One of my favourite sides of the 21st century so far have been French coach Raynald Denoueix’s Real Sociedad team of 2002-03, who pushed Real Madrid to the last weekend of the season in the race for the La Liga title.
That season the Basque club surprised all of Spain – not only with their league performance, having previously been deemed relegation fodder, but with their brave attacking football. And though they ultimately fell short of the last great side of the original Galáctico era, the team of Kovačević, Nihat, De Pedro, Karpin and Xabi Alonso is fondly remembered, having remained unbeaten at the Anoeta all season (seeing off Madrid and Barcelona 4-2 and 2-1 respectively).
Though I doubt fans of Athletic Bilbao would welcome comparisons to La Real, this season could see their club being taken to the hearts of neutrals in the same way their neighbour’s class of 2003 were. The similarities go beyond geographic proximity. Like the San Sebastián club, Bilbao’s squad contains a number of highly talented individual players: Fernando Llorente, the much-fancied target man – excellent in the air, adept on the deck; defensive midfielder Javi Martínez and teenage winger Iker Muniain, both fresh from impressing as Spain won the U-21 European Championship; and Andoni Iraola, for many one of the best full-backs in Spain.
But it is also with the coaches where similarities lie. Like Denoueix was, new Bilbao coach Marcelo Bielsa is practically a newcomer to the Spanish league (having only spent a few months at Espanyol in 1998). And like Denoueix’s Real Sociedad, Bielsa’s sides favour bold attacking football, regardless of opposition.
Both managers also have a touch of enigma about them. Denoueix arrived at Real Sociedad by following a title-winning season at Nantes with a disappointing one which resulted in the sack. The season after La Real’s La Liga runners-up spot they finished 15th, and Denoueix all-but disappeared from the game following his departure from the club.
Even if Marcelo Bielsa has yet to perform any sort of disappearing trick, he does remain fascinating – both as a coach and person. He has in the past refused to grant exclusive interviews, taking the view that no single media outlet should receive preferential treatment. Then there is his famous ‘El Loco’ touchline persona (the prospect of him and Valencia’s Unai Emery going bonkers alongside each other during a game can’t help but raise a smile) and his willingness to field every single question at press conferences (a consequence of his egalitarian approach to the press, which at times has led to three or four hour Q&A sessions).
Even in the face of a curious relationship with the media, Bielsa is peculiarly honest as far as football coaches go. Consider the following post-match quote: “I don’t have the custom of speaking about referees, but on the subject of the ref’s performance today I’d like to say in respect of my expulsion he was quite correct, because I complained in an ill-mannered form.”
This was Bielsa speaking after Argentina’s 3-0 defeat to Colombia in the 1999 Copa América – a match in which Martin Palermo missed a hat-trick of penalties, Javier Zanetti was sent off, and the coach himself was sent to the stands. Colombia had been awarded two penalties – one converted, one saved – and Zanetti’s sending off had turned the tide against Bielsa’s side. Could you imagine famed responsibility-dodger José Mourinho being so contrite in the same circumstances?
The perma-tracksuited coach has spent a lifetime going against the tide and defying expectations. Forgoing the career in public office his siblings have enjoyed, he pursued a career as a player only to retire at 25, subsequently qualifying as a PE teacher before turning his hand to coaching. Even within football he has often confounded people, choosing to support and play for Newell’s Old Boys instead of his father’s great passion, rivals Rosario Central. When his Argentina side qualified for the 2002 World Cup having only lost a single match in qualifying (away to Brazil), they did so with a particularly un-Argentinian disciplinary record.
The coach’s insistence on fair play wasn’t the only uncharacteristic thing about that Argentina team. Critics in his homeland felt that the national team’s move away from the Argentine game’s traditional 4-3-1-2 formation, and the rolling rhythms of its enganche-orchestrated style of play, towards a dynamic, high-pressing 3-3-1-3 was an attempt to make the side more European in style. Despite Argentina’s excellent performances in qualifying, Bielsa still found himself under fire in a country that prides itself on its footballing identity.
That they then crashed out of the World Cup in the first round was unfortunate. But it must have been especially galling to see fierce rivals Brazil win the tournament after adopting two variations of Bielsa’s formation (the 3-3-1-3 became a more solid 3-4-3 when attacking midfielder Juninho was sacrificed for Kleberson in the tournament’s later rounds).
Brazil coach Luis Felipe Scolari had lifted the system wholesale from Bielsa’s side when tasked with rescuing his country’s ailing qualification campaign. And unlike many of the world football powerhouses who struggled in Japan and Korea after a long European season, Brazil’s squad was much fresher when the finals came around – the returning Ronaldo famously taking the golden boot. By contrast, though, fatigue was a huge factor in Argentina’s failure.
Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 system, which he later transferred to Chile for the 2010 World Cup, and is expected to do likewise with Bilbao, is predicated upon extreme physical fitness in order for the team to play at the high tempo required. Off the ball, the team presses aggressively, high up the pitch – well into their opponents’ half, in a style not dissimilar to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
The aim is to win the ball as close to the opposition’s goal as possible, and attack directly, in numbers and at pace. At the 2002 World Cup in the humidity of the Far East, a leg-weary Argentina squad were simply unable to implement this game plan as effectively as a younger Chile side managed eight years later.
But despite Bielsa’s relative successes at international level (Olympic winner and Copa América runner-up in 2004), it’s a commonly-held belief that sporadic international get-togethers don’t afford particularly detail-focused coaches the chance to fully implement their methods. A return to club-level coaching with Bilbao will allow the Argentine to drum his ideas into a talented squad of players on a daily basis.
As well as obsessively collecting football videos and sometimes choosing formations based on his pacing out the width of the pitch before a match, Bielsa has been known to train players in different positions at different times to work on specifics relating to their roles.
Roberto Ayala, who played under the similarly minutiae-obsessed Rafael Benítez at Valencia, calls him “one of the people I’ve learned most from during my career”. That ‘El Loco’ is now being afforded the chance to fully implement his footballing philosophy at a European club is cause for great excitement.
A Bielsa-led Athletic Bilbao side going hell for leather against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid will be a fantastic spectacle. Of course, the financial imbalances of Spanish football and smarter top-level management at Barca and Madrid in recent years means Bilbao have little chance of competing for the title as Real Sociedad did eight years ago. But like Villarreal (a mirror of Bielsa’s Argentina in terms of philosophy – a South Americanised European team) they will entertain all lovers of good attacking football and should be a good bet to push for a Champions League spot.
Sevilla’s Chilean midfielder Gary Medel recently hailed the impact the coach’s philosophy had on his homeland: “Marcelo has changed the outlook of the Chilean footballer. He made us think positively, always look for the win and chase games. Bielsa has not just been an influential coach for me, but for all of Chilean football.”
Now we can look forward to the prospect of him having the same kind of influence in Euskadi.
By Chris McDonald
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona