No end to Bilbao misery

Athletic Bilbao’s dreadful start to the season continued on Monday as Marcelo Bielsa’s men shipped another four goals to leave them propping up the embryonic Primera Liga table. Their leaky defence is nothing new, but Athletic’s problems appear to run much deeper.

Barely five months ago, Athletic had become everybody’s favourites for their quick, pressing, all-action style of football against some of Europe’s finest. Bielsa’s energetic and exciting Basque outfit swept past Lokomotiv Moscow, Manchester United, Schalke and Sporting CP to reach the Europa League final in Bucharest.

Only then did they meet their match, succumbing, with retrospective irony, to Atletico Madrid. A brace from Falcao set up Atleti’s victory in May, but both he and his club went one better on Monday, the Colombian’s hat-trick inspiring a 4-0 rout over Bielsa’s sorry charges.

Impressive as their fast and highly physical game was during that spectacular cup run, Athletic’s defence could hardly have been described as watertight. United put three past them, and Schalke four, but so resilient were Bilbao that they could always dig deep and find that little bit extra to see them through.

The club’s parallel form in La Liga was in stark contrast to their European exploits. Sitting comfortably in sixth place in April amidst talk of Champions League qualification, Athletic proceeded to take just a solitary point from their final four games, failing to find the net once in the process.

The loss of domestic form was seen as a natural consequence of a physically punishing Cup run, and when the 3-0 reverse in Bucharest was repeated in the Copa del Rey final a fortnight later, albeit against Barcelona, many observers were kind to Bielsa’s tyros in defeat. They had come up against superior opponents and prematurely run out of steam.

Close season unrest at San Mames set the tone for the difficulties ahead. Bielsa was apparently on the verge of quitting after internal wrangling with board members. Activity in the transfer market has been limited, with only 31-year-old Valencia striker Aritz Aduriz rejoining Los Leones from Valencia.

The high-profile absence of Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez
has hardly helped, and the situation of both players is yet to be resolved. Llorente has failed to agree to a new contract, and has been linked with Tottenham and Juventus, while Martinez appears set for a move to Bayern Munich. Both have been frozen out of first-team action.

Bielsa has continued to employ a style of football that dazzles when it works, but exposes fragilities when things go wrong. Athletic fought back from three down to level at home against Real Betis on the opening day of La Liga, only to then lose 5-3 to the Sevilla side, underlining disarray and defensive frailty within the team.

When Bielsa hailed a subsequent 6-0 win over HJK Helsinki in the Europa League as the perfect response, hailing the ‘healing power of football’ in the process, he was surely deluding nobody but himself. It may have been Bilbao’s biggest home win in European competition, but HJK are hardly Barcelona. 

Bielsa can point to the absence of Fernando Amorebieta as well as Martinez, but must eradicate the defensive sloppiness that has seen Athletic concede nine times in their opening two Primera fixtures, their worst ever start to a season.

With Llorente and the teenage winger Iker Muniain missing in attack, Athletic lack the punch and energy that characterised so much of their football last season and inspired some unlikely victories. On Monday, it was left to Falcao to demonstrate these qualities, sinking Athletic so ruthlessly in the process. 

To its credit, the club is refusing to make any excuses. It is still early days, of course, but football can be an unforgiving business. Fans and club directors have selectively short memories and last season’s will fade fast if Athletic continue to implode. Another Europa League sticking plaster might this time be harder to apply.