What to Watch This Weekend: Athletic Bilbao-Barcelona, Guardiola Visits Bielsa

November 6, 2011 — by Suman



What to Watch This Weekend: Athletic Bilbao-Barcelona, Guardiola Visits Bielsa

November 6, 2011 — by Suman

We’ve been remiss in posting our weekend TV guides the past couple weeks. This weekend we offer a belated and truncated version, consisting of a single match that’s kicking off in just a few hours: La Liga’s late match on Sunday, Athletic Bilbao hosting FC Barcelona, kicking off at 8pm in la Catedral de futbol” Estadio San Mamés (which corresponds to 2pmET; televised in the US on ESPN Deportes, and also available via

Why only this match? Well, there weren’t any other matchups in England or across the continent this weekend that stood out as must-see TV. But this one is interesting on multiple levels.

There is the fact, of course, that it’s Barcelona, who we maintain you should watch whenever you get a chance. As we’ve heard ad nauseum, they are the greatest side of our era, featuring the best player of our time. Actually, featuring a number of the best players of our time—eight Barca players were among the 23 on the shortlist for this year’s Balon d’Or .  In addition to the 3 finalists for last year’s award–Xavi, Iniesta, and award-winner Messi–also on the shortlist are Cesc Fabregas, David Villa, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique and Eric Abidal. (To be fair, Real Madrid wasn’t far behind with 5 nominees–Cristiano Ronaldo, Iker Casillas, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso, and Mesut Ozil.)

But it’s not only Barcelona. It’s also Athletic Bilbao–the Basque team which aspires to be one of the “alternatives” to the Barcelona/Madrid axis of hegemony in La Liga, which is newly managed by a crazy genius Argentine whom Pep Guardiola considers one of his managerial inspirations–to whose house in Argentina Guardiola made a pilgrimage when he was considering a career as a manager.

His name is Marcelo Bielsa, his arrival in Bilbao was highly anticipated, and his tenure there started terribly: two draws and three losses in their first five league matches. But they started to turn it around at the beginning of October, which prompted both of the Guardian’s cerebral football columnists Sid Lowe and Jonathan Wilson to devote columns to Bilbao under Bielsa.

Here is Sid Lowe’s column from Oct 3:

Marcelo Bielsa is a little less loco this morning. His Athletic Bilbao team won a game on Sunday and not just any game but the Basque derby:Real Sociedad versus Athletic Bilbao under the midday sun on the Bay of Biscay, Euskadi’s biggest match and one of Spain’s, too.

For the Argentine manager’s nickname is “loco Bielsa”–an eccentric genius who before this season had not managed in Europe, aside from an aborted stint at Espanayol back in 1998. But in the intervening 12 years he made his mark managing first his country’s national team (1998-2004) and then rival Chile’s (2004-2011); he resurrected the latter, taking them to 2nd in South American qualifying for South Africa, and Zonal Marking called “Bielsa’s Chile the most tactically-exciting side” going into that World Cup.

But Lowe describes how although Bielsa’s arrival was highly anticipated in Bilbao, Athletic has a formidable tradition and identity that he’s had to adapt to:

Spaniards are fond of telling you – if you are English anyway – that Athletic is the most English of clubs.

Visit San Mamés and it is hard to disagree. Athletic is the home of the giant defender and the battering-ram striker, of rain and mud, and roaring fans, of long balls and powerful headers. It is summed up in arguably the most famous remark ever uttered in Spanish football history, when José María Belausteguigoitia shouted: “Give me the ball, Sabino, I’ll flatten them” and promptly flattened them.

That was at the [1920] Antwerp Olympics and came to define the “Red Fury”, the Spanish style that was Basque. Bielsa was trying to change the approach; he was also trying to change one hundred years of history, and at the proud club that probably feels its history more keenly than any other.

Jonathan Wilson’s Guardian Sport Blog post addresses “The Question: Is Marcelo Bielsa’s model right for Athletic Bilbao?” and in typical Wilsonian fashion focuses on Bielsa’s tactics. Though he also alludes to Athletic Bilbao’s identity as the most English of Spanish clubs:

Athletic is a club with a clearly defined style of its own. The bowler-hatted figure of Fred Pentland, the Englishman who coached them through the glory years of the 20s and early 30s, still looms over the club, as an exhibition in the museum at San Mames makes clear. He first instituted a direct approach, favouring a robust, “English-style” centre-forward, a tradition that endures in the shape of Fernando Llorente, a remarkable combination of finesse and muscularity.

But he describes Bielsa’s model as potentially complementary to this direct approach–a style of “vertical football” defined as “getting the ball forward quickly without necessarily resorting to aimless long balls”–but combined with hard pressing high up the pitch (more on this tactical philosophy much further down below, and also in a Zonal Marking post from August titled  “Bielsa set to thrive in Bilbao“).

Lowe and Wilson mention several Athletic players worth watching: not only the aforementioned Fernando Llorente up front, at “la punta” of the attack, a player who has won 19 caps playing for Spain (including an appearance in South Africa for the World Cup-winning side); but also “the highly exciting 18-year-old Iker Muniain,” who seems to play in an attacking midfield role; and behind him in central midfield the 23-year old Javi Martinez. (Lowe, describing Bielsa’s tendency to play players out of their usual position: “Javi Martinez, one of the finest central midfielders in the country, has been played at centre back-–where, rather than brilliant, he is just very good.”)

The latter has already earned 7 caps with the senior Spanish side, where obviously it’s no simple matter to break into the midfield, including a cameo appearance in South Africa. Both he and Muniain featured prominently in the junior Spanish side that won the U21 Euro championship this past summer.  In fact Javi Martinez captained that squad, ahead of such young stars such as Juan Mata, Thiago Alcantara, and Bojan Krkic.  Another young Athletic midfielder who was also on that U21 winning side: 22-year old Ander Herrera, a native son of Bilbao, who Athletic brought home this past summer from Real Zaragoza, and also plays in an attacking midfield role.

If Bilbao can manage to hang on to Javi Martinez, Muniain, and Herrera, they have a young core that could take the Basque team places. We’ll be watching to see how they match up against the famed and fearsome Barcelona midfield featuring all those Balon d’Or candidates.

Just as intriguing will be the managerial matchup, the first between the Yoda-like Bielsa and young Jedi Guardiola.  Although that analogy is usually used with Guardiola’s former manager Cryuff in the Yoda role, it seems to fit here too, especially since Guardiola did make that journey to Bielsa’s home in order to pick his brain.  That was that one prior meeting, and today will be their first meeting as managerial adversaries.

Evidently Guardiola has been strongly and deeply influenced by Bielsa’s footballing philosophy.  Apparently Guardiola spent half his press conference yesterday praising Bielsa.  And this column in El País describes “El ‘loco’ que Pep lleva dentro“–“El ‘loco’ that Pep has inside him” (or “has absorbed”?  Our knowledge of Castilian idioms is limited.  Nevertheless, here’s an attempt at a longer translation from that column:

El 10 de octubre de 2006, Josep Guardiola viajó en coche de Buenos Aires a Rosario para reunirse con Marcelo Bielsa. El encuentro entre dos tipos con visceral curiosidad infantil generó escenas impagables, tremendas disputas de concepto y, finalmente, consecuencias futbolísticas eternas, porque además de una relación fundamentada en el respeto, se gestó otra personal, basada en una devoción sincera.

Bielsa descubrió a un tipo tan apasionado como él mismo por la razón del juego -locura le llaman algunos- y Guardiola obtuvo justificación verbal para muchas de sus convicciones, carentes de razón. Seguramente por eso, el día que Guardiola fue presentado como nuevo entrenador del Barcelona, alguien reparó en que en gran parte del discurso se refería al libro Lo suficientemente loco, publicado por Ediciones Corregidor en 2004, y firmado por Ariel Senosiain, una biografía de Bielsa. “¿Qué te crees, que nací enseñado?”, respondió Guardiola al ser advertido de ello.

Here goes, with Google Translate’s help:

On October 10, 2006, Josep Guardiola traveled by car from Buenos Aires to Rosario to meet Marcelo Bielsa. The meeting these two men with visceral childlike curiosity generated priceless scenes, tremendous conceptual arguments, and, finally, lasting consequences for football, because apart from forming a relationship based on respect, another personal one was gestated, based on a sincere devotion.

Bielsa had found a man as passionate as him for the reason [concepts?] of the game–some call it madness–and Guardiola had found verbalizations for many of their beliefs, without reason. That is surely why, on the day that Guardiola was introduced as new coach of Barcelona, ​​someone noticed that much of his talk concerned the book is Sufficiently Loco, a biography of Bielsa published by Ediciones Corregidor in 2004, and penned by Ariel Senosiain. “What do you think, that I was born taught?” responded Guardiola when asked about this.

What follows is a list of strikingly parallel aphorisms uttered by Guardiola and Bielsa, which we won’t even attempt to translate–but the columnist ends with a curious and telling footnote regarding a common conceptual antecedent of Bielsa and Guardiola

Puedo perdonar jugar bien o mal, pero el talento depende de la inspiración y el esfuerzo depende de cada uno; la actitud es innegociable”. “Solo sirve ganar, todos los sistemas son buenos, pero no puedo ganar sin transmitir lo que siento”. “No concibo otra manera de encarar el partido que no sea ser protagonistas, ir a buscar y hacer nuestro el partido”. “Soy un fan absoluto del fútbol de ataque, cuando veo la pelota en el campo contrario estoy muy tranquilo”. “Planteo los partidos pensando en cómo hacer daño al rival”. “Atacaremos mejor si defendemos mejor y defenderemos mejor si atacamos mejor”. “Uno solo es poca cosa, juntos somos más fuertes”. “Mi trabajo es sacar el máximo potencial de mis jugadores”. “Tenemos derecho a jugar mal”. Son frases que Guardiola, antes o después, ha usado.

Bielsa ha dicho: “El fútbol es una cuestión de actitud, aprendí del deporte el valor del esfuerzo”. “Correr es un acto voluntario, no de inspiración”. “Entrenar es ser capaz de poner en juego las facultades habilitadas a un jugador por la naturaleza”. “El fútbol descansa sobre cuatro premisas fundamentales, cómo pasar de la defensa al ataque y del ataque a la defensa”. “Mi equipo siempre ha de ser protagonista, nunca pienso en la espera”. “Lo fundamental es ocupar la cancha”. “Ningún equipo juega siempre bien”. ¿Les suena? Su discurso es tremendamente parecido, porque lo es su manera de sentir el juego. Además, por concepto son devotos del Ajax de Van Gaal, especialmente por cómo ocupaba aquel equipo los espacios.

The last sentence: “Moreover, conceptually both are devotees of the Ajax of Van Gaal, especially in the way that their team occupy space.”

We’d been thinking about Van Gaal’s Ajax–the sides of the early 1990s which culminated with a remarkable European championship in 1995–as a predecessor to Guardiola’s Barcelona, after re-reading parts of Brilliant Orange during a recent trip to Amsterdam.  It was striking to read about Van Gaal’s tactical innovations–the hard and high pressing, the quick one-two movement of the ball around the pitch–in light of the pressing tiki-taka we’ve seen Guardiola refine over the past few years.  That–and Bielsa’s role in these tactical/conceptual developments in the intervening years–will have to be a subject for future posts, in particular after dipping into Jonathan Wilson’s “Inverting the Pyramid.”