Football Features

Marcelino hoping to avoid Bielsa-like dip for Athletic Bilbao ahead of Copa del Rey final

By Ruairidh Barlow

Published: 12:00, 16 April 2021

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. After twenty-four years in management, Marcelino García Toral would reluctantly have to accept the title of old dog.

At any rate, Marcelino’s reputation now precedes him with three trophies in his cabinet. New tricks? The Athletic Club manager’s repertoire still works. Just ask Real Madrid and Barcelona.

And if you had to compare Marcelino to a dog, it would undoubtedly be a greyhound; lean, blinkered and fast. The man himself is razor sharp and those traits are obvious in his teams. Famously, the Asturian pays very close attention to the body fat percentage of his players. Being one of the fittest teams around is a simple trick, but also an effective one.

So it proved at Villarreal, who he took to fourth place and a Europa League semi-final. Four years after joining the Yellow Submarine, he would move 57 kilometres south to Valencia. Those same methods once again brought fourth place, a Europa League semi-final and Copa del Rey this time too.

Marcelino hasn’t been sacked for sporting reasons since 2012, a relative age. Both jobs saw him ousted due to disagreements with the leadership, which speaks to the steadfast nature of the man. Even if you’re the president, he’s demanding.

In particular, his exit from Valencia in 2019 is deserving of the word ‘acrimonious’. Sacked by the ownership just three matchdays into his third season, Marcelino’s public criticism of Valencia owners Meriton Group proved the final straw. Rumour had it that the relationship had been weighed down by the manager’s audacity to win the Copa del Rey; Meriton wanted him to focus on the league campaign.

Re-finding Athletic Club’s fire

January 2021 saw Marcelino arrive at Athletic Club, who were ninth in La Liga but without a clear direction. Despite suffering a 3-2 defeat to Barcelona in Marcelino’s first match, there was enough there for everyone to be content after a difficult debut fixture. Next up, Real Madrid…

The promise that was shown against Barcelona only took a week to deliver. They hounded and harried Los Blancos into a 2-0 deficit in the first half, which would see them through to the Supercopa final. The edge was back at Athletic Club.

Los Leones felt more or less as if they had their way with Real Madrid, yet their Supercopa final meeting with Barcelona showed resilience too. Twice they fell behind, twice they hit back through Óscar de Marcos and Asier Villalibre. They outfought Barça and, when it came to it, Iñaki Williams produced the best moment of quality all match – an irresistible curling effort into the top corner to win it in extra time.

Under predecessor Gaizka Garitano, Athletic were always a hard-working team but it felt more like labour. It was heavy, slow work. Since Marcelino’s arrival, it feels like Athletic Club are constantly running; only now the exhaustion belongs to the other team.

When the Spanish national team were given the nickname La Furia Roja [the Red Fury] in the 1920s, it was their base of Basque players from which this style came. Athletic Club set the blueprint for an aggressive and direct method of play and those characteristics have been at the heart of the most successful Athletic teams ever since. Part of Marcelino’s success can be attributed to this shift back towards their identity.

Perhaps their biggest concern at the start of the season was goals. Club legend Aritz Aduriz retired in the summer, makeshift goal-scorer Raúl García aged again and Williams remains unconvincing in that role. With little ability to bring in transfers, problem-solving must be creative. Nevertheless, they followed up the their Supercopa victory by tearing Getafe apart, 5-1 the end result. Three weeks later, they thumped Cádiz 4-0. The Basque fury was back, the counter-attack was a stampede again.

Between those two romps were two comeback wins in the 2021 Copa del Rey against Alcoyano and Betis in extra time. Although it doesn’t speak too highly of their defending, morale-tinted glasses meant it only increased the sense that Athletic Club were a formidable opponent. Hard to beat and harder to kill off. In both legs of their cup semi-final with Levante they would go 1-0 down too, yet the comebacks felt inevitable.

A narrow loss to Barcelona and draws with Villarreal and Valencia in amongst all this did little to dissipate the newly-found joie de vivre. Nobody has felt that more than Iker Muniain. Much to the dismay of many, he became a bit-part player at points under the previous regime; now, this is his team. Given the reins to the attack, Muniain feels something like the player many had hoped for when he first broke through. Eight assists since the turn of the year speak to a transformation which has liberated the whole attack.

A dip in form

The Marcelino bandwagon was in full-swing and, frankly, the road had been far too smooth for the football gods. A 2-1 win against Granada and a loss to league leaders Atlético Madrid by the same score line were decent performances, but a run of four consecutive league draws since has shown a clear dip.

In the middle of those draws was one of the most important defeats in their history. Given the euphoria from the Supercopa victory earlier, one can only imagine what the (2020) Copa del Rey final loss to rivals Real Sociedad did to spirit. The narrow 1-0 included the hallmarks of their struggles during that run of draws too. La Real managed to nullify the Athletic Club press and wrestle ownership of the tempo with it.

The feeling that perhaps Athletic are a forward short in attack looms again. However, the most concerning part of those results is the loss of brio. The last five matches do not leave the viewer with the same impression that Los Leones are sharper and fitter than their opponents.

At times during their best performances, their press and the authority with which they played have been reminiscent of the fine side that Marcelo Bielsa built in Bilbao. Whatever the result, facing them was to be a horrible experience. Knowing Marcelino’s emphasis on pushing fitness to its limits, it is fair to wonder whether fatigue has bitten back following the initial surge. Especially in this most crowded of seasons, perhaps the dip we are seeing is also suggestive of the famed Bielsa drop-off.

In the build-up to their second Copa del Rey final (2021), defender Mikel Balenziaga asserted that the team knew what they had to do to beat Barcelona. According to him, minimising mistakes was decisive. That clarity of mind will be essential for the upset. Victory for Los Leones will lie in the margins. If Athletic can find the formidable lion-faced version Marcelino seeks, they have an excellent chance of winning a Copa del Rey for the first time since 1984.

Article produced by Ruairidh Barlow in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown