Athletic Bilbao are a side that fascinates me and this is mostly due to their manager Marcelo Bielsa -- nicknamed the 'madman' or 'El Loco' (*). He has had more success as a national team manager than he has had at the club level. Bielsa managed Argentina from 1998-2004 but where he captured my imagination was during his time with Chile from 2007-11. The Argentine earned idol and cult status in Chile after qualifying that national side for the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa -- their 2nd place in qualifying earned them a berth to the competition for the first time since 1998. The eccentric Bielsa fluidly interchanged from a back three and back four -- depending on the number of opposition strikers -- in his high-intensity pressing and direct system. His obsessive tactical detail is well-respected in the football world. Pep Guardiola is said to have traveled to Argentina prior to piling up trophies at FC Barcelona in order to seek knowledge. Guardiola has implemented much of Bielsa's pressing principles in combination with Barca's existing total football ways.
(*) We really all should have someone in our lives nicknamed 'El Loco'.
Rather than have me -- an admirer of Bielsa and just a football fan who is generally curious about Athletic club -- I figured I'd just provide some interesting links (to me at least) so that you all can fill your brains with knowledge on the Basque side. Hopefully these pieces from Sid Lowe, Michael Cox, Phil Ball and Jonathan Wilson can provide you some insight into Manchester United's Thursday night opponents -- this should provide you enough reading material for distraction from a boring day at work or school:
* 'Bielsa set to thrive in Bilbao' | by Zonal Marking (Cox) - Cox wrote this in August and he discusses what many believed at the the time -- that Bielsa preferred the Athletic job to Inter when each club had openings in the summer. He goes on to anticipate what Bielsa's tactics would be at his new club after witnessing a friendly versus Tottenham Hotspur. The tactics have been decently anticipated but beyond that, it's good insight into El Loco's tactical principles.
* 'Bielsa's Chile the most tactically-exciting side' | by Zonal Marking (Cox) - More on Bielsa's tactical principles -- specifically in regards to Chile. More on why I'm fascinated by this man. It explains how Bielsa rarely uses pure defenders in his back line. This explains why the excellent Javi Martinez is often deployed as a ball-playing center-back for Athletic.
* 'Marcelo Bielsa finally begins to get a tune out of Athletic Bilbao' | by Sid Lowe - It was a rough start for Bielsa at his new club but the Basque derby in October was perhaps a turning point for the manager. Lowe discusses how the club's principles -- insistence on only Basque players and with a clear identity in style -- may have bought him time he wouldn't have been given at another club (Inter comes to mind). A mention of that meeting in Argentina with Guardiola as well.
* 'Is Marcelo Bielsa's model right for Athletic Bilbao?'| by Jonathan Wilson - More on Athletic's identity and tactics and how Fernando Llorente endures their 'English-style' tradition by being the pivot in their vertical football.
* 'Can El Loco lead Bilbao to success?' | by Michael Cox - "The coach's room. Before, we could show you in there, but this season we're not allowed. Maybe Marcelo Bielsa has some secrets." Intriguing detail by Cox on... Bielsa's incredible attention to detail. Also, more on how Athletic likes to gradually build-up in the back and then speed it up when they are able to create overloads in attack.
* 'Athletic Bilbao bids farewell to the historical San Mames Stadium' | by Sid Lowe - A reverential and romantic report on Athletic's recent Copa del Rey semi-final victory at 'The Cathedral'. Lowe describes what apparently is a uniquely different stadium/arena atmosphere. Here is Bielsa on the atmosphere that night: "I had been told about it, but it is one thing to be told, another to experience it. It was wonderful. I had never seen a stadium so involved, so influential, so joyous. It is a lovely sensation when football produces such emotion."