Marcelo Alberto Bielsa is a coach who inevitably arouses passions in football lovers. Whether on the part of his loyal admirers who border on devotion to his ideals or his fiercest critics who are on the opposite side of everything he does, his figure undoubtedly stimulates the most heated debates in this sport like few others.
Throughout his career, “El Loco” has been characterized both by the clear style of play that his teams represent and by his way of being on the outside of the lime lines. His training methods, the handling of the players, the extensive press conferences and various eccentricities that usually come out of the typical script of the game have transformed him, at least in the popular imagination, into a more striking character.
The man from Rosario has left a marked mark in all the places he went through in his career as technical director, but there is one in particular that we will highlight above the rest and that is the link with an institution as unique as himself: Athletic Club de Bilbao.
The club, founded in 1898 in the Basque Country, is so deeply rooted in the Basque community that it only allows players trained in those territories to join its ranks. Something that, however, has not deprived him of getting 8 league titles, 23 in the Copa del Rey and 2 in the Spanish Super Cup. In addition, along with Real Madrid and Barcelona, they are the only ones that have remained in the top division of Spanish football throughout its history.
These conditions make the pride and sense of belonging of its followers truly special, especially since it is also one of the few clubs in Spain that is not a sports limited company, but rather its property falls on its almost 45 thousand members. . With all this, the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa to San Mamés from the beginning seemed a perfect pairing.
“El Loco” took over from “Los Leones” in the second half of 2011 after the arrival to the presidency of Josu Urrutia, who gave him the position in replacement of Joaquín Caparrós. Thus, the coach returned to direct at the club level for the first time since 1998, after his time with the teams of Argentina and Chile.
The beginning of this new stage was not easy at all. Athletic went through its first six games in La Liga without knowing victory and doubts were growing. However, he managed to recover on the seventh day with a 2-1 victory as a visitor no less than in the classic against Real Sociedad. From there, he began to improve to the point of chaining a streak of seven games without losses.
However, while their performance in the local competition suffered these ups and downs, the Basque side was stomping on the continental level and culminated as the leader of group F of the UEFA Europa League over rivals such as RB Salzburg, Paris Saint-Germain and Slovan Bratislava. By then, players were starting to look better under DT’s game system and this translated into results and very good performances.
As the matches progressed, the team became more and more established and stood out for a very offensive style of play, enhanced by tireless pressure, fast transitions, fast counterattacks and a constant sense of numerical superiority over their rivals since any of the footballers seemed to be able to appear from all corners of the field at any moment.
The eleven already came out of memory: Gorka Iraizoz contributed firmness in the arc, Andoni Iraola, Javi Martínez, Fernando Amorebieta and Jon Aurtenetxe formed a correct defensive line that constantly contributed in the attack. In the middle, Ander Herrera, Ander Iturraspe and Óscar De Marcos were the heart of the team with a vital multi-functionality for what the tactical approach required. The wingers, Markel Susaeta and Iker Muniain, made such an intense display throughout the field as it was stabbing in the final meters, although there, in the vicinity of the rival area, none other than the “Lion King” Fernando Llorente ruled. Although some names stood out a bit above the average, the truth is that the collective always ended up taking precedence over the individual.
In the first months of 2012, Marcelo Bielsa had already caused a real revolution in Bilbao, the fans venerated him and adopted his philosophy with a song that sounded from the stands of “La Catedral”: “A lo Loco is better lived.”
Here, the most outstanding stage of the cycle arrived. Athletic closed the month of February classified for the final of the Copa del Rey, the second round of the UEFA Europa League and in 5th place in the La Liga standings. On March 4 he again prevailed in the classic against Real Sociedad 2-0 in San Mamés and just four days later he wrote one of his most remembered pages.
On March 8, the cast of Marcelo Bielsa defeated Manchester United 3-2 at the legendary Old Trafford in a real match for the first leg of the round of 16 of the European tournament. The goals of a fantastic Llorente, De Marcos and Muniain unleashed the madness of some 8000 visiting fans present at “El Teatro de los Sueños” and thousands of other fans not only in Bilbao but also in countries like Argentina and Chile, where fans of the “Loco” already extended their affection for the team. A week later, “Los Leones” closed the series at home and then continued on their way with victories against Schalke 04 and Sporting Lisboa in the quarterfinals and semis respectively.
However, what was a dream season did not have a happy ending. The very high pace of the game implemented in a non-negotiable way and a very low turnover in the starting team to face the triple competition played a trick on Athletic in the culminating moments.
First came a 3-0 UEFA Europa League final loss to Atlético Madrid on May 9 in Bucharest. Just four days later, he closed his participation exactly in the middle of the La Liga table with a fall for the same result against Levante and on the 25th of that month he suffered another 0-3 against the unstoppable Barcelona of Pep Guardiola in the match decisive of the Copa del Rey played at the Vicente Calderón in Madrid.
Despite this, the board decided to give the coach a vote of confidence and renewed their bond for another year. However, the start of the new season was turbulent due to the departure of Javi Martínez for Bayern Munich and Fernando Llorente’s decision not to extend his contract, which ended in mid-2013.
In this new process, the results definitely did not follow. Quick eliminations in the UEFA Europa League and Copa del Rey added to a very weak performance in La Liga that included some moments in the relegation zone and a close in 12th place. The magic of just a little over a year ago was finally dissipated and on June 7, 2013 the coach’s departure was confirmed.
Although the passage of Marcelo Bielsa through Athletic Club could not be crowned with a title, it has undoubtedly left an indelible memory in the fans of this particular club that does not allow anyone to win a place in their hearts and as the coach himself has assured In the years to come, it is a bond that will last forever.