming in from the front third into attack from the flanks to deadly effect.
On a much lighter note, a true story. Four hundred Athletic Bilbao supporters got lost on their way to the Europa League final by confusing Bucharest with Budapest. Finally, local police showed road maps to get back in time indicating the significant 750 km distance to the Stadionul National. It was too little, too late. At least these faithful ticket holders got to see the ill-fated match for free at a bar in the Hungarian capital. Let's hope this time, Athletic don't lose once again, or at the least lose gallantly with a repeat from THAT performance in the league last year.
You can follow Francis Fields on Twitter @francisfields