Football Features

Explained: why Ernesto Valverde beat Marcelo Bielsa to become new Athletic Club manager

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 18:30, 30 June 2022

Ernesto Valverde is back in charge of Athletic Club de Bilbao for his third spell as manager.

This may come as a surprise to many as Marcelo Bielsa was being heavily linked with his own return to the role he left in 2013, having taken over two years previously in the summer of 2011.

What is Marcelo Bielsa’s history with Athletic Club?

Bielsa took Athletic Club from regional menaces to one of the most thrilling teams in Europe, engaging in pitched battles with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and destroying Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United home and away in Europe.

Under him they went all the way to the final of the 2012 Europa League, where they were outgunned by Diego Simeone’s nascent Atlético Madrid side, and the 2012 Copa del Rey final where Pep Guardiola triumphed over Bielsa in his last game in charge.

Nevertheless, the blueprint put in place by Bielsa transformed the Athletic players and gave his successor, one Ernesto Valverde, an ideal platform upon which to build. And one could even say that much of Valverde’s own successes owe much to Bielsa.

Why did Athletic Club choose Ernesto Valverde over Marcelo Bielsa?

The question then becomes why pick Valverde? Well, in truth, Athletic didn’t pick Valverde. At least not directly. The vacant manager’s role (after Marcelino’s surprise resignation) was filled by the club’s new president, and he picked the manager.

Athletic Club are one of four major Spanish clubs along with Barcelona, Osasuna and Real Madrid to be owned by their fans (i.e. members) and to democratically elect a new president every few years (albeit Florentino Perez tends to run unopposed in Madrid’s elections).

One of the biggest highlights of these prospective president’s campaigns revolve around signing a star player. Think about Joan Laporta promising to sign David Beckham back in 2003, or Florentino Perez’s own pitch to bring Figo from Barcelona in 2000, or Kaka and Karim Benzema in 2009. Or even Josep Bartomeu using the prospect of Arda Turan to convince Barcelona fans to vote for him in 2015, dooming the club financially.

Who won the Athletic Club presidential elections?

Now campaigning on signings for Athletic, a club who only uses players with familial heritage to the Basque Country, would be somewhat fruitless because it’d just be two men saying they were going to sign Aymeric Laporte only for Pep Guardiola to say “no.”

So instead this summer, presidential candidates Jon Uriarte and defeated Inaki Arechabaleta promised to bring in specific managers if they were hired. Arechabaleta said he would return Bielsa to the club why Uriarte backed Valverde.

Jon Uriarte was voted Athletic’s new president, receiving 46% of the votes. As such, it was his choice to bring in his man Valverde. That is obviously a less romantic choice than Bielsa given the staggering beauty and ambition of the Argentine’s play, but it could work out.

Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic Club de Bilbao

Valverde returns for a third stint in charge of Athletic, having been in charge from 2003 to 2005 and then again from 2013 to 2017. That puts him in a select group of men to have managed a club three times along with names like Vicente del Bosque at Real Madrid and Quique Sanchez Flores at Getafe.

Valverde’s second spell was his most impressive, lasting four years he took over from Bielsa and helped establish the likes of Inaki Williams and Kepa Arrizabalaga, as well as confirm Aymeric Laporte’s brilliance.

All told, Valverde took charge of 213 matches as Athletic boss, winning 101, losing 66 and drawing 46. He also led Athletic to their first trophy since the mid-1980’s when his side sensationally smashed Barcelona 5-1 in the 2015 Supercopa de Espana.

Valverde went on to manage Barcelona for 145 games between 2017 and 2020, winning two La Liga titles and one Copa del Rey. His limits as a coach were exposed with two hideous collapses against Roma and Liverpool, but Athletic Club have a long way to go before reaching that level so they need not worry. For where the club is and their ambitions, Valverde is a near-perfect fit.