Reacquainted with the notion of mediocrity, Athletic Bilbao may still boast a footballing philosophy and a style of play, but it has been one that has failed to achieve the necessary results this season. Only Rayo Vallecano have conceded more goals than Bilbao this term whilst the loss of quality upfront has proved detrimental in important clashes. No Fernando Llorente, no quality.
Allegedly labelled ‘the cancer of the dressing room’ by Coach Marcelo Bielsa, Llorente’s refusal to sign a new contract has seen him marginalised by the club and targeted by the fans. The official Athletic Bilbao shop in Casco Viejo was graffitied with distasteful comments aimed at the Spanish striker, whilst supporters held up banners with the words ‘mercenaries out’ at Bilbao’s training facility. For a city so enchanted with their team, the club must resolve their issues to get back on the right path.
Certain critics feel the best thing to do to restore team harmony is to sell their prized asset. In the words of former Athletic Bilbao midfielder Fran Yeste: “The Llorente situation has unsettled the atmosphere at the club.” Desperate to leave to join Italian giants Juventus who continue to chase the star, the player recently took to Facebook to thank everyone for the support and apologise for his recent absence: “The situation is not easy.”
Having argued with the Coach in early October, Bielsa had been caught on camera telling the striker to go to the dressing room. Unimpressed with his behaviour and lack of effort, the Argentine tactician publicly dismissed the player to cause further controversy around the matter. It was alleged the quarrel continued even off the field with the forward being blamed for the current woes of the team before being labelled a ‘coward’.
After a splendid last season in which Llorente scored 16 goals when no-one else managed more than a third of that output, the relationship between player and Coach began to disintegrate. When Bilbao lost both against Atletico Madrid in the Europa League Final and Barcelona in the Copa del Rey Final, it was reported that Bielsa blamed Javi Martinez and Llorente for not effectively leading their teammates at such vital occasions for the club. Since then, neither player can apparently continue a relationship with the tactician.
However, his quality is undisputed. In the match against Espanyol, Llorente came on and scored a goal almost immediately to equalise. With only 13 touches of the ball, the Spanish striker produced shots, delivered a key pass and dribbled to demonstrate his professionalism and dedication the game.
Both Bilbao and Llorente have their reasons that have made the two estranged. The club has a right to want to hold on to their prized asset whilst the player has a right to want to further his career elsewhere. However, this battle between the two has only served to add further strain to a squad incapable of mounting a serious challenge this year.
Evident from their first game of the season, Bilbao are a side playing without confidence, aware that their stars of last year are not around to lend a helping hand. Journalists write only of Llorente whilst the Coach’s authority has been publicly challenged to lessen his grip over the overall team.
Both the player and tactician have come out to insist there are no problems between them, but the denials have fallen on deaf ears. For a side whose footballing philosophy centres around fluidity, energy and versatility, Bilbao now look a side robbed of their ability. They still maintain possession, they still control a game but they can no longer interchange positions and create beautiful attacking passages of play like they once managed. The tactics require unity but with Llorente oozing desperate desire to leave on the bench, only the opposite can be achieved.