It was a long time coming, but late into his career English football finally became acquainted with the unique genius of Marcelo Bielsa.
His ideas, borrowed and adapted, have become part of the game here, but the man himself did not arrive on these shores until 2018 to make Leeds United a force again and end their 16-year exile outside of the top flight.
Bielsa’s Leeds made a statement in their first match back in the Premier League, losing 4-3 away to Liverpool on the opening match of the 2020-21 season. That’s not the first time a Bielsa side has given the champions of England a shock to the system.
Back in 2012, his Athletic Bilbao side unforgettably knocked Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United out of the Europa League, beating them home and away, 5-3 on aggregate.
A bolt from the blue
It would be stretching it to say that Bielsa was an unknown in 2012.
Any footballing anorak with a well-worn copy of Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting The Pyramid would tell you about the Argentine establishing himself as the high priest of the high press with his revelatory Newell’s Old Boys side of the early 90s.
He was haunched on the touchline as a young Mauricio Pochettino ‘tripped’ Michael Owen to concede a penalty at the 2002 World Cup as his much-fancied Argentina side lost 1-0 to England.
And his Chile side, playing a 3-3-1-3, caught the eye at the 2010 World Cup. They suffered a group-stage exit but gave eventual champions Spain a real test.
But Bilbao was Bielsa’s first real stint in European football, save for a short-lived spell at Espanyol cut short after he was offered the Argentina job. It was long before noted Bielsistas Pochettino and Pep Guardiola would arrive in the Premier League, alongside Jurgen Klopp, to make aggressive pressing commonplace in English football.
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It was an era in which Alex McLeish, Steve Kean, Alan Pardew, Martin O’Neill, Paul Lambert, Sam Allardyce, Tony Pulis, Harry Redknapp and Mark Hughes managed in the Premier League – and many of them did pretty damn well.
People actually tipped Owen Coyle to succeed Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, and David Moyes did succeed Ferguson at Manchester United.
It was long before your average football fan would have any clue what xG stood for. The sophisticated positional interplay and rabid energy of Bielsa’s best teams was just as alien.
🗣️ "I think we are in front of the best coach there is currently on the planet."
A throwback to when Pep Guardiola showered Marcelo Bielsa in praise before Barcelona faced Athletic Bilbao.
— The Coaches' Voice (@CoachesVoice) October 29, 2019
Bielsa’s Athletic had only qualified for the Europa League after Fenerbahce had been thrown out of the Champions League for match-fixing, with Trabzonspor taking their place, thus avoiding a daunting early-season trip to Turkey for the second leg of their play-off after a goalless draw in Bilbao.
The new coach had taken time to get his ideas across in the Basque country. Athletic had taken two points from the first 15 available in La Liga and had won just five of 17 by Christmas, but they steadily improved and were fifth in the table by the time of their Round of 16 clash with Manchester United came around.
Manchester United, by contrast, had reached three of the last four Champions League finals under Ferguson and were neck-and-neck with Manchester City in the title race, eventually denied a fifth Premier League title in six years after Sergio Aguero’s iconic winner against QPR.
After dropping into the Europa League, they knocked out Eredivisie champions Ajax in the Round of 32, coming out on top against a side featuring Jan Verthonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen, and were favourites for the trophy, let alone against Athletic.
That element of surprise is part of what made it so special. A sudden introduction to pure, unfiltered, glorious Bielsismo.
Around 8000 Athletic supporters made the trip to Manchester, with 6500 packed into the stands, more for the occasion and rare chance to visit Old Trafford as opposed to any real anticipation of getting a result.
The visitors had little experience, and few star names, although some (notably Javi Martinez, Ander Herrera and Fernando Llorente) were beginning to make a name for themselves.
Only goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz and right-back Andoni Iraola were older than 26, but as a young and hungry side they had the energy and drive to execute Bielsa’s high-tempo gameplan. And so they did. This was a wild, dynamic display from the first whistle to the last.
What will no doubt be a familiar feeling to anyone that’s watched Bielsa’s Leeds over the past two years in the Championship, Athletic created chance after chance after chance but struggled to provide the final touch.
Buzzing around Ferguson’s men with the kind of constant, relentless movement that could only have been learned from Bielsa’s infamously gruelling Murderball training exercise, Athletic completely dominated at Old Trafford, pressing high and carving openings – often sending up to six men stampeding into United’s box.
“At times Barcelona can make you look silly because they keep the ball so well,” said Ryan Giggs after United were beaten 2-0 in the 2009 Champions League final. “At times we maybe chased it and didn’t keep our shape as we should have.”
It was a similar story against Athletic, who went to Manchester and recorded 61% possession by half-time (57.8% over 90 minutes), outworking and outpassing the hosts.
They did that while responding to the early setback of a 22nd-minute Wayne Rooney goal, scored against the run of play, after spurned chances from an Athletic side that came racing out of the blocks.
Getting what they deserved
Were it not for profligate finishing and an excellent performance from David de Gea, Bielsa’s men might have scored three or four by the time they finally did get back on level terms, through Llorente on the stroke of half-time.
The striker worked diligently to provide a focal point and was rewarded for holding up the ball, laying it off before making his way into the six-yard box – by which point Markel Susaeta had received it on the overlap and sent it in at the perfect height for Llorente to head in.
The hosts might not have been at full-strength, with Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Danny Welbeck rested, but it was still a strong side featuring De Gea, Rafael, Patrice Evra, Chris Smalling, a Phil Jones that was still highly-rated back then, Giggs, Park Ji-Sung, with Rooney alongside Javier Hernandez in attack.
Ferguson will no doubt have subjected his players to the infamous hairdryer at the break, having seen them distinctly second best.
But it made no difference as Athletic remained on top in the second half, while introducing Carrick and Anderson early on failed to give them the foothold they so desperately lacked, looking suffocated by the visitors’ almost militaristic man-marking job.
Their pressure told for a second time, giving them a well-deserved lead in the 71st minute, Susaeta playing in Oscar De Marcos with a deftly-chipped through ball.
With two away goals and a lead to protect, they didn’t drop back, and instead just kept attacking as they did in the first minute.
That endeavour was remunerated as Iker Muniain pounced after De Gea parried out a shot from De Marcos – their 10th on target – sprinting ahead of Rafael to slot home in injury time, sending the sizeable travelling contingent into delirium.
United’s Brazilian full-back was in position to clear the ball but stood dawdling, understandably punch-drunk after being pressed by Bielsa’s pack of wild dogs for 90 minutes.
There’d be more late drama as Rooney stepped up to score a 92nd-minute penalty, making it 3-2 on the night, giving them an unwarranted foothold in the tie, punishing an inexplicable handball from De Marcos.
But the second leg at the Sam Mames was much the same story. Total commitment and energetic pressing from Athletic. Eighteen shots to United’s two, a 2-1 win, another late consolation from Rooney.
An indelible mark
“It was an outstanding performance by them, not only in their ability, but their energy was unbelievable,” Ferguson commented post-match.
“The highest stats of any team that has played at Old Trafford in the last 10 years, in terms of the distance run. That is great credit to the desire of the team.”
“I remember speaking to our analyst after that game. He said he had to look at the stats three times to believe them. They were off the scale,” Gary Neville later recalled.
“He’d never seen anything like it at Old Trafford.”
But the United coaches weren’t the only ones left stunned by Athletic’s performances, earning Bielsa cult hero status among Athletic’s vociferous support – like with Newell’s, fans have been known to make the pilgrimage to see his latest project at Leeds – and fawning praise from the British press.
“Bilbao put on a performance that has seldom been equalled by an away team at Old Trafford, blowing the hosts apart,” wrote The Guardian’s Paul Doyle.
“The champions of England were embarrassed by the superior work-rate, passing, movement and finishing of the fifth-placed team in Spain,” quipped Henry Winter in The Telegraph.
“The Argentine has breathed new life into the Basque club and its fervent support can continue to dream that their 28-year trophy drought may be about to end,” suggested Jonathan Jurejko on the BBC’s match report.
It wasn’t to be in the end, as Athletic failed to replicate their best as they lost cup finals to Barcelona and Atletico Madrid that year, but few will forget one of the best performances in the club’s history.