We have all been there. Sitting seemingly forever, watching during the presentation, the next page of the PowerPoint page of stats and results, the seas of numbers on the screen, and a voice going through them all in minute detail that I long ago stopped listening to drift a bit now.
Only this was different. This was better: this was Bielsa.
On Monday, Marcelo Bielsa was introduced as Athletic’s new coach – if Iñaki Arrichabaleta is voted as president in Friday’s election. Which, for a brief time there and for that very reason, seemed certain that it would be. How could it not be? He had a Bielsa – Bielsa! – Whereas the other candidates, Ricardo Barcala and John Uriart, had… well, they didn’t have anyone. not yet.
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Arichabaleta said that when he approached Bielsa to join him in his bid for the Athletic presidency, the Argentine coach responded by asking him about the time. He replied that the best thing was the continuation of current coach Marcelino Garcia Toral and in any case, he needed to be able to study the proposal. So he did. Marcelino didn’t continue – in part because he knew there was an election campaign coming up and didn’t really want to be a part of it – and now Bielsa presents his results.
He did not come to Bilbao, there were no interviews, no standing there smiling with a scarf, no handshakes and greetings. No round of questions or interrogation, except as he did himself. Instead, it was done by video and all the graphs and graphics. In a room in Bilbao or following her online, they watched Bielsa sitting in front of them, skinny, with very short hair, doing what Bielsa does: speaking very slowly, taking them into his analysis. He was just like him, and they knew it: Arrichaballeta’s proposal was for him to take over for the second time, having been at the club between 2011 and 2013.
The first time, Bielsa gave a presentation as well. It was straightforward: There was the classic connection problem, then Bielsa had to briefly excuse himself to get into the toilet. This time was pre-recorded, and played all the way.
He said he watched 45 Athletic games last season. 45 sports matches, 38 team matches, four team matches and three matches for the under-19 team. He’s seen every team Athletic will face as well – except for Girona, whose promotion came too late – and he worked out every detail. Run through the number of times each player has participated, talking about structures, players and emotions, ways to reach them, and the ways their methods have evolved. Talk and talk for an hour and ten minutes.
And he insisted that this team was really good: “They are playing well, and I love them,” he repeated, “and the best thing was Marcelino’s continuation.” But the promise – except that Bielsa made no promises – was that this could be better, better than the current team under Marcelino and better than the team Bielsa coached before. He said this band would suit him better than the first team he had.
It’s an attractive idea. This, after all, reached the final of the European League and the King’s Cup. At Old Trafford, they beat Manchester United after giving the best performance anyone can remember. There was a connection, a feeling that this guy who at first didn’t seem fit at all had already gotten a good fit. They all finished exhausted, it was true, but there was some flight. When asked once if Bielsa was really as crazy as people said, Iker Munnin replied: “No, he’s even more insane.” But fans love him for that. In the end, they sang for him to stay, but he was gone.
Now he’s back. Or at least it could be, if Aricaballita wins, and not many will vote against that now. Even with other doubts about his candidacy – who is the sporting director? Who are the players he cares about? – Or his character was Bielsa.
Arrichaballeta, who didn’t stop him from pointing out that Marcelo from the past delivered what he claimed was the club’s best season of the century insisted.
This has revolutionized everything, people have gone crazy. Not only there: suddenly everywhere everyone was talking about it, about Athletic. It also looks like he’s pretty much done with it. Arechabaleta collected the fewest signatures so far as a rough indication of support: Fidel Uriarte had 6041, Ricardo Barcala had 4054, while he had 2,987. But feeling this was crucial, it was almost done. How can you overcome this?
Maybe like this? Earlier in the campaign, Mauricio Pochettino’s name appeared briefly as a possibility under Barcala, but now, two days after Bielsa’s introduction, the two other candidates have announced that their manager will be Ernesto Valverde. If they win, he will return for his third spell at the club, after 2003-05 and 2013-17. He had followed Bielsa last time, a welcome relief, and he was hugely successful, leading them to the Champions League and Spanish Super Cup, Athletic’s first title in thirty years. Now Valverde has been offered to face Bielsa.
Like Marcelino, Valverde didn’t want to be involved in a campaign that always risked splitting. He intended to walk away from that, which is not to say not to become the coach, always available when they needed him. Despite this, he has now agreed to join both candidates who contacted him. Both were for a reason: “It had to be inclusive, not exclusive,” he said.
“My idea was to have a certain consensus,” Valverde said. “I thought the best thing was to have an agreement on the coach, as was the case with the women’s team with Iraya.” “I thought that would be the best thing for the club with the coach who was there, Marcelino. But for whatever reason, it wasn’t possible.”
Valverde has not coached since his dismissal from Barcelona, having won two titles in La Liga and the King’s Cup. Barcelona have not won anything since then. I’ve mostly gotten out of the way. After Barcelona, there was a moment of running away, looking for your space – he brought in a new batch of his photos – and then the epidemic came. “It’s not that I locked myself in the house,” he said, “everyone did.”
Valverde is a coach who is able to normalize tension and pressure and rise above it in some way, relieving it which is part of the reason he has achieved so much. After Bielsa, he brought in much-needed air and breathing room – and success.
A win rate of 47.89% (higher than anyone else this century: Bielsa was 38.1%, Marcelino was 37.33%, Garitano was 41.57%). That’s fourth, followed by seventh, fifth, seventh (after which Athletic took 16th, 8th, 11th, 10th). The 2015 Super Cup will destroy Barcelona.
There’s something admirable about him, not a hint of ego, which probably didn’t always help him. There is no sales promotion, quite the opposite; There is no urge to go out when it suits him either. Akbar’s jobs were turned down because he felt that wasn’t right. He couldn’t be more liked in Bilbao, but sometimes it can seem that people don’t talk about him enough elsewhere, perhaps in part because he doesn’t. Since Barcelona, the offers that have come have not always been convincing; This is not a manager desperate to work anywhere.
But Athletic is nowhere, it’s everything. From the outside it’s not always appreciated but this is a huge club. “What does the Athletic mean in Bilbao, in Vizcaya, I haven’t seen anywhere before,” he says.
And here they are again. There’s more to discuss – not least the massive damage done to John Uriarty’s campaign after his proposed sporting director Carlos Avena was fired after broadcasting sexist, racist and homophobic tweets he had written – but now it feels like outright. Face to face and between two men whose reputation could hardly be higher.
Now they have to choose. With Bielsa’s announcement, it looked over. With Valverde, no. Ironically, the thing he is opposed to most may be the fact that he is in two nominations, and the vote for “him” is split.
Either way, Athletic have a man they love coming back for. But will it be the same?
“The supplements were not good at all,” Valverde said when he came back last time. Well, far from the godfather part two.