La Liga’s greatest games – Athletic Club vs Barcelona (2011)

Athletic Club vs Barcelona

by Robert Barter (@RobertBarter16)

That even a microcosm of doubt could enter the mind of Pep Guardiola seems unfathomable, yet self-doubt was exactly the state with which he found himself encapsulated in 2006. Approaching the end of his career turning out for Mexican side Dorados de Sinaloa, the Santpedorian did not move to Mexico with lofty ambitions for the club, but rather to learn from their coach, Juan Manuel Lillo.

At the time 35, Guardiola was approaching the end of his playing career, from which he was sure he wanted to make the switch to coaching. When enduring his lacklustre spell in Italy with Roma, a conversation with legendary marksman Gabriel Batistuta would lead him to the door of the most revolutionary and influential coach in the modern era. ‘If you want to become a coach, you need to go and see that guy’, was Batistuta’s advice. That guy was Marcelo Bielsa.

It was during his tenure in the Pacific state of Sinaloa when he made the 8,000 kilometre trip south to Bielsa’s ranch in Máximo Paz on the outskirts of Rosario, Argentina. David Trueba, the Spanish film director travelled alongside, whom Bielsa, an avid movie fan, quizzed for the first hour. When the conversation then switched to football, Trueba said ‘they could not stop’. They spent hours discussing teams and tactics, as outlined in Tim Rich’s book ‘The Quality of Madness’, with Bielsa’s computer being used to settle debates and arguments, before the Argentine positioned the director between two stationary chairs to demonstrate a potential tactical move in a game.

Months after the meeting Guardiola was given the reigns at Barcelona’s B team, from which he was promoted to coach the senior squad where he would cement himself as the most successful coach in the club’s illustrious history. After three successive league titles and two Champions League triumphs, it was Guardiola’s fourth season where he reached his tactical zenith, yet it was also, almost poetically, his least successful.

After defeating José Mourinho’s Real Madrid to lift the 2011 Spanish Super Cup, coinciding with the acquisitions of Alexis Sánchez and Cesc Fàbregas, Guardiola began to utilise a three-man backline more frequently, in a formation that mirrored that of Johan Cruyff’s 3-4-3 or the 3-3-1-3 brought to the footballing fore by the enigmatic coach he had spent those eventful hours in Rosario with. Despite it being the season in which Barcelona played its most attractive and intricate football, the Copa Del Rey remained the only major trophy they had to show for it as Mourinho’s Madrid steamrolled the title and what seemed like divine intervention led to their demise against Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final, a tie which Barcelona dominated and Lionel Messi struck the frame of the goal twice.

As the dust settled on May 25th at the Vicente Calderón and Guardiola departed, memories were cast over a season which had left a sour taste. Inconsistencies domestically left them nine points adrift at the summit of the league table and while a sense of what could have been encapsulated their European exploits, the thumping of Atlético Madrid and 3-1 league victory at the Santiago Bernabéu reminisced of Guardiola’s finer moments. For the many ups and downs of a tumultuous season, it was a game on November 6th that evoked the most excitement.

Athletic vs Barcelona 2011

The venue was San Mamés in the Basque Country. His brief stint with Espanyol in 1998 aside this represented Marcelo Bielsa’s first real foray into European football. What many would view a limitation, he saw the club’s policy of signing Basque only players as romantic. It was teacher versus student. Bielsa versus Guardiola.

The rain falling from the Basque sky provided the perfect backdrop for the meeting of two footballing intellectuals. The Ikurrina flag encapsulated the stands as the game began at breakneck speed, Athletic pressing insanely while Barcelona looked to settle into their usual game of passing and possession. The players at Bilbao summed up Bielsa’s philosophy perfectly. Young, hungry, energetic, fearless. Where many would have cowered with fear, the hosts took the game to the Catalans and struck first among the chaos.

A ball played forward by Víctor Valdés was intercepted but not retained by Athletic. As the ball rolled towards Mascherano the conditions began to take effect as the Argentine lost his footing deep inside his own half. It was a gift Markel Susaeta was all too happy to accept. He sprinted forward before teeing up Ander Herrera whose finish was impeccable, placed into the far corner of Valdés’ goal.

The goal was worrying for Guardiola as three of the previous seven games on the road had been drawn and Madrid were galloping ahead with worrying pace. Despite the brilliant equaliser, headed home by Fàbregas after a similar turnover in opposition territory, Bilbao continued to attack with ferocious speed. Iker Muniain missed a chance to restore the lead, while Andrés Iniesta continued in similar vein after Messi teed him up.

The pressure on both goals was asphyxiating. Gorka Iraizoz pulled off save after save while Barcelona resorted to agricultural long balls forward as the forward line of Athletic pressed and harried Mascherano and Gerard Piqué. Each attack brought the feeling that the pressure must ease off. That both sets of players would eventually allow the tempo to drop. Except that they did not. The seemingly impossible pace at which the contest was played out continued from start to finish. The tension in the stadium was becoming more and more palpable as the weather began to make even more of an impact on proceedings.

Mascherano, provided with no forward passes, turned on possession and played the ball back towards Valdés, but it never reached him. It flew straight out of play for an Athletic corner. The delivery was not exceptional but left Valdés unable to claim it. Instead it deflected first off of Eric Abidal and then off the leg of Piqué and into the net.

With minutes remaining, Bielsa found his side ahead but a cruel twist of fate would deny Athletic a famous victory. A lapse in concentration between the imperious Iraizoz and his defence who had stood incredibly firm in the face of such intimidating adversity allowed Lionel Messi to slot an equaliser in to the unguarded net to level the contest at 2-2. For all the vociferous and unwavering support, a characteristic of their proud Basque heritage, the hosts had faltered and deviated just when it mattered most. An enthralling, end-to-end game which, perhaps due to the quality displayed by both sides probably did not deserve a true victor, was called to a halt mere moments after Messi’s equaliser.

A glance at the career of Marcelo Bielsa and one thing becomes abundantly clear. For a coach who has influenced so many, who engineers such world-class displays of attacking football, his trophy haul of three Argentine titles and an Olympic gold medal do the man no justice. It is a criticism also levelled at his three most ardent disciples. That Jorge Sampaoli, Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino and Edgardo Bauza have similarly won so few accolades in comparison to their lofty standing in the game are a hallmark of the majority of the coaches that take their core principles from Bielsa.

From the Barcelona cantera, through to Mexico via Italy and the Middle East, from the plains of Rosario to the mountainous Chilean capital, this was a meeting of footballing minds 23 years in the making.

In the customary post-match greeting of Guardiola and his opponent, Bielsa handed over a document which contained the opposition’s tactical information and characteristics of their players. Through meticulous planning and scouting, a circumstance that would come under scrutiny in 2019 when in charge at Leeds United, the Argentine ensured no stones were left unturned in his side’s match planning. At the time Pep Guardiola joked ‘you know more about Barcelona than I do’. That was Marcelo Bielsa. That was ‘El Loco’.

Full time: Athletic Bilbao 2-2 Barcelona.

More Classic Games from La Liga – Barcelona vs Real Madrid (2010)

Featured image adapted from Maite Elorza’s photo, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

About Robert Barter 11 Articles
Football writer for LaLiga Expert & Zicoball.