Athletic Bilbao Tactics
There is no club quite like Athletic Club de Bilbao, and those who support it always speak of a special feeling in doing so. They wouldn’t be wrong either. Although in recent years Bilbao have lacked the success of Real Madrid and Barcelona, their status as one of the grandest clubs in Spanish football is permanent.
This is after all, not just the third most successful club in Spanish football history, but also once that has used only Basque players since 1912. Some class that as racism, and although the lines have been skewed in recent years, Athletic deem it as the single most important part of their clubs identity.
Athletic made one of the biggest decisions in their history at the end of last season by sacking the popular Joaquin Caparro and appointing the charismatic, fiery and intelligent Argentinean coach Marcelo Bielsa. They wanted him to take the club up to another level, and also to guide the best players the club has had in some time. He has done exactly that.
Bielsa employs a combative, fluid, energetic 4-3-3 system. There is heavy reliance on the centre backs to move out of defence with the ball, playing it carefully into midfield or using long balls into the channels for both the advanced players but also high-pressing full backs.
Gorka Iraizoz is a solid goalkeeper. He leads by example from the back and brings the most experience to the team. With another experienced player Carlos Gurpegi out injured, Iraizoz’s has had to help this young team along.
This season, Javi Martínez - one of the most sought after players in Europe - has been repositioned this season as a centre back where he’s gradually becoming a top class performer. Although the player himself said he’d rather be in midfield, he can feel a development in his game. Martinez's technical ability allows him to caress the ball and use it suitably.
Captain Andoni Iraola and Jon Aurtenetxe are the high-pressing full backs. Both are strong, athletic characters, who are competent in both their attacking and defensive abilities. Iraola is widely regarded as the best Spanish right back around.
Midfielders Ander Herrera and Oscar De Marcos are the key to Bilbao's attacking base. The former provides composure, and technical intricacy, the latter industry and endeavour, with strong running and smart movement. Ander Iturraspe is another who has progressed as a player since being pushed back into a holding role. He uses the ball well and compliments those ahead of him admirably.
The much talked about Iker Muniain plays wide left but drifts inside to support the front line. On the right, Markel Susaeta tends to stick to his flank more often, looking to beat opponents with skill.
Leading the attack, is Fernando Llorente. The giant striker is the focal point for Athletic, and the poster boy at the club. His physique makes him a natural target but he also possesses the intelligence and craft to drop off the front line and bring others into play. Of course, Llorente is deadly in front of goal too, and his 13 goals make him one of the most efficient Spanish strikers around. He’s a handful for defenders for a variety of reason.
Athletic move as one, and will take the game to Manchester United showing no fear. They’ll use quick exchanges of passing and movement to unhinge their opponents, and mix their technical abilities with physical excellence. They're mentally tough, too; Bielsa has drilled into his young team belief and the notion that they can accomplish any task put in front of them.
Bilbao's high endurance approach can have its drawbacks though. The side suffers in second halves of games, and can allow the opponent to come at them on the front foot as they look to regain energy. This can undo all their good work as it requires the players to dig deep for energy reserves, and look to tip the balance in their favour once more. Sometimes it can be too frenetic, and they need to find more composure in their game.
Probable line-up (4-3-3)
Iraola - J.Martinez - San Jose - Aurtenetxe
Iturraspe - Ander - De Marcos
Muniain - Llorente - Susaeta.
Star man: Fernando Llorente
Sometimes it feels as if Athletic work as a unit for Llorente. He’s rounded his game this season and rather than dipping out of games for long periods, he becomes more involved in the rotation of the team on the field. Strong, smart, clinical – the giant striker is not only an excellent individual player, but also lifts the whole team with his presence.
Athletic managed to win the prestigious Basque derby last weekend. They dominated for long periods of the 2-0 victory over Real Sociedad at San Mamés and although they were fortunate with a wrongly disallowed goal by La Real, Bilbao deserved the three points overall. Susaeta scored both goals and his form has been excellent of late. It was Bilbao's sixth straight home win - a feat they haven’t achieved since 2010. They currently sit 4th in the league - taking the much coveted final Champions League spot - and are favourites to maintain that position.