Andoni Iraola: New Bournemouth manager’s tactics reminiscent to Bielsa

Arnold Lewis
By Arnold Lewis
13 Min Read

Very few people in football saw this coming. Bournemouth have brought in Rayo Vallecano manager Andoni Iraola as their new head coach, to many people’s surprise.

That is not to say that the Basque manager isn’t good enough to manage in the Premier League – more on that later. But the Cherries have now hired their third manager in less than a year after gaining promotion back to the English top-flight last season after a three-year absence.

Scott Parker took over the managerial role at Bournemouth in 2021 and immediately guided the Cherries back to the Premier League in his first season, with his elusive brand of football. Although, the introductory fixtures to life back into the PL weren’t kind enough and the former Spurs player was sacked just a month into the new season.

Gary O’Neil, who was the assistant coach in Parker’s backroom staff, was hired on an interim basis. The former English professional footballer quickly brought life back into the Cherries dugout with consecutive impressive results and was given the job permanently.

Bournemouth secured Premier League safety after finishing 15th in the table with 39 points. Their performance though towards the end of the season was on a decline and was very evident. Even then the news of O’Neil’s sacking was a bit too harsh much like Parker’s departure. But his replacement, Andoni Iraola is a man that has made heads turn in European football with his unique brand of football.

Even though the Spanish manager has very little top-flight experience as a manager, let alone managing an English Premier League team, he has proven his credentials at Vallecano that his team can go toe-to-toe even against the best clubs in football. But can he take the Cherries to the next level that the board desires of him? And is he a good fit at the Vitality Stadium? Let’s find out.

Andoni Iraola’s career so far

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Andoni Iraola spent the majority of his career at Basque club Athletic Bilbao (for obvious reasons). He spent 15 years playing right-back at the Spanish club, but sadly couldn’t help his team win any major silverware. After leaving Bilbao in 2015, Iraola played for another two years and retired from professional football in 2017.

He played under many great managers like Marcelo Bielsa and Ernesto Valverde. But the one that convinced him to pursue a career in football management was former Arsenal legend, Patrick Vieira. Iraola contemplated for a long time what was he supposed to do post his playing career and Vieira convinced him that he has a footballing brain that very few people do in the modern day of the beautiful game.

He began this new phase by becoming the head coach of a Cyprus football club – AEK Larnaca. After an adventurous spell with the Cyprus club, Andoni Iraola returned to his homeland to manage Spanish club Mirandes. He deployed an expansive brand of football there and even reached the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey with the Spanish third-tier club.

After watching this, Rayo Vallecano came calling, who at the time of Iraola’s hiring were in the Spanish second division. He instantly took them back into the Spanish top-flight only in his first season in charge and since then he has just evolved his tactics game after game.

Iraola spent three seasons as the manager of Vallecano and two of them were spent in Spanish top-flight La Liga. In his two seasons with Rayo Vallecano in La Liga, the Basque manager helped the Spanish club overachieve in two consecutive seasons, where they finished 12th both times.

The catching point here is, Iraola did not spend big on transfer fees and nor did he have that star player quality that most of the Spanish top-flight sides do. His team functioned like a well-oiled machine and played like a proper group of players who want to win it for their manager.

Now, with the Bournemouth job officially his, it is to be seen how he hits the ground running. There is work to do of course at the Vitality stadium, but if it was any man to do it, it had to be Iraola.

Andoni Iraola – tactical analysis

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Well for starters, let’s say Andoni Iraola is much of a hybrid of both Marcelo Bielsa and Ernesto Valverde – ascertaining an influence from both during his playing days at Bilbao.

Every football fan is familiar with the kind of football Bielsa likes to play. Direct, attacking, ruthless, and intensity at its peak. Any less than that and you’re deemed not capable of playing for the Argentine coach. On the contrary, Valverde is a very pragmatic first approach coach.

New Bournemouth manager is exactly the kind of hybrid of these two managers, albeit with modern tweaks that are required on the football pitch. Let’s start all the way from the back of the goal. The Basque manager likes his man between the sticks to be good at his feet. But at the same time intelligent enough that Iraola expects him to launch counter-attacks from those scrappy opponent corners – a very Jose Mourinho esque tactic.

Iraola prefers a 4-4-2 diamond formation with one holding midfielder and a number 10 along with two supporting midfielders. The two forwards up front aren’t traditional number 9s and that is where the catch is in his system. While one of the two strikers might be ever-present in the opponent box, the number 10 and second striker along with his two full-backs play the most important role in his system.

The former Vallecano manager likes his full-backs to create overloads on the other end, regardless of which flank the attack is on the buildup. This is very much similar to how Bielsa sets up his team. The three central midfielders are used for a mid-block approach rather than a low-block to intercept any intricate passing there is. This mid-block approach is reminiscent of what Valverde does with his teams.

What this does is that, for instance, if the right-back is on the attack for Iraola’s team, the second striker and number 10 join him in attack to create spaces. This leaves the left-back on the opposite flank with acres of space without having the pressure to track back and defend. That job is taken up by the midfield three. This pattern is repeated on any given flank with at least one body present in the box given when a chance arises.

The Basque manager’s Bournemouth fit

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Bournemouth have hired Andoni Iraola for a simple reason – Give the team a clear identity while also progressing with performances on the pitch.

While there is no doubt, Iraola is more than capable of doing that, the Cherries somewhat lack the profile of players that the Basque manager prefers. He might have been promised by the board a couple of signings that suit his style of play, but this is a process that will take time.

Bournemouth do have some players though in their ranks that should fit like a hand-to-glove in Iraola’s system. The centre-back duo of Chris Mepham and Lloyd Kelly are the perfect kind of players to lead the defence for Iraola. Even with the recent signings of young defender Illia Zabarnyi and Argentine centre-back Marcos Senesi, expect the duo of Kelly and Mepham to start ahead of them. Similarly, Phillip Billing is just the sort of player that the Spanish manager wants in his midfield, who can run tirelessly up and down the pitch. The departure of Jefferson Lerma will hurt the Cherries and a capable replacement is needed to fill that gap. Lewis Cook might be given the nod to fill that gap who will want to prove his credentials to the new manager.

David Brooks made his much anticipated return to the Bournemouth squad towards the end of last season, after a lengthy spell on the sidelines. The Welsh international might be given to perform the role of the number 10, given how Iraola likes to tinker with player positions based on their strengths. Although, even if he cements his place in the role, new signing Hamed Traore will give Brooks a run for his money, since it’s a position that the Ivorian likes to play in as well. Lastly, there is no doubt that Dominic Solanke and Dango Outtara will be his strike duo who are tailormade for his tactics.

A few things are still missing though from this Cherries squad and Iraola will be looking to address them this summer. He needs fullbacks that complement his style of play and intensity which is currently missing from this squad. Even though players like Marcus Tavernier are very much capable of performing those roles for Iraola, it shouldn’t be surprising if the Spanish manager decides to go for a new player in the market. Justin Kluivert can also be considered a Bournemouth player after his signing from AS Roma is all but confirmed and will add a new dimension to the Cherries attack next season.

In goal, Neto has been the first choice, but that role might be given to Mark Travers under Iraola or a new goalkeeper might be signed, given both of them do not exactly fit the profile Andoni Iraola is looking for. Neto was a commendable free transfer from Barcelona. Travers was always first choice under Parker, even after the Brazilian goalkeeper’s arrival, but O’Neil preferred Neto’s experience – that might change though, alot depends on pre-season at the Vitality.

Overall the squad looks well shaped for someone with Iraola’s tactics and philosophy of the game. Mixing pragmatism and possession-based football along with a hybrid press isn’t what many managers can pull off and that is what Andoni Iraola brings to the table at Bournemouth.

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1 Comment
  • This was quite interesting until I saw you referenced Jefferson Lerma, when anyone knows, he went to Palace.

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