Football Features

Where are they now? The Marcelo Bielsa team Sir Alex Ferguson labelled ‘Europe’s hardest-workers’

By Muhammad Butt

Where are they now? The Marcelo Bielsa team Sir Alex Ferguson labelled 'Europe's hardest-workers' copy

Published: 15:00, 16 May 2023

Eleven years ago, Manchester United were taught a footballing lesson by Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League.

It was actually the second schooling the Red Devils received, after Athletic smashed them 2-3 at Old Trafford a week earlier, they completed the job back at the San Mamés with a 2-1 win. Managed by Marcelo Bielsa, Los Leones played supernatural football and totally overwhelmed Sir Alex Ferguson’s.

When lauding the side, Ferguson hailed their energy: “Bilbao’s work ethic is fantastic,” he said. “They worked harder than us and that’s how [Bielsa has] built his side. He trained them for three hours yesterday and they still put that effort in tonight. It tells you everything.”

Ferguson also added that Athletic had: “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.”

The Spanish side was indeed full of fantastically hard-working players. A true cult team. But where are they now? What has become of the side that showed Bielsa’s methods can work spectacularly in Europe? We’ve had a look.

Starters: 

Gorka Iraizoz

Where are they now? The Marcelo Bielsa team Sir Alex Ferguson labelled 'Europe's hardest-working team'

Age: 42
Position: Goalkeeper
Athletic appearances: 392
Athletic goals: 0
Retired in: 2019

Gorka Iraizoz’s display over the two legs vs United was as solid as it needed to be. He conceded three times from Wayne Rooney but one was a rebound, one was a penalty and the third an absolute worldie. He cemented his Athletic legend with several years of good service and played a couple seasons as a back-up for newly-promoted Girona before retiring in 2019.

Andoni Iraola

Age: 40
Position: Right-back
Athletic appearances: 510
Athletic goals: 0
Retired in: 2016

Athletic’s captain was up-and-down the touchline in both games against United. He currently manages Rayo Vallecano in La Liga after guiding the Madrid club to promotion in 2021, and is one of the most sought-after tacticians in the game right now, with Leeds publicly pursuing his services in February.

Javi Martínez

Where are they now? The Marcelo Bielsa team Sir Alex Ferguson labelled 'Europe's hardest-working team'

Age: 34
Position: Centre-back/defensive midfielder
Athletic appearances: 251
Athletic goals: 26
Current club: Qatar SC

Javi Martínez was a sensational defensive midfielder who became a sublime centre-back under Bielsa. The Spaniard was at the peak of his powers in 2013 and having helped Athletic to such heights he joined Bayern Munich in the summer and brought such brilliance to Bavaria that Bayern won a Treble in his debut season. He remained there for nearly a decade before calling time on his Bavarian stint and joining Qatar SC in 2021.

Fernando Amorebieta

Where are they now? The Marcelo Bielsa team Sir Alex Ferguson labelled 'Europe's hardest-working team'

Age: 38
Position: Centre-back
Athletic appearances: 254
Athletic goals: 4
Retired in: 2020

This hard-man Venezuelan international dominated United’s forwards with two emphatic displays that included an unreal long-range pass for Athletic’s first goal in the second leg, He spent a few years playing for Fulham and Middlesbrough after leaving Athletic and retired in 2020 following a spell with Cerro Porteño in Paraguay.

Jon Aurtenetxe

Age: 31
Position: Left-back
Athletic appearances: 105
Athletic goals: 5
Current club: Free agent

Aurtenetxe was a promising 20-year-old when Athletic were schooling United and he looked capable of greatness but once Bielsa left the club, the youngster lost his spot and his way in the game. He spent the next few years wandering around various clubs, and is currently spending what should be his peak years in the lower leagues of Spain — though since February he has been a free agent after leaving Miedź Legnica.

Ander Iturraspe

Age: 34
Position: Defensive midfielder
Athletic appearances: 320
Athletic goals: 3
Retired in: 2020

This rock solid defensive midfielder limited the impact of United’s midfield. He left Athletic a legend in 2019 and bowed out of the game in 2020 after a brief spell with Espanyol.

Oscar de Marcos

Where are they now? The Marcelo Bielsa team Sir Alex Ferguson labelled 'Europe's hardest-working team'

Age: 34
Position: Attacking midfielder
Athletic appearances: 495
Athletic goals: 37
Current club: Athletic Bilbao

Oscar de Marcos played the best football of his career under Bielsa. The Basque midfielder scored a goal in each leg against United, both times turning the tide of the game decisively in Athletic’s favour. He’s still at the club, only now as an elder statesman rather than an electric midfield machine.

Ander Herrera

Where are they now? The Marcelo Bielsa team Sir Alex Ferguson labelled 'Europe's hardest-working team'

Age: 33
Position: Central midfielder
Athletic appearances: 146
Athletic goals: 11
Current club: Athletic Bilbao

Ander Herrera produced a delightful assist for De Marcos’ goal at Old Trafford and his canny performance and intelligent play between the lines was so devastating to United that they went out and signed him a couple of years later. Herrera was a diligent servant to United when the team was almost perpetually terrible (through no fault of his own, he was always great in a variety of midfield roles) and went on to play for PSG for four years before returning to the San Mamés.

Markel Susaeta

Where are they now? The Marcelo Bielsa team Sir Alex Ferguson labelled 'Europe's hardest-working team'

Age: 35
Position: Winger
Athletic appearances: 507
Athletic goals: 56
Retired in: 2021

There weren’t many more unappreciated players than Markel Susaeta but the winger devastated United with his play on the flanks; it was his cross that was headed in for Athletic’s equaliser in the first-leg. He retired in 2021 after globe-trotting spells with Gamba Osaka, Melbourne City and finally Macarthur.

Iker Muniain

Where are they now? The Marcelo Bielsa team Sir Alex Ferguson labelled 'Europe's hardest-working team'

Age: 30
Position: Winger
Athletic appearances: 531
Athletic goals: 73
Current club: Athletic Bilbao

Iker Muniain was only a teenager when Athletic played United but was somehow still closing in on 100 appearances for the La Liga side. The youngster was devastatingly quick and scored the game-winning goal in the first-leg. He’s still at Athletic, having never quite fulfilled his enormous potential. But he does now have the kind of beard that makes him look like the bad guy in an 1980s action film, so that’s something at least. Oh, and he’s a complete and utter Athletic legend — and their current captain.

Fernando Llorente

Where are they now? The Marcelo Bielsa team Sir Alex Ferguson labelled 'Europe's hardest-working team'

Age: 36
Position: Striker
Athletic appearances: 333
Athletic goals: 118
Retired in: 2022

Has The Lion King ever roared as fiercely as when he guided in that gorgeous volley to open the scoring in the second-leg against United? Probably not. Amorebieta’s ball was descending from the upper atmosphere but Llorente timed his strike so perfectly. This was no wild thrashing, that ball was guided in with a finish as beautiful as the man himself.

Llorente torched United (he scored in the first leg too) and probably would have scored more had injury not forced him off. He finished that season with 29 goals, his career-high. Spent the next year stalling to get a free transfer to Juventus, where he won titles but never with anything like the glory he had at Athletic. He then bounced between England and Spain, including memorably eliminating Manchester City from the 2018/19 Champions League while playing for Spurs.

He enjoyed further spells in Italy with Napoli and Udinese, before returning to Iberia with Eibar and concluding his career last year.

Subs: 

Gaizka Toquero

Age: 38
Position: Wing-forward
Athletic appearances: 207
Athletic goals: 24
Retired in: 2019

A striker who doesn’t really score could only be a legend under Bielsa. Everyone loved Gaizka Toquero, and Bielsa always brought him on to make the end of games hell for opposing defenders. His header led to De Marcos’ second goal in the second-leg. He left Athletic in 2015, played for a few more teams, and then retired in 2019.

Mikel San José

Where are they now? The Marcelo Bielsa team Sir Alex Ferguson labelled 'Europe's hardest-working team'

Age: 33
Position: Centre-back/defensive midfielder
Athletic appearances: 397
Athletic goals: 37
Retired in: 2022

Nominally a centre-back, San José evolved into being able to play defensive midfield under Bielsa. From here he once scored a 50-yard wonderstrike against Barcelona, leading to an incredible 4-0 win in the Spanish Super Cup. San José left Athletic in 2020, joining Championship side Birmingham City and then playing for Amorebieta before bringing the curtain down on his career in 2022.

Iñigo Perez

Age: 35
Position: Midfielder
Athletic appearances: 58
Athletic goals: 2
Retired in: 2022

Inigo Perez was one of Bielsa’s energy men, coming off the bench to good effect as Carlos Gurpegi missed the season through injury. He most recently played for Osasuna in La Liga, before bowing out last year.

Unused Subs:

Ibai Gomez

Where are they now? The Marcelo Bielsa team Sir Alex Ferguson labelled 'Europe's hardest-working team'

Age: 33
Position: Wing-forward
Athletic appearances: 185
Athletic goals: 18
Retired in: 2022

Ibai was a young hotshot winger back when United and Athletic locked horns, coming off the bench in both legs. He went on to have an eventful career, establishing himself at San Mamés before tendinitis in his knee basically ruled him out for a whole season. He left to join Alavés but back at the start of 2019 he returned home to Athletic and lasted three more years, before seeing his career out with Foolad in Iran and Deportivo La Coruña.

Raul Fernandez

Age: 35
Position: Goalkeeper
Athletic appearances: 12
Athletic goals: 0
Current club: Granada

Athletic’s back-up goalkeeper has had a journeyman career since leaving San Mamés. He currently plays for Granada.

Borja Ekiza

Age: 35
Position: Centre-back
Athletic appearances: 82
Athletic goals: 0
Retired in: 2019

Ekiza was a useful squad player under Bielsa but left with the Argentine. He spent the last couple of years of his career in Cyprus and is now retired from the game.

David Lopez

Age: 40
Position: Midfielder
Athletic appearances: 144
Athletic goals: 16
Current club: Caravaca

David Lopez ended his time with Athletic after 2012, spending two years with Brighton. He currently plays for Caravaca in the lower reaches of Spanish football.

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