Athletic Bilbao have endured a torrid week. Off the field the talk has been of contracts as Fernando Llorente declared his intention not to renew his deal, whilst Javi Martinez’s €40m buy-out clause looks set to be activated by Bayern Munich.
The uncertainty over both Spanish internationals’ future meant that they were left out by Marcelo Bielsa for this weekend’s opener against Real Betis and, without them, Athletic fans got a scary preview of what life could be like as they conceded five goals at home for the first time since March 2009, losing in the end 5-3.
On the one hand this game was classic Bielsa – it had excitement, goals and game-changing substitutions. Worryingly for the Argentine’s project in the Basque country, though, Athletic were actually at their best when playing more akin to old school Athletic tactics, when they dove aggressively into tackles and swung balls into the box.
There was a very valid reason for the variance in style to that which catapulted Athletic to two Cup finals last season, as not only were Martinez and Llorente missing, but so too was Iker Muniain, meaning the hosts were without arguably their three best players and three of their most technically-proficient ones at that.
Martinez and Llorente were not in attendance having been given the weekend off, but Muniain was and his face told the story as he scowled when Gaizka Toquero prodded another good chance wide just after the half hour, when Athletic were already 3-0 down.
Llorente’s brilliance comes in his ability to both combine with midfield runners and to also bully defences once the ball comes into the box. Toquero, for all his effort and his status as a cult hero at San Mames can do neither.
Aritz Aduriz, however, can, if not quite to the extent of Llorente, and he made an immediate impact after being sent on at half-time along with Ibai Gomez. It was a particularly Bielsa move, adding to Ander Iturraspe’s enforced withdrawal due to injury in the first-half, it meant the Bilbao boss had used all three of his substitutions by the start of the second period.
And it paid off. Less than 60 seconds in, Aduriz played in Oscar de Marcos beautifully to make it 3-1. Twenty minutes later it was 3-2 as Mikel San Jose rose highest to power in Ibai’s corner and within 10 minutes and implausibly, it was then 3-3 as San Jose showed great strength and desire to thunder in another header from another Ibai corner.
Athletic had scaled a mountain just to get back on level terms, but with Betis shell-shocked and having removed their best player in Benat Etxebarria, the Basques only succeeded in falling back over the other side of the cliff.
Bielsa’s problem is not too dissimilar to the issues Andre Villas Boas tried unsuccessfully to overcome at Chelsea last season. He wants the whole team to press relentlessly without the ball and pass it when in possession, but his defenders (or at least the ones on show yesterday) simply don’t have the ability to distribute accurately from the back nor the pace to cover the gaping space in behind.
Martinez, for all that he was when still a superior player in his natural midfield role, masked those deficiencies by playing at centre-back for the vast majority of last season.
Yesterday, Los Leones were exposed by Betis’ pace and trickery time and again and eventually conceded twice more in the final 10 minutes – Jose Canas left a trail of Athletic bodies strewn on the ground to tee up Alejandro Pozuelo, before Jorge Molina sealed things with a lovely chip over Gorka Iraizoz.
The one positive note for Athletic could be that should the Martinez deal go through, Benat will be one of the names at the top of Bielsa’s shopping list before the transfer window closes at the end of the month. Unfortunately, though, even he won’t be much use if they continue to concede five goals every week.