The New Year is always a time for fresh hope, a chance to ‘start over’. After seeing his side lose 2- 0 at home to Real Zaragoza just before the Christmas break, this is exactly what Marcelo Bielsa suggested himself. After a horrid start to the season that has seen the Basque team eliminated from the Copa del Rey and the Europa League without barely a whimper and lying in the second half of the table, Athletic certainly needed to ‘start over’ as the New Year dawned.
However, the early signs are not good. Just like they ended 2012, Bielsa’s side have started 2013 with a loss. It was their ninth of the season to date – almost double the number of defeats they suffered at this juncture last term. It already seems very much the case of New Year but same old Athletic.
While the club has demonstrated admirable faith in Bielsa’s abilities despite their dramatic fall from grace – this is the team that made the final of the Copa del Rey and the Europa League in 2012 – sooner or later one suspects that question marks over the Argentine’s position will need to be asked.
Bielsa’s side sit in 14th position and while they enjoy a comfortable five-point buffer between them and Real Mallorca, most worryingly is that only seven points separate them and last-placed Osasuna. The pride of the Basque country, Athletic have never been relegated from the first division – a record they share with Barcelona and Real Madrid. The closest they have ever come was just seven years ago when they finished only one place outside the drop zone. For obvious reasons, this is one record one can be certain the club do not want to break.
One of the most admired and respected tacticians of his generation, Bielsa has influenced the modern game unlike most of his contemporaries. The principle tenets of his football philosophy are based on aggressive defensive pressing with a high line, ball possession and quick transformations between the defensive and attacking phases. Such elements have been adopted and tried by many a Coach across the world while former Barcelona Coach Pep Guardiola has often cited the Argentine as the one of his greatest influences.
While Bielsa’s approach has brought him and others success in the past, his system seems to have run of out steam in Bilbao. And, one could say this quite literally. His philosophy requires absolute and undiminishing concentration while he demands his players to run, run and run. But, his players seem exhausted and there was perhaps no more a telling sign in how last season his team completely imploded in the finals of the Copa del Rey and the Europa League.
This season it has been no different. His players continue to look tired and the effect that this is having on their concentration may partly explain their poor defensive record in the League. Coupled with the departure of Javi Martinez and the turmoil surrounding want-away star Fernando Llorente, the wheels have completely fallen of at San Mames and perhaps a fresh approach is required.
Club president Josu Urrutia will know quite well, however, that when he hired Bielsa he hired a man hardwired for only one brand of football, his brand. He is not the type to be more pragmatic for the sake of the team. Principle and philosophy matter to him more.
However, remaining in the Primera Division is what matters most for Athletic Bilbao. Unless the players start responding to Bielsa soon, maybe the only way they can truly ‘start over’ is by starting over with a new Coach.