Athletic Bilbao: What World Football Can Learn from Europa League Finalists
The club from the País Vasco grabbed many headlines and admirers when they stunned United at Old Trafford—and at the San Mamés—with their stock rising ever since.
Now deservedly in the Europa League final, there are many positive things all clubs in the sport can learn from Los Leones.
Here in this slideshow are five of them.
The first thing that must be noted about Athletic Bilbao is their commitment, and how celebrated manager Marcelo Bielsa has got all of his men playing for the cause 100 percent.
One simple look at Athletic's game will prove that this bunch of players can make life hell for any opponent—even Manchester United at Old Trafford—just by their work rate more than anything else.
And what makes these players so committed? The fact that they're all local lads from the Basque Country, thanks to the club's Basque-only policy on player recruitment.
These men are players who are representing their region and the towns they grew up in, and on a stage as big as the Europa League, it's only natural they will give everything they possibly can to make their homeland proud.
Athletic Bilbao, thanks to the meticulous tactics of boss Marcelo Bielsa, are one of the most unpredictable teams in world football.
Their players simply don't have set positions. For example, Iker Muniain has no definable position. At kick-off he lines up on the wing, but the moment the game has kicked off, he's anywhere but on the wing.
When his team are off the ball, Muniain is a defensive midfielder harassing whoever's on the ball, and when his side do have possession he's wherever the best place is in the final third to receive a pass.
But it's not a problem or anything to do with lack of positional awareness, because he knows the space he's left open to make his run is covered by a teammate.
It's a high octane system which works brilliantly thanks to the commitment and work rate these players have.
And it also makes the team a nightmare to mark—meaning the opposition can barely cope when the Athletic players are fully match fit.
Athletic Bilbao's unpredictability also gives them the edge with man-marking, as it can help trouble the opposition psychologically when in possession.
They know they're being stringently man-marked, and they know that if Athletic win back the ball, applying the same system on them will be impossible—a double whammy of fear which helps Bielsa's men win both strategically and mentally.
The video tells you everything you need to know about Athletic's stellar man-marking system.
In the semifinal second leg against Sporting Lisbon, a defining factor in Athletic Bilbao's victory was their ability to track back and win possession.
As soon as a player would lose the ball, they would sprint back and make sure their team won it back again. Iker Muniain did this countless times, as did the whole squad.
The end result was far more final third possession for the hosts, eight more shots on goal and ultimately two more goals.
If any player for any team in world football is questioning the need to track back, they only need to look at Athletic Bilbao and the wonders it does for them.
Pure Technical Ability
In the goal scored by Ibai Gomez here (1:18)—which put Athletic Bilbao 2-1 up—just watch the beautiful assist made by Fernando Llorente.
Thanks to his powerful physique, the defender backed off and gave him room. While looking solely at the ball—and with his back to goal—Llorente dragged the ball back away from the defender's challenge and poked it through into the space beyond the last man.
He didn't look up once; he just concentrated completely on what he was doing and trusted his teammate would be there to finish off the move.
It worked brilliantly. Two kicks of the ball and Llorente had not only evaded two defenders' challenges, but also created a goal.
It was a quick, instinctive, intricate move with great control, finesse and awareness that summed up Llorente and the technical ability of these Athletic players.
Andy Carroll and Fernando Torres take note: If you can't score goals, you need to create them—and Fernando Llorente has just shown you how.
Just like the whole Athletic Bilbao team has shown everyone else in the sport how the game should be played.