We have all been there. Sitting for what seems like an eternity, watching the presentation go on and on, page after page of PowerPoint stats and results, seas of numbers on the screen, a voice going over everything in detail that you’ve long since stopped listening to. , drifting a bit now.
Only this was different. This was better: this was Bielsa.
On Monday, Marcelo Bielsa was presented as the new coach of Athletic Club, in case Iñaki Arechabaleta is elected president in the elections on Friday. That, for a little while there and for that very reason, he seemed sure that he would be. How could he not be? He had Bielsa, Bielsa! — while the other candidates, Ricardo Barkala and Jon Uriarte, had… well, they had no one. Not yet.
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Arechabaleta said that when he approached Bielsa to accompany him in his candidacy for the presidency of Athletic, the Argentine coach responded by asking for time. The best thing, he had responded, was for the current coach Marcelino García Toral to continue and in any case, he needed to be able to study the proposal. He did so. Marcelino didn’t continue, in part because he knew there was an election campaign coming up and he really didn’t want to be a part of it, and now here was Bielsa presenting his findings.
He had not come to Bilbao, and there were no interviews, no standing with a handkerchief smiling, no handshakes and greetings. No round of questions or interrogations, except the one he did himself. Instead, he did it over video, all the charts and graphs. In a room in Bilbao or following him online, they saw Bielsa sitting in front of them, thin, with very short hair, doing what Bielsa does: speaking very, very slowly, taking them through the analysis of him. It was like him, and they knew that: Arechabaleta’s proposal was that he return to the post after having been at the club between 2011 and 2013.
The first time, Bielsa had also made a presentation. That was live: there was the classic connection problem and then Bielsa had to briefly excuse himself to go to the bathroom. This time it was prerecorded, running all the way.
He had seen 45 Athletic games last season, he said. 45 matches for Athletic, 38 matches for the B team, four matches for the C team and three for the U-19s. He too had watched every team Athletic would face, except Girona, whose promotion came too late to be included, and he had worked out every detail. He went through the number of times each player was involved, 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 for Marcelino to continue.” And yet, the promise, except that Bielsa never really makes any promises, was that this could be even better, better than this current team under Marcelino and better than the team Bielsa coached before. This squad, he said, would suit him even better than the first one he had.
It is an attractive idea. That, after all, had reached the final of the Europa League and the Copa del Rey. At Old Trafford, they had beaten Manchester United and produced just about the best performance anyone could remember. There was a connection there, a sense that this man who at first didn’t seem to fit in at all, came to fit in very well. They had all ended up exhausted, it was true, but it had been a ride. Once asked if Bielsa was really as crazy as people said, Iker Muniain had replied: “No, he’s crazier.” But the fans loved him for it. In the end they had sung him to stay, but he left.
Now it’s back. Or at least it could be, if Arechabaleta wins, and not many would vote against it now. Even with the other doubts surrounding his candidacy, who is the sports director? Which players are you interested in? – or his character, Bielsa had it.
“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 of the future, not of the past”, insisted Arechabaleta, which did not prevent him from pointing out that the Marcelo of the past had delivered what, according to him, was the club’s best season in this century.
This had revolutionized everything, people going crazy. Not only there: suddenly everyone was talking about it everywhere, about Athletic. It also seemed to practically finish it. Arechabaleta had gathered 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 felt decisive, almost over. How could you beat this?
Maybe like this? 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 announced that his manager would be Ernesto Valverde. If he won, he would return for his third spell at the club, after the 2003-05 and 2013-17 seasons. He had followed Bielsa the last time, a welcome relief, and had had great success, leading them to a place in the Champions League and the Spanish Super Cup, Athletic’s first trophy in thirty years. Now Valverde was offered against Bielsa.
Like Marcelino, Valverde had not wanted to get involved in a campaign that always risks division. He intended to stay on the sidelines, which didn’t mean he didn’t become the coach, and always available when needed. Now, however, he had agreed to join the two candidates who had contacted him. That they were 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 that the best thing was that there was an agreement on the coach as there was with the women’s team with Iraia,” Valverde said. “I thought it would be the best for the club with the manager who was there, Marcelino. But for some reason that was not possible.”
Valverde had not trained since he was sacked at Barcelona, having won two LaLiga titles and the Copa del Rey. Barcelona hasn’t won anything since then; it has mostly stayed out of the way. After Barcelona, there was a moment of escape, of searching for his own space-he took out a new collection of his photos-and the pandemic arrived. “It’s not that I’ve locked myself in the house, everyone has,” he said.
Valverde is a coach capable of normalizing the tension, the pressure, to somehow overcome it, a calmness in him that is part of the reason he has achieved so much. After Bielsa, he brought air, breath, which was much needed, and success.
A win ratio of 47.89% (higher than anyone in this century: Bielsa’s was 38.1%, Marcelino’s 37.33%, Garitano’s 41.57%). That fourth place, followed by seventh, fifth, seventh (after which Athletic finished 16, 8, 11, 10). And a 2015 Super Cup destroying Barcelona.
There’s something admirably realistic about him, not a hint of ego, which didn’t always help him. There is no sales pitch, quite the opposite; neither is he willing to leave when it suits him. Bigger jobs have been turned down because he felt it wasn’t right. He couldn’t be more loved in Bilbao, but sometimes it can seem that people don’t talk about him enough elsewhere, in part perhaps because he doesn’t either. From Barcelona, the offers that arrived have not always convinced; this is not a manager desperate to work anywhere.
But Athletic is nowhere, it is everything. From the outside it is not always appreciated but this is a huge club. “What Athletic means in Bilbao, in Vizcaya, I have never seen it anywhere,” he says.
And so here they are again. There is more to talk about, notably the enormous damage done to Jon Uriarte’s campaign after his proposed sporting director, Carlos Avina, was fired following the spread of sexist, racist and homophobic tweets he had written, but now it almost feels like as a simple face to face and between two men whose reputation could hardly be greater.
Now they have to choose. With Bielsa’s announcement, it seemed done. Not with Valverde’s. Ironically, what hurts him most may be the very fact of being on two candidates, “his” split vote.
Either way, Athletic have a man they love coming back. But will it be the same?
“Sequels were never good,” Valverde said when he returned last time. “Well, aside from Godfather II.”