FEATURE | Marcelo Bielsa’s two-year spell in charge of Athletic Club

Marcelo Bielsa hails from Rosario, Argentina. Rosario is a proper football city and home to Lionel Messi. The derby between Newells Old Boys and Rosario Central is one of the biggest in the country, making the port city a hotbed of football.

When a club comes knocking on Bielsa’s door, they know they will have their work cut out in trying to entice him to their club. Leeds United’s owners flew to Argentina with the intention of convincing “El Loco” to take over at Elland Road. Bielsa interviewed them. His attention to detail is like no other and from the training ground to the canteen, he’ll be interested in the club environment, facilities and culture. The current facilities at Newell’s Old Boys have been dramatically boosted thanks to a €2 million investment made by Bielsa himself. A club he played for and managed, now have their stadium called Estadio Marcelo Bielsa.

The same applied to the northern Spanish city, Bilbao. Bielsa studied the area, the population, football culture and what the club stands for. In 2011, Athletic Club hired Bielsa, after his successful spells in charge of the Argentina and Chile national teams and six games in La Liga with Espanyol.

The 2011/12 season will live long in the memory of many Athletic fans, however, the Argentine deemed it a failure. Two cup final defeats to Atletico Madrid in the Europa League and Barcelona in the Copa del Rey. Pep Guardiola, one of the many Bielsa “disciples” spoke to him at length after Barcelona collected the trophy at Atletico Madrid’s Vicente Calderón stadium.

After the cup final in the Spanish capital, Guardiola said to Bielsa: “you know more about Barcelona than me”. Bielsa gave all the notes he compiled on Barça to Guardiola, as a gift to express his admiration for the young coach.

The locals loved him in Bilbao – however, he keeps a distance with his players – saying that he doesn’t get too close to them because they’ll find out how crazy he really is. In his first season at San Mamés, the fans were dreaming – knocking Manchester United out of the Europa League and reaching the final, only to be defeated 3-0 by Atletico Madrid.

Hugely demanding of himself, he had no qualms about accepting responsibility for defeat in both 2012 finals. This is a man adored by fellow Argentine coaches Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone. Along with assistant Jorge Griffa, he scouted a young Pochettino when he was a kid and brought him to Newell’s. Poch comes from a small village in Argentina called Murphy, a place named after an Irish immigrant, with a population of just over 3,000 inhabitants. Bielsa travelled the country in search of youth players – he arrived at the Pochettino household early one morning with Griffa, telling the young player’s father who they were and the family let them in.

Describing the story several years later, Griffa revealed Pochettino was very big for a 13-year-old. “He was enormous for his age, like an elephant.” The former Tottenham Hotspur manager went on to join Newell’s Old Boys and later won back-to-back league titles with them in 1991 and 1992, with Bielsa as head coach.

It was a new attacking style of play that they had never seen before at the old San Mamés stadium in Bilbao. The former Argentina national team manager brings average players to the next level – creating a fitness regime like no other. Players become fitter than ever to fit into his non-stop, aggressive attacking system. Perhaps part of the problem in his second and final year in the Basque country came from burnout from the rigours of competing domestically and on the continent in the 2011/12 season.

Athletic get their red and white stripes from English club Southampton. Bilbao student Juan Elorduy picked up 50 shirts in Southampton when catching the ship home to Spain. The colours are also the same as the city of Bilbao’s flag and they started using their colours in 1910. Despite their Basque-only player policy, they’ve hired foreign managers like Bielsa over the years. British manager Howard Kendall took over at the club in the late 1980s.

“We played with no fear. He’s a special person,” Spanish midfielder Ander Herrera said when speaking about his time with Bielsa in La Liga. Herrera remembers one Bielsa phrase in particular: “The best way to defend a 1-0 lead is to score a second”.

While in charge of Bilbao, he always had time for supporters of the club from across the world. On one particular afternoon, a fan approached Bielsa for his photo to be taken. “Where are you from?”, “Japan,” the fan replied. “Great country Japan, great country, decent, honest people,” said Bielsa. 

The 2012/13 season saw Los Leones finish 12th in the league, not the way the man from Rosario would’ve wanted it to end, but in true Bielsa fashion, he left his mark on a great club.   

Kieran Quaile

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