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Who Is Andoni Iraola?


Who Is Andoni Iraola?

Bournemouth have appointed Andoni Iraola as their new manager on a two-year contract following the shock sacking of Gary O’Neil.

O’Neil was surprisingly dismissed on Monday despite his heroic efforts this season in managing to keep Bournemouth in the Premier League despite everyone tipping the Cherries to go down. Replacing the sacked Scott Parker in August following a 9-0 drubbing away to Liverpool, O’Neil galvanised the squad into picking up 36 points from their next 34 games to secure Premier League survival relatively easily despite having, on paper at least, the worst squad of players in the league.

O’Neil was in the conversation for Manager Of The Year at the conclusion of the campaign, and Bournemouth were expected to enter the 2023/24 season with the Englishman at the helm.

But following Monday’s announcement, that will no longer be happening. New Bournemouth owner Bill Foley, who purchased the club from long-standing Russian owner Maxim Demin back in December, said as part of a wider statement, “Gary will go on to have a long career as a head coach or manager, but we feel that, at this moment in time, a change is in the best interests of this football club. I would like to place on record my thanks to Gary and wish him all the best for the future”.

Reportedly, O’Neil was told on Monday that the club wanted to adopt a different style of play to accelerate their progress under Foley, and it is thought that a more experienced manager would fit better with Foley’s vision of growing the club both on and off the pitch. Therefore, Spanish manager Andoni Iraola was announced as O’Neil’s replacement not long after, with owner Foley saying of Iraola “He was highly sought after by other clubs across the continent, and his style of play has been an important factor in making this decision. His achievements in Spain have certainly been very impressive, and we’re confident that he is the right man to lead our next chapter”. But who actually is he? Why is he so highly rated, and what can he bring to Bournemouth?

Who is he?

Andoni Iraola was born in 1982 in the town of Usurbil in the Basque Country region of Spain, and would spend his youth playing for amateur side Antiguoko, who have for many years acted as a feeder club for the Basque Country’s two biggest clubs, Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad. Famous examples of players who have graduated from the amateur team include Mikel Arteta, Aritz Aduriz and Xabi Alonso.

Iraola would be picked up by Bilbao’s youth system in 1999, and would go on to spend a year at 4th-tier outfit Basconia and two years in Bilbao’s B team before finally being promoted to Bilbao’s first-team in time for the 2003/04 campaign. A right-back by trade, Iraola would make his debut against Barcelona in August of 2003, and would end the campaign with 30 appearances and five goals to his name, helping Bilbao to qualify for the following season’s UEFA Cup. Iraola would go on to spend the next 12 seasons of his career at San Mames, making 507 appearances in all competitions for the club while also contributing 33 goals and 33 assists in that time aswell.

Iraola was unlucky not to pick up any silverware during his time at the club, finishing as a runner-up on five separate occasions. Iraola suffered his first final heartbreak when Bilbao lost the 2009 Copa del Rey final to Barcelona, before tasting defeat by the Blaugrana again just three months later in the Supercopa de Espana. It would de double heartbreak in 2011/12, as Bilbao first lost to Atletico Madrid in the final of the Europa League before Barcelona once again defeated them a little over two weeks later in that year’s Copa del Rey final. In 2015 they made yet another Copa del Rey final, but Barcelona were once again the architects of their defeat as they ran out 3-1 winners in Iraola’s final game for the club.

Just a couple of weeks after that crushing third Copa del Rey final defeat, Iraola made the move abroad for the first time in his career to the MLS with expansion team New York City FC, joining the club in July at what was the halfway point of their regular season.

The 33-year-old would end up making just nine appearances during this time, with injuries playing a part in keeping him out of action as the club endured a disappointing first season. The Spaniard would make 31 outings the following campaign in what was a much better season for both him and the club, as they enjoyed a fine regular season whilst also managing to make it to the semi-finals of the MLS Cup before being knocked out by Toronto FC. Following soon after that defeat at the hands of the Canadian side came the announcement that Iraola would be retiring and bringing his 16-year playing career to an end.

What has he achieved?

Depending on how you look at it, some people would argue that the Spaniard has so far not achieved anything majorly significant in both his playing and managerial career. Yes, he didn’t win any silverware as a player, but he did come agonisingly close, being bested on four occasions by the excellent Barcelona sides of the late 2000s and early 2010s, while the successful Atletico Madrid side that beat them in the Europa League final did include players such as Diego Godin, Falcao and Thibaut Courtois.

But, Iraola will certainly go down as a club legend for Athletic Bilbao following his 12-year stint at San Mames, a time in which he became the club’s 5th-highest appearance maker of all time. Basque people hold a very strong attachment to the region and their own language and culture, and so for a Basque-born football player to achieve a record like that with a Basque club, means that while it would definitely have been nice, holding such a record may probably mean more to Iraola than winning any trophy.

But in his managerial career, Iraola has fared slightly better trophy-wise. The Spaniard made his first foray into coaching with Cypriot side AEK Larnaca in June 2018 and would win the 2018 Cypriot Super Cup with the club to clinch what was his first-ever piece of silverware. But despite this achievement, Iraola was sacked in January after just 29 games in charge following a torrid run of form that saw the club go nearly two months without a win.

The Spaniard’s next managerial role would then take him back to his home country with second-tier side Mirandes, whom he would lead from July 2019 up until July 2020, and here he would show the first signs of his managerial prowess. Alongside an 11th-place league finish, Iraola would also oversee the giant killings of Villarreal, Sevilla and Celta Vigo in the 2019/20 Copa del Rey as Mirandes made it all the way to the semi-finals for what was just the second time in their 92-year history.

Iraola would then leave the club after just a season following the expiry of his contract but would find new employment a little over two weeks later with Rayo Vallecano, who were also in the second division at the time. In his debut season at Los Franjirrojos in 2020/21, Iraola would secure promotion back to La Liga for the club via a play-off win against Girona. And in the club’s first season back in the top-flight, Iraola would steer them to an impressive 12th-place finish, memorably doing a league double over Barcelona along the way, alongside a run going all the way to the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey. And in the season just gone, Iraola would follow that work up by leading Vallecano one place better to 11th, while also picking up memorable wins against Villarreal, Real Madrid and Barcelona.

So, given his impressive work at Rayo Vallecano up to that point, Iraola naturally began to receive attention from clubs across Europe, which brings us now to the recent Bournemouth decision to appoint him as their new manager. After turning down a new contract offer from Vallecano in the summer, he left the club and was certainly not short of offers elsewhere. Leeds United had previously held the most solid interest in the 40-year-old but were unable to tempt him to Elland Road in the middle of the season. But as Iraola is now without a club, that problem no longer exists and Bournemouth have pounced and snapped up the Spaniard as their new coach.

What is His Style of Play?

Iraola's brand of football is a large reason why Bournemouth were so keen to bring him in, and it is a style that the man himself mainly accredits to a coach he once played under and that many current top managers have deemed as a visionary - Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa's intense, high-energy 'Murderball' style of play is well known in both South America and Europe, and Iraola experienced it firsthand when Bielsa was in charge of Athletic Bilbao from 2011 to 2013.

It is no surprise that the high-pressing style Iraola is famous for and gets his teams to deploy was brought about by his time under the revered Argentine's management. Iraola has been quoted as saying "I was very lucky to play for him for two seasons as a player. I think he has another vision of football". Also credited as a huge influence is Patrick Vieira, who was manager of New York City when Iraola made the move to the MLS. Iraola described his time under Vieira as a "joy", and that "Patrick gave me a new perspective".

In the vein of Bielsa, Iraola tasks his players with regaining the ball back from the opposition as quickly as possible. According to analytics kings Opta, Iraola's Vallecano side ranked first in La Liga this season for high turnovers leading to shots, with only Bayern Munich bettering that record across Europe's top five leagues. Vallecano also average 51.6% possession per match (a figure that is 8th in La Liga), while they are third in La Liga for passes-per-defensive-action, which is a measure of how many passes the opposition makes before making a defensive action, a metric that allows us to see how active a team is in looking to win the ball back.

Vallecano were very good at winning the ball back - they won possession in the final third more than any other side in Europe's top five leagues last season. This hard-working style of football certainly helped endear the former Bilbao man to the Vallecano faithful. "We represent a neighbourhood that likes to play this way," says Iraola. "It is kind of the identity that Rayo fans have. They are a lot of hard workers. They love to feel this identification on the pitch and it is what they demand of the players. It is what we have to give them". With the club being located in the working-class Vallecas area of Madrid, players endear themselves to fans the more they give for the badge. And this current crop of Rayo Vallecano players have certainly done that.

Will he be a good fit for Bournemouth?

That is the million-dollar question. In a season in which Bournemouth will probably have relegation worries and could end up being in yet another battle to beat the drop in 2023/24, they will just have to hope that their decision to let Gary O’Neil go was the right one.

It will be a tough environment for Iraola – the Spaniard is Bournemouth’s first-ever foreign managerial appointment, with all of their previous managers all hailing from within the British Isles. His intense style of play is also something completely different from what previous iterations of Cherries managers have had the team playing, with Eddie Howe’s exciting brand of front-foot football during Bournemouth’s first stint in the Premier League the closest thing that the club has really had to such an attacking, on-the-front-foot style of play. Can he get this current crop of Bournemouth players playing his way?

One thing that could work in Iraola’s favour is the fact that he will have big money to spend on players for the first time in his managerial career – and this could be a game-changer. Following on from the takeover of the club in December by American billionaire Bill Foley, the businessman expressed a desire to improve the club and its infrastructure by sinking large sums of money into the Cherries.

Already, there are plans for a new stadium and a new training facility is expected to be completed soon. Therefore, we should expect a summer of big spending on the south coast as the Cherries look to improve their squad with new players, and while Iraola has previously worked wonders at clubs with minuscule budgets, perhaps now with ‘bigger and better’ players at his disposal, he could show what he can really do.

The 40-year-old and his staff will begin undertaking work with Bournemouth’s squad in July when the players return from summer break, with their first preseason match coming in mid-July. Iraola’s first competitive match in charge is on the 12th of August on the opening weekend of the new Premier League season, and many eyes will be on him. The Spaniard will have to hit the ground running, and prove that the decision to sack Gary O’Neil, who had earned the right to lead Bournemouth into the upcoming Premier League season, was the correct one.