Athletic Bilbao: Ernesto Valverde leading the Los Leones renaissance with embers of Bielsa

Ernesto Valverde, who had just left Valencia after a doing a good job at the Mestalla in the second half of last season, was Barcelona’s first-choice to take over from Tito Vilanova. He eventually lost out on the Nou Camp to Tata Martino as Valverde headed to Bilbao to replace Marcelo Bielsa as the Basque club began a new era.

Out went the coach who had created an innovative, high-pressing, wonderfully talented side that reached two Copa Del Rey finals and a Europa League final in 3 eccentric seasons and so did the San Mames, the stadium that had stood since 1913 and served Bilbao for 99 years.

On Sunday evening, the renovated ground was scene of the ultimate test of Valverde’s reign so far. Bilbao were sat fifth after losing just 4 of their opening 15 games and they were unbeaten at their new stadium. Barcelona’s visit however promised to be the sternest examination of that record, rolling into town on the back of a run that had seen them take 40 points from the opening 42 on offer.

As a Tweet from the club late on Sunday night pronounced, the unbeaten home record remained intact as the Catalans departed; Iker Muniain’s goal meant Bilbao had become the first La Liga side to beat Martino’s Barca.

Barcelona were oddly subdued, registering just 2 shots on target in a sluggish display that will raise questions over the uncertain direction in which Martino is taking them. There is no doubt the direction Valverde is taking Bilbao however, fourth in the table and showing signs that resemble the better parts of the Bielsa era. Intent pressing and organisation off the ball and intelligent movement on it, linked together by technical brilliance and fluidity.

“They knew how to press us” said Martino. The identity of the scorer was significant too in Muniain, a 20 year old whose form had dipped under latter-day Bielsa but now rediscovering some of what made him one of the most exciting prospects in Europe. His winner was his 3rd of a season that has also produced 2 assists.

It hasn’t been the most drastic transitions from the Bielsa era that just seemed to fizzle out of momentum after the Argentine had certified himself as one of Europe’s most coveted coaches following the golden year of 2012.

Javi Martinez sewed the seeds to the eventual end with his acrimonious exit to Bayern Munich whilst Fernando Llorente fell out with his coach before going through the motions in his final season. His form reflected that of a club who had just seemed to relinquish all momentum and were in need of an urgent overhaul as they limped to a 12th place finish.

Among 6 players to leave the club, to Juventus went Llorente whilst long-serving centre-half Fernando Amorebieta left for Fulham, both on free transfers, and Valverde was handed £13 million to refurbish his squad. The vast majority of that, £7 million, was used on Benat Exteberria from Real Betis, whilst Mikel Rico and Kike Sola also arrived. Defenders Mikel Balenziaga and Xabier Etxeita came in from Real Valladolid and Elche respectively, as well as the usual intake from their famed Cantera in the Basque country.

Of the 5 arrivals, only Rico and Benat have made over 10 appearances as Valverde has utilised the players he inherited from Bielsa. Pressing, ambition, cohesion, inter-changing, they are all traits that were present under the Chilean, Valverde has merely continued that blueprint with largely the same group of players, though has proven himself to be a better man-manager in his early days.

Ander Herrera, subject of transfer window deadline interest from Manchester United, was dropped but recovered to produce an outstanding display in the win over Barcelona, making 5 tackles to suffocate Andres Iniesta and Xavi despite playing in an advanced role. It is this commitment and work-rate that Valverde seems to be drawing from his players, led on Sunday in attack by the tireless Gaizka Toquero, the embodiment of Bilbao’s determination and the pride borne out of their Basque-only playing policy.

The defence, marshalled expertly by captain Carlos Gurpegi alongside Aymeric Laporte, remained solid despite the feebleness of which Barcelona attacked. There was no Lionel Messi, Victor Valdes or Dani Alves whereas Iniesta and Xavi were taken off to be replaced by Sergi Roberto and Pedro.

“I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw them go,” said Gurpegi as Athletic were encouraged further. It was an admission from Martino that Bilbao had reduced Barcelona, so used to controlling possession with the hypnotic link-up between their midfield, to a desperate, direct throw of the dice.

They perhaps got a huge slice of luck as Ander Iturraspe escaped with just a yellow as he stumbled over Neymar with the Brazilian clean through on goal, but Bilbao deserved it. It may have even been argued, despite the best efforts of Martino, that they were the better team. As Valverde’s fate took him to Bilbao rather than Catalonia in the summer, that is a huge testament to the effect he has had.

It is a new manager, a new stadium, but still the same old loveable Athletic Club.


Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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