Marcelo Bielsa is on the verge of returning to a managerial role, this time with Spanish side Athletic Club.
Despite there being no deal in place as of yet for the Argentine to return to Bilbao, Athletic Club and Marcelo Bielsa are in discussion. The speculation regarding Bielsa’s return to management comes from comments regarding the Athletic Club’s presidential race.
With the upcoming club election on June 24, presidential candidate Inaki Arechabaleta said that he will hire Bielsa should the club’s members elect him. According to the Athletic’s Dermot Corrigan, Arechabaleta is the least likely of the three candidates for president. However, that could change regarding the potential return of Bielsa.
Marcelo Bielsa will accept the Athletic Club managerial role should it be offered. Bizarrely, Bielsa recently broke down Athletic Club’s current squad and how it would shape out next season.
During the 2021/22 Premier League season, Leeds United relieved the Argentine of his position. In late February, Leeds United went on a string of four losses conceding a total of 17 in those games. The Yorkshire club replaced Bielsa with American Jesse Marsch with the Whites in 16th, having played two more games than then-17th Burnley.
Despite the drag in performance over his last games, Bielsa is a club legend at Leeds. Of course, his tactics returned the club to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years. However, his presence around Elland Road clearly left an impact. In fact, Leeds fans took out a full-page ad in an Argentine newspaper to thank Bielsa despite the unceremonious departure from the Premier League.
Clearly, Bielsa is someone who understands the passion of the game. Plus, he can do it with sides that may not have the funding or talent of other clubs. Yet, he pulls the best out of those at his disposal.
Enter Athletic Club de Bilbao. The Basque side has a strict self-imposed transfer policy that only allows the club to use players born or taught around the Basque nation of northern Spain.
Evidently, Los Leones understand what it means for everyone to be involved in the club. Plus, this potential manager has a history with the Basques.
Marcelo Bielsa managed Athletic Club for two seasons from 2011 to 2013. In that first season, Athletic Club finished runner-up in both the Copa del Rey and the UEFA Europa League. It is Athletic Club’s best finish in the Copa del Rey since winning in 1984. Similarly, the second-place finish is the best in Europa League history for Athletic Club.
Marcelo Bielsa at Athletic Club
In the near-decade since Bielsa left Athletic Club, much changed in the soccer world. Transfers, although perhaps not a direct correlation, dictate success. For instance, the most successful clubs in Spain, England and France have rosters dominated by players arriving via transfer.
Marcelo Bielsa does not have the opportunity to use that at Athletic Club. Even at Leeds, Bielsa acquired the likes of Raphinha, Jack Harrison, Patrick Bamford and Rodrigo on the transfer market. Each of those players had a key role in either securing promotion or retaining it in the Premier League.
Instead, Marcelo Bielsa must rely on home-grown talent specifically from the area surrounding Bilbao. Despite the geographical and cultural limits, this still opens the doors for talent at the San Mamés.
Currently, that means players like Iñaki Williams, Iker Muniain, Unai Simón and a young Oihan Sincet all performed well. Despite the challenges associated with the club, Athletic joins Barcelona and Real Madrid as the three clubs to never be relegated from the Spanish top flight. Excluding the Supercopa de España, Athletic Club’s last trophy came in 1984 with a league and cup double.
However, Marcelo Bielsa brings in tactics that got Leeds United back to its glory days. He could do the same should Athletic Club pull the trigger on his acquisition.
Breaking down Bielsa
It can be fun to speculate how Marcelo Bielsa fits into the plans for Athletic Club. Start with the obvious. Marcelino, the current Bilbao manager, employs a heavy press and a 4-4-2 formation. Athletic Club prefers to force players into isolation on the wing and limit options for assistance. At Leeds, Bielsa opted for a similar strategy. More often than not, Leeds players would defend players one-on-one, forcing the opposition to beat the defending Leeds player himself.
While Leeds and Athletic Club both executed counter-attacking style, possession is not necessarily hard to come by. In fact, Leeds had the fourth-highest average possession percentage in the Premier League during Bielsa’s full year in the English top flight, 2020/21. This past season, Athletic Club hovered around the middle of the LaLiga pack in terms of possession at 48%.
The press has its flaws. Across-the-field play and line-splitting passes put the defensive back line under pressure quickly. If the press does not lead to quick goals, it can be tiresome on the players. Moreover, there is reason to believe this could yield long-term damage and injuries to players. That strenuous nature persisted the last time Bielsa managed in LaLiga.
Impact on LaLiga
While LaLiga has little to no say over whether or not Athletic Club brings on Marcelo Bielsa, the league surely welcomes his arrival.
Marcelo Bielsa developed a strong following during his time at Leeds. He is a passionate manager that has worldwide recognition. Admittedly, he does not have the acclaim or success of a coach like Antonio Conte, Jose Mourinho, Zinedine Zidane or Carlo Ancelotti, he does have acclaim. In the last 15 years, he has managerial experience in Spain, England, Italy, France and internationally with Chile.
That experience brings in eyes based solely on experience from previous positions. LaLiga wants more eyes, and this could be an example of a manager pulling audiences.
After missing out on both Kylian Mbappé and Erling Haaland, Bielsa could be a storyline to follow in LaLiga.
PHOTO: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images
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