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 ESPN3.com).
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  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“).