Ahead of Manchester United's Europa League clash tomorrow with La Liga side Athletic Bilbao, friend of the site -- Arron Duckling, the co-managing editor of Barca Blaugranes -- was kind enough answer five questions of mine in regards to our opponents. He doesn't claim to be an Athletic Club expert but they are a side that he is very familiar with as a Barcelona supporter and as a frequent viewer of La Liga football. As revealed in this Q&A, Barca will face Athletic in the Cope del Rey final so it is a side that Arron has studied extensively. The fantastic information (*) that he provides here is probably better than anything I can give in our upcoming preview. Without further ado, here is our Q&A:
(*) Seriously, you really should read this. The answers are great.
Gene: How has Barcelona fared this season versus Athletic Club? The November clash seemed to a fascinating one that seemingly was further dramatized by backdrop of apocalyptic rain. In regards to Barca v Athletic match-ups, how do you feel about the upcoming Copa del Rey final between the two sides? Could you further elaborate on this debate/controversy on where the final will be played at? -- and perhaps provide some background on why it's an issue?
Arron: The first meeting between the two sides this season ended 2-2, and as you mentioned, it was even more epic because of all that rainfall. Personally, I find it difficult to accurately compare the two sides after such a match, because the conditions were such a factor in the result as Barcelona’s intricate passing style was severely disrupted by the waterlogged pitch, especially in the second half. Matches against either side from the Basque country are always difficult; both sides are not afraid to play physical, but both possess extremely talented technical players so are capable of really mixing it up. As for the Copa del Rey final, I have to be confident as a Barca fan, merely because Guardiola’s record in any final is just exceptional, but make no mistake, Barcelona will have to be at their best to stop a great side.
The location of the final was finally decided at the start of this week, and the two teams will face off at the Vicente Calderon (Atletico Madrid’s stadium). However, both teams wanted to play the final at the Bernabeu, partly out of spite towards Real Madrid and partly because it would have allowed both sides to cater for the demand for tickets. But to spoil the party, Florentino Perez decided that the Bernabeu needed some important work so the final would not take place at the Bernabeu. It was the first time in history that a club has ever denied such a request in Spain at least, and both sides knew it was all lies. Basically, Real Madrid do not want either of their two great rivals lifting a trophy at their stadium (which is understandable), while I’m surprised that the FA chose the Vicente Calderon for reasons I will explain later.
Gene: What's Marcelo Bielsa's general reception been like in La Liga? Has the press been on him after his disappointing start or has he become a media darling after their recent turnaround? Or perhaps somewhere in between?
Arron: Well, I read your Know Thy Eneny piece, and as you can see, the English speaking media are all over everything Bielsa does. I think most of all there is a mutual respect for Bielsa that is evolving over time as Athletic creep ever closer to that fourth Champions League spot. Sure, he made a rocky start, but I think it was viewed as a transitional period by the media, although some did speculate whether or not Bielsa was the right man for the job, with some going as far as saying that he was a failure. The first few games were difficult, as Athletic slipped to three defeats from their first four La Liga matches, but since then, they have only lost a further three more times in 21 matches. Quite simply no-one can argue with that.
Gene: For those who are unaware of the unique cultural identities throughout Spain, are you able to explain the Basque region's? Is it similar at all to Catalonia? If so, is there an inherent resistance to the capital? If it's not similar at all, could you elaborate?
Arron: Absolutely. The two regions are almost in a bizarre race of sorts to see who can gain independence first. Neither region, or the inhabitants from either consider themselves to truly be Spanish, and if there were a Basque national side and a Cataluña side recognised by FIFA, then I truly believe that guys like Xavi, Fernando Llorente and maybe even Xabi Alonso would not be playing for Spain. In a way, this was also why they wanted the final to be played at the Bernabeu, and why it surprises me that the Vicente Calderon was eventually chosen as the venue. Both sets of fans booed the Spanish national anthem last time they met in the final in 2008, and presumably would and will do the same this time around. What better place to voice their anti-Castilian sentiment than in the capital itself?
Of course, there is a line that shouldn’t ever be crossed when seeking independence, but there are certain minorities like ETA that do cross the line, something which I am not aware of any Catalan group ever doing. So in a way, the two regions are very similar, but to stereotype the two, the Basques are certainly the more passionate of the two, and this definitely translates onto the football pitch.
Gene: Four of Athletic's players were recently called into the Spain squad for their friendly against Venezuela. Can you tell us a little bit about Javi Martinez (who I'm quite fond of), Fernando Llorente, Iker Munian, and Adoni Iraola? Which do you feel would fit best at United (you know, if we actually had money to spend)? Are there other players we should be aware of?
Arron: Well, Javi Martinez is arguably the crown jewel for Bilbao. While Llorente gets the goals and the plaudits, it is Martinez who is held in a higher regard by the coaching staff, and it is Martinez who would likely fetch a higher price on the market. He has so many factors on his side; age, strength, technique, versatility. You name it, chances are Javi Martinez can do it. Curiously, Bielsa has added an extra dimension to Javi's game by employing him as a centre-half in a fair few matches this season with mixed results. If you follow Bielsa's career, you may realise he has tried this before, and by this I mean shifting a midfield player back into defense. There are a couple of reasons for this, the most important being that Bielsa likes to play a high line, and distribute the ball from the back. Martinez is not a quick player, but compared to some of the other Bilbao defenders, he is better equipped to deal with the threat La Liga strikers pose. It has improved his midfield game significantly as well, a little like how Sergio Busquets has developed after Pep did the exact same thing.
As I mentioned, Llorente is the one that gets the plaudits. He is the goal-scorer, and naturally, when you score the goals that win matches, people start to take notice. Whenever I see Llorente play, he does well, perhaps because he is one of the most consistent performers around. Even when he is struggling to find the back of the net, he is causing a constant problem with his immense strength, tenacious work-rate (new under Bielsa) and aerial presence. You may think I am exaggerating, but Llorente will require at least two players to mark him on set pieces, and sometimes even in open play. Quite literally, in terms of athleticism and power, the man is a freak of nature.
Iker Muniain is the prodigal talent, usually positioned on left wing, but is adept at playing a shadow striker role too. What Muniain brings to the table is a colossal work-rate. Against Barcelona he never once stood still, always snapping and snarling at the feet of the ball-carrier, and considered he was often chasing Andres Iniesta (and keeping up), he covered an extra-ordinary amount of ground. He may be a small guy, but is deceptively strong and his Europa League record is impressive. Personally, I would opt for Chris Smalling at right-back (if he is available) so there is little space for him to exploit.
Then we get to Iraola, the late bloomer of the bunch. I have always been a fan of Iraola, and I must say that he is the model professional. I remember Athletic Bilbao coming to England a couple of years back and playing a friendly against my hometown team who were in League One at the time. Even though it was early in their pre-season schedule against an inferior side, he was playing as if it were another La Liga match. His crossing ability ranks up with the best on the team, although he does struggle in aerial battles. Of the four, he is arguably the "worst" although that isn't a criticism.
While United are lacking real creativity in the centre of the park, I would argue that Fernando Llorente could be a good addition to the side. Javier Hernandez has struggled to replicate his form of last season, while Welbeck in my opinion has been OK, but not Manchester United quality. Llorente could operate as a pure #9, allowing Rooney to drop a little deeper into that #10 position where he excels. With Valencia's crossing ability, there would be ample opportunities for Llorente to utilise his aerial prowess. As for the rest of the Bilbao squad, keep an eye on Jon Aurtenetxe at left-back (could be a long-term Evra replacement...maybe) and as you are a little strapped for cash, Ander could fit into that midfield gap well. Oh, and Evra will need to keep a close eye on Susaeta who scored twice at the weekend in the Basque derby.
Gene: You being a man that is interested in tactics, are there any general tactical thoughts that you'd like to share with us in regards to Athletic? Bielsa seemed quite fond of a back three in South America -- and in South Africa in 2010 -- but he seems to be taking a more prudent approach against the mostly lone striker formations in La Liga. What are Athletic's general tactical tendencies?
Arron: I am a little disappointed in Bielsa in this regard; there has been nothing overtly unusual about Athletic this season. Admittedly, a back-three would not fit the squad (it would leave out Iraola for example), but I expected Loco Bielsa to appear at some stage this season. Instead, he has gone "safe" so to speak with the modern-favourite: a 4-2-3-1 that can easily become a 4-5-1 or a 4-3-3 depending on the scenario. However, it may be a bog-standard 4-2-3-1, but his philosophy is what has led to this dramatic improvement in Bilbao's fortunes. The team press high up the field, but in an organised manner. I guess the best way to describe it would be zonal pressing, and its goal as with all pressing is to get the ball back ASAP.
Therefore, I think SAF should opt for the most-experienced midfield he possibly can, although he must keep a delicate balance with regards to experience, stamina, pace and strength. If the United midfield is too inexperienced, then the zonal press will cause them to panic and make errors with their passes, but if they cannot keep up with Bilbao's work-rate or pace, they will be at a distinct disadvantage. Equally, if the United midfield cannot hold their own against the physical presence Athletic possess, they will end up having to chase the ball for large periods of the game.
Bilbao keep possession extremely well, with the third best average in the league (I'm sure you can guess who they trail in that respect), but are caught offside often, and are susceptible when defending a fast break. Their 4-2-3-1 is usually filled with Iraizoz in goal, behind a backline of Iraola, San Jose, Amorebieta (he's a real old-school defender, more brawn than brains) and Aurtenetxe. Then we have the double pivot of Javi Martinez and either Iturraspe or Oscar De Marcos. The two wings are filled by Muniain and Susaeta with Ander behind Llorente. However, Ander often drops deeper to form a deeper-set midfield triangle, with the attack ahead of them. As with all Spanish teams, there is a focus on short passing, but I cannot stress enough that it is their strength and work-rate that sets them apart.
If I were SAF, I would focus on defending set pieces, with an emphasis on the transition between defense and attack. Rooney and the midfield must attempt to exploit the high backline, but lofted through balls will mostly be cleared with ease, unless they are aimed to either wing. Furthermore, he must watch out for the cutbacks, as Bilbao often lure the opposition into a routine of defending crosses to Llorente, before they mix it up by cutting the ball back to a midfield runner to take a shot. Make no mistakes, there may be times when the game becomes a war of attrition, but United have to stick to the gameplan that SAF draws up if they are to progress.