Andoni Iraola: ‘If there are ten players behind the ball, I don’t feel very comfortable’

<span>Andoni Iraola says he enjoys coaching more than playing.  “I think I’m suffering a little less.”</span><span>Photo: Peter Flude/The Guardian</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 552131ee693b” data src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 52131ee693b”/><button class=

Andoni Iraola says he enjoys coaching more than playing. “I think I’m suffering a little less.”Photo: Peter Flude/The Guardian

After a brutal start, Andoni Iraola has enjoyed an eye-catching first season in the Premier League, helping Bournemouth achieve the highest points tally in the division, with a top half finish a distinct possibility heading into the final day. His work, imposing a breathless, aggressive style on a dynamic team, earned him a nomination for the Manager of the Season award, as well as a new contract. As he approaches his first anniversary in charge next month, the closest he comes to grumbling about is the lack of hilly terrain in Dorset – as a keen cyclist. “The longest is 200 meters,” he says, smiling, raising and then lowering his right hand. “It stops just as you start.”

Iraola grew up in the Basque Country, the cycling heart of Spain, and has long been fascinated by the endurance and precision that are at the heart of competing on two wheels. During preparation in Marbella last summer he was glued to the Tour de France at dinner and it was similar during his playing days; he spent most of it at his boyhood club Athletic Bilbao, whom he captained to the Europa League final under Marcelo Bielsa in 2011. -12. The pressure has changed since then.

“I enjoy it a little more as a coach than as a player,” he says. “I played [almost] my entire career at Athletic – it was my club – and I probably attached too much importance to everything, to every detail, to every performance; I felt a lot of responsibility. Now I understand it better – we are not that important – and I think it bothers me a little less.”

This week, at the end of the days spent preparing to play for Chelsea on Sunday, he has been trying to catch up on the Giro d’Italia. “[Tadej] Pogacar is destroying everyone, as expected,” he says. “I love the sport and it is a tradition in the Basque Country. Everyone travels to watch the different stages of the Tour, the Vuelta [a España]; the Itzulia we have at home and I try to follow it.”

For Iraola, 41, cycling is also a rich source of cross-pollination intrigue. “I think there are a lot of sports where they have an advantage over us in certain areas and where we can do things,” he said, also referring to basketball and the NFL. He knew some of the staff at Euskaltel-Euskadi, the Basque cycling team famous for their orange tops, and met Mauro Gianetti after naming the team boss and CEO of UAE Team Emirates as his favorite cyclist in an interview as a player in Bilbao declared. Gianetti then got in touch and gave Iraola a shirt from the team he was managing at the time, Saunier Duval-Prodir, and introduced him to Matxin Joxean Fernández, the UAE team manager, for whom Pogacar rides.

Connections with leaders in top sport have led to interesting conversations. “We like to share things, share the methodology they use, the process they use, to show it to the players,” says Iraola. “For example, the discipline of cycling is so important… their body fat, their training, mileage [ridden], everything is very measured to try to find the peak of their form in the season. It’s very interesting, especially the sports science of it. As footballers, and if I consider myself when I was a player, we are not that detailed: [looking] in everything you eat, how many hours you sleep. I love this process.”

Bournemouth, like many clubs, monitors body fat, with small fines if players are overweight. They also emphasize high-intensity repetition of efforts and the speed with which players respond. No wonder that only Liverpool has recovered more loose balls in the league this season. These could be details straight out of the Bielsa playbook.

“If you want to attack the spaces, be aggressive towards the press. You don’t give the players much time to rest and it was the same with Marcelo,” Iraola said. “I played with him for two seasons and he was very demanding. You will only get there if you train in the same way and everyone is really committed to it. You need players who buy into the idea and I feel like we have that.”

The only member of staff who followed Iraola to Bournemouth was Pablo de la Torre, the fitness coach who worked with him in his first managerial role at AEK Larnaca and at Rayo Vallecano, who left Iraola for England. How important is athleticism to implementing his style? “It’s essential because we try to play with a fast rhythm. We don’t want the matches to stop and you not having time to recover. I always say, ‘You should ask for the ball when you’re tired.’ If you wait to rest before asking for the ball again or running into space, anyone can do this. But you are a Premier League player and when you are tired, this is the moment when you have to push the opponent, if they are also tired, and try to break them. For that you have to be at your best physically.”

When Iraola was informed of his appointment as manager of the season, he responded in his office by pressing Unai Emery’s case, and he is doing the same here. “I am very proud to be in the same place with Mikel [Arteta]Unai, Pep [Guardiola], Jürgen Klopp … a number of managers who are clearly above me, and I think it is good that other clubs, apart from the top four, get this kind of recognition,” he says. “Sean Dyche and Gary O’Neil, who are not fighting for European places, have had good seasons and I think it is good that the league is recognizing other clubs. But for me, Unai should win. He has been really great since he joined Aston Villa. He has improved the team, they have been very close to a European final and getting into the Champions League is a big achievement for Villa.”

Iraola, who gave up her law studies to become a professional football player and has read all the works of Haruki Murakami, is warm, engaging and modest. A few times he pooh-poohs the merits of his playing career, which started playing on La Concha beach in San Sebastián with Arteta and Xabi Alonso, and then together for their local youth team, Antiguoko. He ended it while living in Manhattan and playing for New York City, at the base of midfield under Patrick Vieira, who got Iraola thinking about management. “Playing in a midfield three, behind [Andrea] Pirlo and [Frank] Lampard … we suffered when we didn’t have the ball, because we didn’t have the legs, but tactically and with the ball we could do a lot of things in the MLS.”

He chuckles. Even at the end of a grueling season, it is clear that Iraola is enjoying life in the dugout, based on the south coast. He has explored the countryside on his doorstep with his wife, nine-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, visiting the New Forest and taking the Sandbanks ferry to Swanage. As for that contract extension until 2026, after billionaire owner Bill Foley began talks a fortnight ago, it speaks to the less recognized value of trust in the formula. Outgoing Bournemouth technical director Richard Hughes, who joins Liverpool next month, did his homework on how Iraola’s sides historically played and his forward philosophy.

Related: Andoni Iraola: master of organized chaos offers Bournemouth a new identity

Bournemouth only won a league match last October, but their slow start prompted Iraola to exaggerate his methods. “In Spain we were a very, very aggressive team, with a very high press, but we had to be even more aggressive because the standards here are very high. Each team really does everything they can to get the ball back as high as possible. We had to strengthen our message, take even more risks, play with an even higher line, because otherwise we couldn’t really make a difference. When I sit on the bench and everyone is in a low block, very compact, with ten players behind the ball, I don’t feel very comfortable.”

Despite starting the league season with a nine-match winless streak, no one panicked, least of all Iraola. The staff speaks of a character with an unwavering belief in his formula. “I’m used to repeating at the end of every year: ‘You’re happy, I’m happy, okay, let’s keep it up,’” he says. “I don’t want any party to make a decision to continue just because I have a contract. No, it’s because we truly believe it’s what’s best for both sides. I have to be grateful to the players because they kept their faith in what we were doing. I never had the feeling that they wanted to play in a different way.”

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