We’ve all been there. Sitting for what seems like forever, watching as the presentation goes on and on, page after page PowerPoint of stats and results, seas of numbers on the screen, a voice flowing all the way through that you’ve long since stopped listening, drifting a little bit now.
Only this was different. This was better: this was Bielsa.
On Monday, Marcelo Bielsa was introduced as the new Athletic Club manager if Inaki Arechabaleta is elected president in Friday’s election. Which, for a while there and for this very reason, seemed certain that it would be there. How could it not be? Had Bielsa – Bielsa! – while the other candidates, Ricardo Barkala and Jon Uriarte, had … well, they had none. Not yet.
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Arechabaleta said that when he approached Bielsa to join him in his Athletic presidential candidacy, the Argentine manager responded by asking him for time. The best thing, he replied, was that the current manager Marcelino Garcia Toral continued and in any case he had to be able to study the proposal. So he did. Marcelino didn’t continue – in part because he knew an election campaign was on the way and didn’t really want to be a part of it – and now here’s Bielsa presenting his findings.
He hadn’t come to Bilbao, and there were no interviews, no smiling with a scarf, no handshakes and greetings. No questioning or interrogation rounds, except what he did himself. Instead, it was made from videos, all the graphics and graphics. In a room in Bilbao or following him online, they watched Bielsa sitting in front of them, thin, very short hair, doing what Bielsa does: talking very, very slowly, guiding them through the analysis of him. He was just like him, and they knew it: Arechabaleta’s proposal was to have him take over for the second time, having been at the club from 2011 to 2013.
The first time Bielsa also made a presentation. That was live: there was the classic connection problem and then Bielsa had to apologize for a moment to go to the bathroom. This time it was pre-recorded, all the way through.
He had seen 45 Athletic games last season, he said. 45 athletics games, 38 team B games, four team C and three U19 games. He had also seen all the teams Athletic would face – except Girona, whose promotion came too late to be included – and had worked out every detail. He went over the number of times each player was involved, he talked about structures, players and emotions, ways to reach them, ways his methods had evolved. He talked and talked, for an hour and ten minutes.
He insisted that this team was already good: “They play well, I like them – he reiterated – and the best thing would have been if Marcelino continued”. Yet the promise, apart from the fact that Bielsa never makes any promises, was that this could be even better, better than this current team under Marcelino and better than the team that Bielsa coached before. This team, he said, would have suited him even more than the first he had.
It is an attractive idea. After all, he had reached the final of the Europa League and Copa del Rey. At Old Trafford, they had beaten Manchester United having produced practically the best performance that could be remembered. There was a connection there, the feeling that this man who at first didn’t seem to fit in at all, really fit in very well. They were all exhausted, it was true, but it had been a ride. When asked once if Bielsa was really as crazy as they used to say, Iker Muniain replied: “No, he’s madder”. But the fans loved him for it. Eventually they sang for him to stay, but he went.
Now he’s back. Or at least it could be, if Arechabaleta wins, and now not many would vote against. Despite the other doubts about his candidacy: who is the sporting director? Which players is he interested in? – or his character, had Bielsa.
“He is among the top five coaches in the world, the man most revered by professionals and coaches. And we are talking about a Marcelo for the future, not for the past,” insisted Arechabaleta, who did not stop him from noting that Marcelo in the past he had delivered what according to him was the best season of the club in this century.
This had revolutionized everything, people went crazy. Not only there: suddenly everywhere there was talk of Athletic. It also almost seemed to be over. Arechabaleta had collected the fewest signatures to date as a rough indication of support: Fidel Uriarte had 6,041, Ricardo Barkala 4,054, while he had 2,987. But this seemed decisive, almost done. How could you beat this?
Maybe so? Earlier in the campaign, Mauricio Pochettino’s name had briefly emerged as a possibility under Barkala, but now, two days after Bielsa’s presentation, the other two candidates have both announced that their coach would be Ernesto Valverde. If they won, he would return for his third stint at the club, after 2003-05 and 2013-17. He had followed Bielsa last time, a welcome relief, and had been hugely successful, taking him to a place in the Champions League and the Spanish Super Cup, Athletic’s first trophy in thirty years. Now Valverde has offered himself in opposition to Bielsa.
Like Marcelino, Valverde did not want to be involved in a campaign that always risks division. He was going to stay out of it, which didn’t mean not becoming the coach, and always available when he needed it. Now, however, he had agreed to join both candidates who had contacted him. That it was both was for a reason: “he had to be inclusive, not exclusive,” he said.
“My idea was that there was a certain consensus. I thought the best thing was an agreement on the manager as there was with the women’s team with Iraia,” said Valverde. “I thought it would be the best thing for the club with the manager that was there, Marcelino. But for whatever reason it wasn’t possible.”
Valverde hasn’t coached since he was sacked at Barcelona, having won two La Liga titles and a Copa del Rey. Barcelona have not won anything since then; mostly he stayed away. After Barcelona, there was a moment of escape, in search of his own space – he pulled out a new collection of photos – and then the pandemic arrived. “It’s not like I’m locked up in the house; everyone has it,” he said.
Valverde is a coach capable of normalizing tension, pressure, of overcoming it in some way, a tranquility that is part of the reason why he has achieved so much. After Bielsa, he brought air, breath, much needed, and success.
A win rate of 47.89% (which is higher than anyone else in this century: that of Bielsa was 38.1%, that of Marcelino of 37.33%, that of Garitano of 41.57%). That fourth place, followed by seventh, fifth, seventh (after which Athletic finished 16, 8, 11, 10). And the destruction of Barcelona in the 2015 Super Cup.
There is something admirably simple about him, not a hint of ego, that may not have always helped him. There is no sales pitch, quite the opposite; no willingness to leave when it suits them, either. Bigger jobs were turned down because he felt it wasn’t fair. He couldn’t be more appreciated in Bilbao, but at times it can seem like people don’t talk enough about him elsewhere, in part perhaps because neither does he. From Barcelona, the offers that arrived did not always convince; this is not a manager desperate to work anywhere.
But Athletic is nowhere, that’s all. From the outside it’s not always popular but this is a huge club. “What does Athletic mean in Bilbao, in Vizcaya, I’ve never seen it anywhere,” he says.
And so here they are again. There is more to discuss – not least the enormous damage done to Jon Uriarte’s campaign after his proposed sports director Carlos Avina was fired following the airing of sexist, racist and homophobic tweets he wrote – but now he almost looks like a straight head to head and between two men whose reputation could hardly be higher.
Now they have to choose. With Bielsa’s announcement it seemed done. With Valverde, that’s not the case. Ironically, the thing that goes against him most may be the very fact that he is in two nominations, “his” division of the votes.
Either way, Athletic have a man they love to come back to. But will it be the same?
“The sequels never did well,” Valverde said when he last returned. “Well, apart from the Godfather, part II.”