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José Luis Mendilibar: The Miracle Worker

Written by Ruairidh Barlow

It’s a test of the human psyche for one to fully appreciate the magnitude of what Eibar are doing. Entering their seventh season in Spain’s top division, their sixth under manager José Luis Mendilibar, their presence has become a normality. Which in itself, is absurd. “We are no longer just another team,” declared Mendilibar proudly in the summer of 2018.

Followers of Spanish football will be familiar with the fact a meagre 28,000 people reside in the town of Eibar, with some lucky neighbours watching matches from their tower-block balconies towering over Ipurúa, and their struggle to raise enough capital simply to be allowed into LaLiga. The Eibar story is so wild that legislators didn’t even consider the possibility that such a small club could reach the Primera. After six years and a shaky start, the loss of their two top-goalscorers and five starters, there’s plenty of work to be done to maintain what they have. At the moment, “we are not the Eibar we want to be” in Mendilibar’s mind. It’s worth wondering, with a global pandemic to contend with too - is this the year reality finally shakes them awake?

On every level, their presence in the top division re-asserts its ridiculousness. Situated meters from the main road, two pitches side-by-side in front of a singular large building form the entirety of their training complex (if that’s the right word). Lying in the shadow of the Udalaitz mountain in the rural Basque country, you could easily drive past it, mistaking it for a local pitch belonging to a village team. Until 2014, it was; home to Mondragón CF.

Until then, Eibar had never had an entirely grass pitch to train on. It’s hard to fathom that some of the best LaLiga football in recent years was conceived there.

Their size is impossible to ignore, it dominates every comparison with the rest of the league. But the man most responsible for their success, perhaps crucially, manages them like a title-challenger.

For one thing, they don’t defend like a small team. High up the pitch, at times with nine or ten players in the opposition half, it’s a long way removed from the traits you expect of a smaller side. Let alone the smallest.

There’s plenty of aggression too; but rather than a method of cowing the opposition or inflicting injury, it’s in the nature of their press. By no means could you describe Los Armeros [the gunsmiths] as industrial.

“We’re the team that’s easiest to analyse,” according to Mendilibar himself. “We don’t do anything extraordinary. We insist upon what we do well, and we hardly ever change,” explained the man born in Zaldibar, just 10 kilometres from Eibar. They can be direct but the ball is moved quickly and incisively rather than lofted forward without purpose. It’s an attitude you would expect from the best team in the league – we're going to do what we want and it’s up to you to stop us.

At first rather rudimentary and pragmatic, but now honed into something more entertaining and successful, this formula has been instrumental in the most fruitful period in their history. 10th place in 2017 followed by ninth a year later, at one stage Eibar even threatened to make an assault on European qualification. In their 80-year history, they’ve never been higher. Maintaining success, though, is a far harder challenge than success itself, if cliché is to be believed. It’s true that things are getting harder.

Since 2017, Eibar have finished with fewer points each season and the previous two have seen a gradual descent down the table. Last year they ended 14th, a mere six points above relegation. Had they not picked up two wins and a draw immediately before survival was guaranteed, it could have been an altogether sweatier affair at Ipurúa. It’s a debate usually reserved for the big clubs, but perhaps Mendilibar’s ‘cycle’ could be coming to an end.

The margins are getting finer and with the intensity he works at, Mendilibar could have been forgiven for walking out the front door with his head held high this summer. Only on the 31st of July did he finally sign a contract extension. With the pandemic, perhaps he didn’t feel he could depart.

Commonly the complaint when these cycles reach their demise centres around the message getting ‘tired’. Longevity is perhaps the rarest of all commodities in football nowadays. In most cases the talented are hastily plundered by bigger budgets and the ones that aren’t successful are gone even sooner. Stir in the element of maintaining a working relationship with your often-impatient bosses, and you can see why football management isn’t an occupation you choose for stability. It’s a business which at the first sign of discontent prefers to go after a hot new alternative, rather than work through relationship troubles. The potential fatigue of a manager’s methods really isn’t something smaller clubs have to consider very often.

Perhaps it’s facile to look exclusively at the manager though, a trap that modern football lures you into. “I think the question should be can Eibar keep Mendilibar up, rather than can Mendilibar keep Eibar up,” believes Euan McTear, who literally wrote the book on Eibar. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Mendilibar is one of the top five coaches in LaLiga,” he continues. “The reason Eibar have remained in the division so long is that Mendilibar has done an outstanding job, developing a style that is much more attacking than people usually give him credit for and that is very effective.”

Therein lies some of the reason he remains there. As this article itself is guilty of, praising their achievements in relation to their size clouds some of their work and prohibits them from some of the praise they deserve on merit. Mendilibar, a devotee of polo shirts, isn’t fashionable. A veteran who has explored every corner of the Basque country over the course of thirty-six years as both a player and a manager, he had his shot at the dream job in 2005, limping out of Athletic Club after just four months and one win in nine league games.

Neither is he as idiosyncratic or elegant as some of the big names. He may shout as much as Diego Simeone but even the Argentine, a composition of energy, testosterone and grit from a bygone era, is seldom without his black tie and black shirt. Mendilibar is far more reminiscent of a grandfather figure, forthright and loveable.

“My relationship with Mendilibar is as if he were my father, even if at times I would have liked to kill him,” confirmed Pedro León. In spite of his intensity, he has an almost impeccable relationship with his players. An amusing El Día Después clip shows him yelling himself hoarse for ninety minutes in which no Eibar player receives respite. Training is high-octane – “at times, he would even humiliate you” concedes León. The video closes with a scene from the end of the match, a hug and a smile shared by Mendilibar and star player Takashi Inui – “but everyone enjoys themselves.”

This closeness to his players is at the heart of his success and few could claim to get so much out of their resources. Even more telling is that “practically none of the players that Mendilibar has discarded have managed to succeed in LaLiga,” says Letizia Gómez, who covers Eibar for Diario Vasco. Pedro León perhaps raised eyebrows by joining Eibar, given his illustrious past and technical quality. Yet he is just one of many players who have found their most consistent form with the azulgrana. “[Mendilibar] knows how to get the best out of his players, especially when things aren’t looking good,” assures Gómez, who has witnessed Mendilibar at a proximity that few have.

It’s that ephemeral ability to convince players of your methods, to achieve their complete trust which is at the heart of such a sustained period of performance. According to Gómez, “he believes a lot in his idea and ensures that his players believe in it too. He has the capacity to unite the group so that everyone is working as one, with him and with his style.” In Mendilibar’s own words, nothing extraordinary, but an insistence on what they do well.

The likes of Joan Jordán, Ander Capa, Rubén Peña and Marc Cucurella can all claim to be amongst the best in Spain in their position currently, all of whom were transformed by the 59-year-old. All, and plenty more, have left for shiny new pastures. Inui, perhaps one of Eibar’s best ever players, earned a move to Real Betis and came back via a loan at Alavés, but he’s one of the few ‘stars’ still there.

The aforementioned tightening of margins is a consequence of the loss of key and quality players year on year. The bleeding of talent is natural given the size of the club, but Mendilibar’s powers of extraction will have a limit. An average of four starting players, in many cases the cream of their crop, have left each summer since 2016. This year top-scorer Charles (nine) and the next top scorer Fabián Orellana (eight) were part of the exodus, from a side that didn’t have an abundance of goals to lose.

Unheralded as Mendilibar is, his sporting director Fran Garagarza receives even less press. Dubbed “the Basque Monchi” by McTear, there is no higher praise in that area of expertise. He’s been instrumental in imparting fresh blood each year. Garagarza’s ability to pan for gold and strike rich is remarkable. “I have faith in the Mendilibar-Garagarza tandem,” adds McTear.

Yet this year’s new recruits do seem a little underwhelming and in contrast to Monchi or others, a down year for Garagarza quite probably means going down for Eibar. Restricted by the alternate universe we find ourselves in at the moment, where doubt creeps in for McTear is at full-back, a position he feels is crucial to Mendilibar’s style but for two years has seen no quality additions.

Equally, Yoshinori Muto was brought in to reinforce the forward line, but his goal record is not something which should be prompting his signing. The ‘big-money’ attacking addition Damian Kądzior, who comes with a better record, is yet to do his own convincing of Mendilibar, having not played a full 90 minutes yet.

As with all things financial, it’s the smallest people who lose the least but will be the most affected by this year’s pandemic. The odds are stacked against Eibar this season – more so than they already were. Still, if there is anyone in the world equipped to achieve the miracle of survival, it’s Mendilibar. No current manager in LaLiga plays the game, not the occasion, as much he does, his methods divorced from how a team that size should look. If Eibar are relegated, it’s a return to reality. If they stay up, whatever he may think, Eibar will be doing something extraordinary yet again.

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