The journey witnessed last season where Athletic Bilbao - under the stewardship of Marcelo Bielsa - reached two cup finals, helped restore some faith in the Spanish league and reminded a few naïve people that La Liga actually contains other competitive sides; despite the duopoly by Real Madrid and Barcelona. The way in which they tormented the likes of Schalke and Manchester United in the Europa League helped establish them as everyone's second favourite team, not only for their playing style, but also their policies.
Athletic have a unique viewpoint in the way they run as a club. The notion of the squad only consisting of players with Basque heritage helps connect themselves with the fans and keep regional identity alive. This was a policy mirrored by their rivals Real Sociedad, who eventually adopted the traditionalist format after become furious with Athletic for buying their players. Notably John Aldridge was the first non-Basque player to represent Los Txuri-urdin. Despite the policy being admirable, albeit slightly more flexible nowadays, it has not always been successful. As recently as five years ago the club only stayed up with a last matchday victory over Levante. A trophy has not been paraded around San Mamés for 28 years, since their domestic double in 1984. Historically, Los Leones are one of the greatest teams in Spain. Throughout the 1930's they amassed seven trophies, including three league titles. They also hold the prestigious award, along with Real Madrid and Barcelona, of competing in every top flight season since the inauguration of the league in 1929.
The style Bielsa has imposed on his team is a mitigating factor in the popularity for Athletic. El Loco, before taking the rein in Bilbao, had used a 3-3-1-3 formation in the World Cup with Chile, which provided an exciting tactical deviation from the norm of 4-2-3-1. The Argentine was hired at La Catedral to enthral everyone with an offensive philosophy. Previous coach Joaquín Caparrós had a more pragmatic approach and despite the stabilisation he instilled, he did not show enough to promise he could progress the team.
Tactically Athletic generally set-up in a 4-3-3 formation, but the change in playing style is the main reason for Bielsa's approval. Known for his methodical analysis and to crouch down to get a unique vantage point during matches, he got the team playing with the ball on the ground once more, and the acquisition of Ander Herrera from Real Zaragoza helped with ball retention. The youthful consistency of the squad is one for optimism. Players who were on the fringes the past few seasons like: Óscar de Marcos, Ander Iturraspe, Jon Aurtenetxe and Iñigo Pérez became permanent fixtures in the squad. The reinvention of Javi Martinez by dropping him into the centre of defence allowed for another attack minded player in midfield and gave them two centre-halves who could play from the back. Iturraspe would replicate the role Martinez had sturdily done before in protecting the defence while the likes of de Marcos, Markel Susaeta and Iker Muniain would have freedom to interchange and trouble the opposition defence by floating behind the authoritative Fernando Llorente.
Since their imperious Europa League charge to the final, where they lost 3-0 to Atletico Madrid, their league form suffered horrendously and Athletic ultimately finished in 10th position. Over reliance on a core group of players, as well as playing too many games affected Bilbao excessively and the feeling is that they might not get a better opportunity to win a long desired trophy for a while. The start to the 2012/13 season has seen them carry on this disjointed form, with the low point being the 4-0 trashing at the Vicente Calderon by Atletico on Monday night.
The axiomatically dependable Javi Martinez, after a summer linked with every major European club, joined Bayern Munich after they paid his €40m buy-out clause. Additionally the instrumental Llorente has informed officials he won't renew his contract and has currently been isolated and made to train alone until the end of the transfer window when his situation is resolved. Because of Athletic's philosophy, they don't have as much freedom to invest this money on anyone of their choosing. The best Basque players in European football are: former Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso, Arsenal's Mikel Arteta and Chelsea's latest recruit César Azpilicueta, but none of these are realistic signings. The recuperated money from sales could either be channelled through the academy, which is currently under reconstruction with the club rigorously studying the set-up of the Lezama facilities and/or used to fund the new stadium, San Mamés Barria, which is expected to be opened by 2014.
The hope for Athletic fans is the club can continue to use its Cantera wisely to produce the next generation of Spanish internationals. They already have current Spanish youth internationals Jonas Ramalho and Iñigo Ruiz de Galarreta making sturdy strides into the first team while: Iker Undabarrena , Sergio Mendigutxia, Enric Saborit and Aymeric Laporte could be the next batch of Basques ready to explode onto the scene. Some prosperous news for Athletic is Muniain looks to be staying, a player heralded as the 'Spanish Messi'. Able to play off the striker or on the left, the Pamplona-born wonderkid made his first competitive apperance at just 16 and within three years has already won the U21 European Championship with Spain and made his senior debut for the national team in February.
Last season should be heralded as a success for the overachievement of Athletic Bilbao, a team which helped bring some romanticism back to football. Historically this club will always be one of the biggest names in Spain, and if they can continue to produce players like former greats Julen Guerrero and Joseba Etxeberria, then perhaps once more we might see Los Leones fight for titles.
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