Athletic Club in 2011/12 under Marcelo Bielsa was a truly unforgettable side although not really due to their success but because of the way they played the game and excited the fans with their intensity, directness, and offensive style.
Bilbao only finished 10th in the Spanish league that season but reached the final of the Europa League and Copa del Rey. Nevertheless, they lost both games by 3-0. Marcelo Bielsa generally didn’t win a lot of titles throughout his career but will still go down in history as one of the most influential football coaches.
“Whoever sacrifices beautiful football for the result, they can chastise me. The poorest of us only have football as relaxation. I would be sorry if we only gave them results.” (Bielsa)
So, what made this team so special?
The crucial details of Bilbao’s intense man-marking approach
Athletic Club in 2011/12 – like all of Marcelo Bielsa’s sides – was well-known for their extremely aggressive pressing by going man to man. The Bilbao players were always assigned an opposition, who they were supposed to follow tightly and put under high pressure as soon as he received the ball.
The idea behind this approach is that each opponent has almost no time with the ball and is therefore forced to make quick decisions, which regularly end up in inaccurate and hurried passes, or the Bilbao player can win the ball back with a tackle. Moreover, this style of defending is easier to execute since the players seemingly have to “just” follow an opponent and don’t care about anything else, which is although not the case under Bielsa as we’ll touch on later. Furthermore, after regaining possession, since Athletic Club used a lot of players to apply pressure, they also in turn had a high number of players to perform a counterattack (theoretically with numerical equality).
Nevertheless, there were also many disadvantages within this approach of defending but for now, let’s have a look at what distinguished Bilbao’s (or Bielsa’s) man-marking style out of possession to other ones.
+1 at the back
To be precise, Athletic Club didn’t actually go fully man to man all over the pitch. Bielsa always wanted a +1 numerical advantage at the back line with one free centre back. Bilbao therefore always had to adapt their defensive formation to the opposition. They used a back four against one striker and a back three, with Iturraspe moving into the backline, against two centre forwards.
An overload somewhere on the pitch however always means that there is an underload in another area. To ensure this +1 at the backline, Bielsa’s side sacrificed having one player less in the first line of pressure. Athletic Club’s striker was therefore mostly tasked with pressing two opposing centre backs. Llorente usually pressed one central defender, while keeping the other one in his cover-shadow to split the field and guide the ball-carrier into the wide areas.
Moreover, to increase the pressure in the first line and help Llorente if he is too far away from a centre back, the striker regularly performed a so-called “pendulum-press” with his nearest midfield teammate: Bilbao’s centre forward usually started the press and if for example the opposing centre back was able to play to his centre back partner, the nearest Athletic Club midfielder would press the new ball-carrier by using his cover-shadow on his initial opponent. Moreover, Llorente would then move backwards towards the opposition’s midfielder (the initial opponent of the Bilbao midfielder) to cover. After the opposing centre back possibly found his partner again (who had the ball at the beginning of the sequence), Llorente would now press the ball-carrier and the Athletic Club midfielder would move back to his initial opponent.
This pendulum enabled Bilbao to effectively press three opponents with two players and was particularly key when Llorente got outplayed and an opposing centre back therefore had lots of time on the ball. With a midfielder then moving up the distance for the midfielder to press was shorter.
As visible in the graphic above, the free centre back (either Martinez or Amorebieta) had to cover a lot of space. This role was especially vital in deeper areas, as the spare man could potentially take over an opposition after a teammate got outplayed. In addition, the free centre back had to be prepared to intercept through balls but also needed to find the right timing to step up and potentially double up the opponent.
Even though everyone was tasked with marking an opponent tightly, despite the free centre back and Llorente, it was key that the Bilbao players adapted the distance towards their assigned opponent depending on the ball and the specific situation of the game. Meaning, the ball-far winger and fullback normally tucked inside when the ball was on the other side of the pitch. Furthermore, if there was a more threatening player, Bielsa wanted the players to give up their marking assignments (or at least increase the distance to their initial opponents) to stop the dangerous opponent and reduce the space between the Bilbao defenders.
In this video below, the Argentinian Manager brilliantly explains the concept of the “partial libero” and that the players should leave their opposition to stop another player who is hurting his team:
Leaving the opposition to sustain pressure
Other than leaving an assigned opponent to press another opposition (as mentioned in the video above), the Bilbao players regularly left their opponents to execute a switch in tasks. Meaning, two players could simply swap oppositions. This was often done in deeper zones and when opposing players rotated. The Athletic Club players could therefore – in some sort of – stay in their area and not get dragged out of position (for example a defender following into the midfield). Communication and knowing when to perform these switches were key to not leaving any opponent free.
To continue, the Bilbao players frequently left their assigned opponents to double up another opponent with a teammate and therefore pressurise him from two different angles, which is obviously a lot harder to get out. Passes into opposing players with a negative body orientation (facing towards their own goal) were often pressing triggers for higher Athletic Club players to turn around, leave their assigned opposition and double up by pressing backwards. This was vital in particular against more technical opponents, who would have the abilities to turn around, get past the pressure of one player and ultimately access the huge spaces. Again, the timing and the angle of the pressing movement (ideally using the cover-shadow) was key when a Bilbao player left his assigned opponent to press another one.
These backwards pressing occasions regularly occurred with a winger supporting his fullback or a midfielder doubling up an opposing forward on the back line, facing his own goal. Once more, the understanding if there was a player that could hurt the defence more than the assigned opponent was key. A lot of ball wins happened from these situations and the two Basque players pressing around the ball meant that the ball-winner had an immediate option to initiate a counterattack.
As can be seen in the image above, the players could still at times be dragged out of their initial position (e.g.: a centre back following his opponent into the midfield), even though this is ideally not the case by applying a switch. Nevertheless, a marking-switch isn’t always possible and maybe even too risky if not well-executed. Every player therefore needed to be defensively intelligent and have the abilities to win 1v1 duels.
Individual aspects of defending
To begin with, Bielsa’s players were extremely fit, which was vital to execute this intense pressing approach. Moreover, after a Bilbao player lost a 1v1 and his opponent got past him the player would instantly turn around and try to get behind the ball again to stop the ball-carrier from further progression. Bielsa regularly preached this aspect and often used 1v1s in his training sessions to improve it.
„It is very common that when a player is eliminated, he doesn’t return. The player does not have it incorporated in his nature, it’s something that must be taught to him. The game doesn’t end when they eliminate me.“ (Bielsa)
Another vital point is the aspect that defending only works within a coherent collective. Even though it sometimes seems as if every player has to “just” focus on one opponent, that’s absolutely not the case in Bielsa’s sides. The Basques did well at communicating and reacting as a collective to different problems. For example, when a player got outplayed or to execute a marking-switch. Additionally, it was often the case that a winger could press an opposing centre back from out to in (using his cover-shadow on the opposition’s fullback) to create a temporary 2v2 in the first line alongside Llorente. The opposing fullback was therefore now temporarily unmarked, and the Bilbao players had to be aware of the situation as a pass into this defender would’ve meant easy progression. To solve this problem, either the ball-sided Bilbao fullback or a near midfielder could mark the free fullback from the opponent. Then, other players had to react too. The backline for example needed to shift over and go man to man if the fullback stepped up and left his initial opponent. As you can see, the players always had to keep the collective in mind.
Additionally, Bielsa worked a lot on the timing and anticipation of interceptions. Intercepting passes has the advantage that the ball win is cleaner than from a tackle and it’s easier to start a counterattack. That’s because it’s more difficult for the opposition to whom the pass was aimed to pressurise the ball winner than after losing the ball from a dribble. Nevertheless, it’s risky if a player steps up too early, as this would open up spaces in behind and passes into these areas are extremely difficult to defend as the defender is moving in the opposite direction. However, the Bilbao players mostly did a great job at evaluating the situation and knowing when they could intercept a pass or had to stay deeper to defend the depth.
Directness in possession
Apart from their pressing scheme, Bilbao’s approach in possession was pretty unique as well. Rather than patiently circulating the ball from side to side to unbalance the opposition and create gaps, Athletic Club was very direct with the ball and frequently tried to quickly reach the final third with a high tempo.
As Bielsa explained in the video above, he wants his teams to circulate the ball sideways to find a better positioned player (with more time and space), who could then execute forward passes. Instead of searching or creating spaces through passing the ball, Bilbao looked to generate openings by themselves with clever movements off the ball.
Movements, quick passing combinations and overloading the wide areas
Bilbao’s players didn’t just need to be fit to execute the aggressive high press. Additionally, Bielsa demanded constant movements in possession to provide passing options, drag defenders away, challenge the defence and open spaces. Every movement forces the opposition into a decision on how to deal with the run. That’s exactly what the Argentina manager wants. Constantly challenging the opponent with different movements and mistakes will eventually happen. Key was also that the runs were coordinated with other factors such as the teammates, opponents, and spaces. Moreover, Bielsa frequently asked for variety in the movements to create more dilemmas.
“I always tell my guys that our playing style is about movement. A player should always be moving. You can come up with a reason for every player in every position and every circumstance, why he should be moving. In football there is no reason to be immobile.” (Bielsa)
Starting with Athletic Club’s 6, Iturraspe, his different movements were really important for Bilbao in the build-up phase. The Spaniard continuously moved horizontally to either create separation from his marker and be accessible to receive the ball or drag his marker away to open passing lanes and give his teammates more time on the ball. Additionally, he could also at times drop into the first line to form a temporary back three or dynamically occupy higher zones in between the lines. Again, it’s about variety.
Constantly providing passing options for the ball-carrier with different movements to enable progression is key in Bielsa’s philosophy. The run indicates the pass, not the other way around, as the Argentinian explains in the video below:
To be accessible, create separation from the opposition and provide an option for the player in possession, the Bilbao players continuously executed various dismarking movements. Very common were double movements, runs in the opposite direction of the opponent and positionings on the blind-side. Bielsa once explained in a conference in Amsterdam that there are five ways to lose your marker (you can watch it here).
Extremely threatening were the constant over- and underlaps from Bilbao’s fullbacks (especially by Iraola) to support the attack, create overloads, provide an option in behind or drag opponents away. Iraola and Aurtenetxe usually stayed deeper in the build-up phase but then frequently advanced higher up the pitch through the wide areas or the half-spaces. Key was once again the timing of their movements, enabling them to dart through with a dynamical advantage.
Most of Athletic Club’s chances generally resulted from the wings or the half-spaces, where the players frequently executed different rotations, counter-movements (both vertically and horizontally) and runs in behind (on the blind-side, curved runs etc.) to dismantle the defence and create a free man or break through in behind.
Moreover, Bilbao regularly heavily overloaded the wide areas (especially the right side) with a ball-far 8 or even a ball-far winger (in particular Muniain) shifting over. These movements were often not well-tracked since opponents don’t keep an eye too much on these far-sided players, as they are viewed as less threatening (since they are positioned far away from the ball). Moreover, even if the opposition was aware of these movements, it could still create a dilemma for the defenders: following and opening a lot of space on the far side or leaving him but risking an underload/free man on the ball-near side.
To outplay the wide areas and make use of the rotations and overloads, Bilbao regularly executed various passing patterns such as one-two’s, third man combinations and up-back-throughs. Marcelo Bielsa’s high emphasis on combination play between 2-3 players is in general an integral part of his philosophy.
After breaking through the wings or the half-spaces, the player could either take a shot himself or find a better positioned player with a cross into the penalty area. Iraola’s crosses in particular were very threatening combined with Llorente usually being the target. The striker made some nice movements in the box to get at the end of these crosses and regularly positioned himself on the blind-side to be more difficult to mark. Moreover, his height and aerial qualities played another big role, which is why the Basques often utilised crosses.
Llorente: the target man
Speaking of Llorente, the Spanish striker’s heading abilities were continuously made use of to advance quickly high up the field using long balls. The centre backs (especially Martinez) frequently played accurate passes on the forehead of Llorente. However, this approach only worked because the striker was well-supported with lay-off possibilities by his teammates. Usually an 8 or the ball-near winger could dynamically invert to provide an option.
Nevertheless, Llorente shouldn’t only be reduced to his aerial qualities. The Spaniard often moved horizontally to support the wide areas and be incorporated in passing combinations as a wall pass option. His ability to shield the ball off with an opponent behind his back as well as his clever movements and positionings to pin defenders were vital for Bilbao too.
Lastly, I hope I was able to give you a good overview on what made this Athletic Club so remarkable. Games such as both Europa League legs against Manchester United and the 2-2 draw against Guardiola’s Barcelona were definitely the highlights of this season.
Nevertheless, there were still a lot of weaknesses that probably prevented Bilbao from more success such as their man-marking approach, which they also used in deeper zones and regularly revealed huge spaces, or their offensive setup in possession, which was vulnerable for counterattacks. I can recommend you Josh Manley’s article, which highlights some more weaknesses and is generally a brilliant analysis on Athletic Club (here’s the link).
However, Marcelo Bielsa was well-aware of these weaknesses but accepted these risks to play an offensive, intense, and entertaining style:
“I like to manage the game, rather than speculate. I like to play in the half of the rival pitch, then in our half. I like the team to attack rather than defend. I run the risk of attacking in small spaces and defending in larger spaces. I bet more on creative players, than players who don’t have that profile. I accept the risks that the ball progressively crosses all the lines.” (Bielsa)