Marcelo Bielsa’s departure from Athletic Club during the summer had been on the cards for a while. A high-profile falling out with the hierarchy at San Mames – during which Bielsa was rumoured to have resigned or been sacked – looked to have precipitated his exit at the beginning of last season, despite the Argentine having led the Basques to the Europa League final in his first campaign in charge.
Having formerly coached Argentina and Chile, Bielsa arrived in northern Spain with a reputation for using unconventional formations and tactics and he immediately set about shaping Athletic in similar fashion. Players were deployed in unfamiliar positions, with midfielders Javi Martinez and Oscar de Marcos playing in central defence and at left-back respectively, but to limited effect as early results were discouraging.
Bielsa persisted, however, and in a Europa League campaign that confounded all expectations, Paris Saint-Germain, Lokomotiv Moscow, Manchester United, Schalke and Sporting Lisbon were put to the sword as Bielsa’s young team, playing a high tempo pressing and passing game blended with directness and physicality, reached the final in Bucharest, only to lose to Primera rivals Atletico Madrid.
Despite Athletic’s success with a cup run that galvanised the whole of the city and beyond, Bielsa was not universally acclaimed for his methods and tactics. His failure to employ any form of squad rotation, either in Europe or at home, took its toll on his young squad and, in the season that followed, Bielsa’s men were frequently caught on the break by teams who understood his system. The fatigue caused by the system itself also meant soft goals were conceded and more points dropped.
Contractual disputes with Martinez and striker Fernando Llorente did not help and, with a lack of cutting edge, last season’s optimism quickly receded as a series of bad results created genuine fears of relegation. Established defender Fernando Amorebieta, injured, out of form and wanting away, was replaced by rookie French defender Aymeric Laporte, whose error-prone displays created further unrest amongst impatient Basque supporters.
By the end of the campaign, Martinez and Llorente had departed and an air of disappointment and underachievement hung over the club, together with the sense that neither the Coach nor his players had performed to their full potential, especially after the excitement of the previous season. The club declined the option to renew Bielsa’s contract and with the unsettled Amorebieta also leaving, the management looked to restore stability by installing former player Ernesto Valverde for a second spell at the helm.
Valverde undoubtedly has a more orthodox approach to the principles of attack and defence than his predecessor did. Defenders Xabi Etxeita and Mikel Balenziaga have joined from Elche and Valladolid respectively while Benat Etxebarria has signed from Real Betis to strengthen the midfield.
With Llorente gone, Osasuna striker Kike Sola could either form a new attacking partnership with Aritz Aduriz or be competing with him for the lone striking role as Valverde looks to shape a new side at the beginning of a new era.
Valverde was one of three Coaches at Valencia last term, ultimately paying the price for failing to secure Champions League football in his six-month tenure at Mestalla. It remains to be seen whether, as a former player for Los Leones, the new Coach is given longer than that to bring the good times back to Bilbao.