Since losing in two major cup finals last season, Athletic Bilbao have disappeared from the the footballing radar of late. The Basque side are well off of the pace in Spanish La Liga and tumbled out of the Europa League on Thursday despite not travelling to a war troubled Israel for their game. This is the exact team who humbled Manchester United in the competition last season, so why have the club faltered so much lately?
Bilbao suffered defeat in both the Europa League and Copa del Rey finals and a summer exodus of their impeccably talented roster was expected. But for Javi Martinez, the squad resembles much of what brought success so close to the San Mames last year. Ander Hererra, Iker Muniain, Andoni Iraola and Markel Susaeta were all wanted by top European clubs during the summer but have remained and performed way below the standard set last year.
Even Fernando Llorente, arguably the club’s best player, can be found in Athletic’s famous red and white stripes despite an ongoing transfer saga that rumbles on. He voiced his wishes to leave Bilbao but was denied and instead attempted to negotiate a contract reportedly worth €50,000 per week. That fell through and he and coach Marcelo Bielsa fell out resulting in Athletic’s star man finding himself consigned to the bench on a weekly basis.
The good news is that in light of the unrest in the camp and requirement for results to improve, Bielsa started Llorente from the beginning against Deportivo on Saturday. Llorente has just one goal this season and has been an incredible miss for the team as they tread water in 14th place. Should he start more regularly then he could form an ideal partnership with Aduriz Aduritz and fire Bilbao towards the top half.
Llorente will prove extra goals but Athletic haven’t struggled the most with that aspect of the game. Defensively the club have been woeful. In the opening two games Athletic conceded 9 goals! Their defence has improved slightly since then but the club still possess the second worst record in the division. Fernando Amorebieta’s weaknesses have been prevalent this year and Borja Ekiza has not looked confident in La Liga this season. Mikel San Jose’s early season form was disastrous and Carlos Gurpegi has been shifted into central midfield to provide extra cover for the centre backs.
The problem doesn’t lie with the poor performances of the back four but the continual shifting and rotation. Bielsa has not kept a consistent centre back pairing all season and has struggled to find the key duo to remain all season. These four players have been trialled and tested in a number of different ways and none have kept their place.
The transfer system has proven its flaws this season as the problems in defence were apparent from the start; yet Bilbao weren’t willing to risk signing someone from their small pool who wouldn’t be good enough. Consequently Bilbao have had to continue as though they have been hobbling throughout the season. Their tactics have been awry and it was recently pointed out at Real Madrid that Bilbao ran the champions riot last season. Instead after the 5-1 defeat, a Real player mocked that Bilbao’s players ran but with little idea of where they were going.
Marcelo Bielsa gave the impression of an assured and knowledgeable coach last season. Now he employs tactics which vary from match to match and has clearly unsettled the team. A solution may be nearer than he thinks but by rapidly testing different strategies he believes he will find the winning formula quicker. A risky approach to sell games for the sake of squad experimentation but one that will nevertheless be boosted by Llorente’s return. Plans for next season may already be afoot within the Bilbao dressing room.
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