Mad Scientist Bielsa’s Llorente Experiment Fails

Fernando LlorenteShock horror! Fernando Llorente is leaving Athletic in the Summer! Equally remarkable rumours that the Pope is actually Catholic and bears defecate in the woods remain unconfirmed.

The leaving of Bilbao tends to be complicated, of course: ask Javi Martinez! Llorente, aware of the fact he might actually want to return to the region at some point, has played it flawlessly when it comes to explaining his decision to leave. No criticism of the club or suggestion he needs something bigger and better: instead, the dastardly press have driven a wedge between him and his beloved people:

“It isn’t about money because the offer the club made was irresistible.

“The media have not helped with the negotiations and it is one of the things that has generated the bad atmosphere around me out on the pitch….

“I took the decision when I went out for the first Europa League game at San Mamés [in August].

“Most of what has come out in the press is lies and this has turned people against me. This has meant when I run out on to the pitch people whistle at me. There is a sector of the crowd who do not want me but I feel loved by the majority.”

Fair enough, but that’s hardly the full story. Llorente ended the last season as one of Europe’s hottest properties, and despite the fact that overuse left him looking out on his feet as the campaign sputtered out, there was plenty of confusion about the lack of time he spent on the pitch during the European Championships.

Yet he returned to San Mames and, rather than be seen as the returning hero, was turfed out of the team in favour of a journeyman striker. A decent journeyman striker, but still: Aritz Aduriz is hardly Sergio Aguerro.

Thus far, Llorente the superstar has started one league match this season, despite not having been injured. But that didn’t merit a mention in his valedictory speech!

Llorente is hardly on his own in suffering what players’ union FIFPRO describe as “blackmail”: Wesley Sneijder finds himself in an even worse situation at Inter, not even considered for a place on e bench unless he signs a new contract.

But closer to home, players are being treated very differently. Fernando Amorebieta’s contract runs out in the Summer but he continues to be chosen despite showing no signs of putting pen to paper: indeed, his agent is talking up a possible January move to Zenit St Petersburg, Roma, Liverpool or anyone else with a bit of cash in their back pockets. As far as I can see ( and I’m willing to be corrected on this!) Isma Lopez seems to be in the last year of his contract too.

Marcelo Bielsa, ever the theoretician, seems to have decided to test the question of whether it’s possible to replace Llorente by trying it out before he left. The most cursory of glances at the league table tells you that the answer is not encouraging.

Aduriz has done a good job in the lone striker job, and shares many attributes with Llorente. However, Bilbao have floundered after losing not only Llorente, in essence, but also Javi Martinez. The problem is, having discovered that it’s not going to be easy to replace Llorente, there’s nothing Bielsa can do with this information.

I imagine Bielsa, the football scientist, in his lab, calculating the outcomes from his latest experiment. He deduces that Athletic without Llorente up front, trying to cope with the current squad, doesn’t work. So he wants to discard the plan and try something new. But he can’t. As their transfer policy precludes buying non-local talent, if the good couples of the Basque Country don’t produce another top class target man, Bilbao can’t play with one. No quick fix dips into the transfer market here: all Athletic can do is accumulate the millions from Javi Martinez and please the bank manager. All that cash counts for nothing in the market.

Of course, there are quality Basque players out there for Athletic to sign, but if they think they’re going to get value for money they can think again. If they go sniffing after Benat, Ruben Pardo or Natxo Monreal they’ll encounter clubs who know they’re in a bind. There’s a finite number of Basque players out there who will enhance Athletic’s squad, and therefore if they go for them their desperation is likely to be reflected in a Bilbao supplement slapped on top of the transfer fee.

“Oh, you’re desperate for a quality left back are you? Well, you can pay over the odds for Monreal, or look elsewhere. What’s that, you can’t look elsewhere? My, what a pity!”

Mind you, mad scientist Bielsa might not need be too concerned that his experiment has failed. After all, he’s not going to be around next season to try a new approach, surely?

Javier Aguirre Takes on Espanyol’s Mission Impossible

aguirre Javier Aguirre Takes on Espanyol’s Mission Impossible

The other Catalan club’s new coach Javier Aguirre

Here’s something I wrote for Soccerlens

Harry Redknapp isn’t the only wily veteran to take on a dysfunctional bottom of the table side this week. Javier Aguirre is a master fire-fighter but he’s taken on a massive job at Espanyol.

At least his side isn’t as far adrift of safety as Redknapp’s QPR, but that’s merely an indictment of the quality at the bottom of La Liga this season, because Los Periquitos have been awful this season, both on and off the pitch.

Both clubs seem to have been gripped by paralysis as their seasons have staggered on, unable to dismiss a coach despite the evidence of their inability to rouse their players being clear to all. The reasons for their hesitation couldn’t be more different.

Judging by his tweets, Tony Fernandes seems to have been gripped by a quaint sense of loyalty, hoping against hope that somehow Mark Hughes would justify his faith in him despite all the evidence to the contrary. Espanyol’s failure to act is a little less edifying.

The scheduling of the club’s presidential elections for this month meant it was left denuded of leadership as a nasty battle for power took precedence over supporting coach Mauricio Pochettino.

It wasn’t as if Espanyol was a finely-tuned machine which could be left to tick over on its own either. Some clubs flourish when they move into a new ground; Los Blanquiblaus certainly don’t fit into that category.

The club has stumbled along, burdened with debt, constantly selling Pochettino’s players from under him during his three years with them. Talents like Osvaldo and Jose Maria Callejon have leaked out of the club. The inevitable consequence was that eventually the coach didn’t have enough to work with.

After winning the election with 61% of the votes, and confirming that at the end of the financial year Espanyol was €144 million in debt, Joan Collet turned his attention back to the pitch and dismissed his coach.

If Pochettino is guilty of anything, it’s being too loyal. He’s a legend at the club from his playing days, holding the record for appearances, and hanging on to try and rescue them from their predicament has damaged his wider reputation, even if it has confirmed him as a decent man.

pochettino Javier Aguirre Takes on Espanyol’s Mission Impossible

The now former Espanyol coach, Mauricio Pochettino

Remarkably, he was La Liga’s longest serving boss when he was dismissed, but certainly isn’t long in the tooth. He quickly established himself at the forefront of the wave of talented, progressive young coaches that emerged across Europe at the end of the last decade, alongside the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel.

The way he weaved together fluent, youthful sides on a small budget caught the eye as he helped gifted loanees like Philippe Coutinho, Vladimir Weiss and Samuele Longo to develop. Losing key players and replacing them with kids, albeit talented ones, was hardly a recipe for success though, and eventually the reality of his working conditions hit home.

Aguirre inherits a dispirited squad. They’ve lost their last four games, collapsing to a 3-0 home loss against a half strength Sevilla in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, and have won only three of their last twenty six matches going back to last March. Such is their bedraggled indiscipline that they’ve finished just seven of their sixteen games this season with eleven men.

When they stunned everyone at the start of the month by snatching a 1-0 win at Real Sociedad, their first away win since last December, they swiftly confirmed that it was a flash in the pan losing their next match 3-0 at home to Osasuna, the side they’d briefly dumped at the bottom of the table, who’d won one in twelve.

Aguirre has a reputation for lifting teams from the dumps. Two years ago he was appointed by Real Zaragoza in very similar circumstances (seven points from safety, flogging quality players like Ander Herrera and Humberto Suazo, €125 million in debt) and managed to rescue them from relegation, although twelve months on he was sacked as they sunk back into the relegation mire.

It could be argued that what he achieved there was still remarkable though: he inspired them to a scarcely believable win at Real Madrid on the way to survival, and let’s not forget that this was hardly a club which did things the right way: his predecessor Marcelinho, the man who’d got them promoted, was dismissed with a club statement which claimed:

“His legacy is the sad title of the worst defence, a place in the relegation zone, just three wins in fourteen and a first round knock-out in the cup.”

Classy.

Aguirre also enjoyed a memorable spell at Osasuna, appointed as the fulfillment of an election promise in 2002 by incoming President Patxi Izco. The little side from Navarre over-performed massively under him for four years, keeping relegation comfortably at bay and enjoying runs to the semi-final and final of the Copa del Rey as well as a taste of European football.

His spell at the Reyno de Navarra ended with his masterpiece, a fourth place finish, and earned him a move up to Atletico Madrid. He brought an element of solidity and a dash of flair to Los Colchoneros, rather as Diego Simeone has done, developing the fluent partnership between Sergio Aguerro and Diego Forlan.

Ultimately, his Atletic side didn’t quite fulfill its potential, but he shouldn’t be judged too harshly for that: tantalising under-achievement is what they generally specialise in.

He has also performed a fire-fighting job at international level, having been brought in for a second spell as Mexico manager in 2009 to rescue their World Cup qualifying campaign after Sven-Göran Eriksson’s disastrous stint in charge.

He succeeded, getting a red card for kicking an opposing player along the way, and can add that achievement to an impressive CV in international management, having led his nation to the knock-out stages of the 2002 and 2010 World Cups, the final of the Copa America, losing the final 1-0 to hosts Colombia, and a Gold Cup Final, won 5-0 against the USA at the Giants Stadium, the first time Mexico have beaten their great rivals outside away from home..

Serious, intense, intelligent, Aguirre is making a welcome back to the top level of management. His most celebrated quality, like Redknapp, is his power of motivation. He creates a fearsome fighting spirit, inspiring an intense loyalty in his players, whom he inspires to achievements that seemed beyond them.

At Zaragoza he famously made an inspirational video, getting club staff to secretly sneak around filming the players’ loved ones making impassioned pleas for victory. Having cajoled and inspired his players to an unlikely escape from relegation a local columnist suggested a statue should be erected in his honour.

If he can rescue stricken Espanyol from the mess they’re in, he’ll deserve a Christ the Redeemer-sized tribute on Montserrat!