Seven months ago Marcelo Bielsa was being hailed as a messiah. His Athletic Bilbao side had humbled Manchester United home and away in the Europa League Last 16, outplaying their more illustrious opponents on all levels. When they then upset Schalke and performed a miraculous comeback to vanquish Sporting Lisbon, it was a categorical victory for Bielsa’s tactical philosophy.
Bielsa’s impact on modern football is vast. Few Coaches are so frequently cited as an influence - in fact the words ‘Bielsista’ and ‘Bielsification’ have entered into the football lexicon. The Argentine’s ethos of aggressive defensive pressing with a high line, ball retention and verticality - not keeping the ball for its own sake - have helped make a decent Bilbao side appear formidable last term. Elements of Bielsa’s thinking have been adopted worldwide, most famously by Pep Guardiola, who once drove through the night to talk to Bielsa in Argentina.
However, this season has been a tough one for Bielsa. It started inauspiciously with a row about work on Bilbao’s training facilities dragging on, which intensified a rift with the board that had developed during heated arguments about summer transfer activity. And poor results have left a palpable tension around the club. Bielsa’s side are hovering perilously close to the relegation zone after a 5-1 thrashing at the Camp Nou in which the difference between Bielsa’s Bilbao and a side thriving from moderate Bielsafication was painfully clear.
Bielsa once famously stated that if football were played by robots, his robots would win. Sadly for him, Bilbao are all too human. While key striker Fernando Llorente has been distracted by plotting his San Mames exit, those who are fully committed have been struggling to deal with demands placed on them by Bielsa’s physically and mentally draining system. One of those demands is the ex-Chile boss’ insistence on ‘permanent concentration’. Bielsa trains his teams to be in a state of constant readiness – he expects unbroken focus, complete adherence to the system and yet also the ability to improvise and to do the unexpected.
While Bielsa has been prepared to make small tactical compromises in the name of pragmatism during his time in Bilbao, he still demands that the central tenets of his philosophy are adhered to and these often seem to require players to give more than they are capable of – a problem intensified by Bielsa’s reluctance to deviate from what he perceives as his strongest team.
When energy levels drop as they did against Atletico Madrid in last year’s Europa League Final, the system fails, the results trail off and the players suffer doubly, feeling exhausted yet being aware that they have failed to give enough. Other Coaches might consider watering down their philosophy and pursuing a less challenging approach, but Bielsa so far has not.
It is no coincidence that a Coach who places principle above pragmatism finds himself in charge of Athletic Bilbao – a club that prides itself on doing the same. Los Leones’ cantera policy and determination to field players of Basque nationality or formation is a widely admired tradition that is crucial to the club’s identity, but it is also a self-imposed straitjacket from a simple footballing point of view. The percentage of players in Spanish football that are Basque has decreased from 50 per cent to close to five per cent and the potential talent pool has shrunk accordingly.
Athletic are one of three clubs never to have been relegated from the Spanish top flight. They should still be able to maintain that record, but if they find themselves sinking in January, the club certainly won’t reconsider its Basque policy. What remains to be seen is whether Bielsa will be more open to tactical compromise or whether he’d rather go down with the ship.