Athletic Club: The future is bright

The Basque giants have struggled to adapt to life after Ernesto Valverde but their playing squad and club structure should not be doubted.


(Photo credit: Zarateman)

Few European giants base their values on tradition and continuity quite to the same extent of Athletic Club. Los Leones still operate their ‘Basque only’ policy of fielding players who are either natives or were trained in the region. 

San Mames is one of Europe’s most iconic stadiums and has maintained an iconic feel despite a stadium move from the ‘Old San Mames’ in 2013. 

Another club tradition for captains of teams visiting the stadium for the first time pay homage to the fallen idol of its early years, Pichichi, by leaving a bouquet of flowers at a bust of the player.

The Basque giants are one of only five founding members of Europe’s top five leagues never to suffer relegation from their top flight (Real Madrid, Barcelona, Inter and HSV are the others, although the German club’s position is increasingly precarious). 

They are an iconic club who thrive on the loyal support of a football-crazed city and who remain a remarkably significant institution and source of local pride and identity.

A challenging season

This season was always going to represent a huge challenge for the club after tactician Ernesto Valverde left for Barcelona. 

Valverde led the Basque giants to the Champions League in his first season before reaching the Copa Del Rey final the following year and then securing the club’s first trophy – the Spanish Supercopa – in 31 years. No other manager has been in the dugout at Athletic for so long.

The appointment of B team coach Jose Angel Ziganda was aimed at continuity but has not proven successful with the club languishing in the bottom half of La Liga for the entirety of the campaign despite having a squad widely-recognised as bolstering the quality to challenge for European places. 

The club have one of the league’s healthiest budgets and, whilst the club’s board provide tolerance, such consistent underperformance will almost inevitably lead to a coaching change in the summer.

Thursday night’s 3-1 loss at Marseille once again exposed the frailties under Ziganda – with the team looking disorganised both in defence and attack. 

Athletic have recorded only three wins in their last 14 and are on the brink of elimination from the Europa League, which is widely seen as the manager’s last chance to salvage something from a forgettable campaign.

Hidden promise

However, the last year has also provided plenty of promise with the contract renewal of goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, Spain’s number two behind David de Gea, who had been long courted by Real Madrid. 

Such a renewal was a key statement of intent, as was the capture of Inigo Martinez from Basque rivals Real Sociedad. The activation of his release clause saw Manchester City-bound Aymeric Laporte effectively replaced within the squad, with the club netting a €33 million profit in the process.

Laporte’s departure did not represent a significant blow due to the highly-rated Yeray Alvarez once again battling back heroically from cancer while Unai Nunez’s emergence this season in the heart of the defence has been promising. 

Elsewhere, Aritz Aduriz continues to provide a significant goal threat and Inaki Williams liveliness has the potential to light up any game. The club’s playing staff are remarkably loyal and such a strong identity, whilst not without flaws, is hugely beneficial to a club with Athletic’s ethos. 

This season may be classified as ‘transitional’ by the club’s legions of fans but more success does not appear to be far away.

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Colin Millar

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Colin Millar is a European football writer, with a particular passion for Spanish and English football, alongside that in his native Northern Ireland. Based in Spain, he is Deputy Editor of Football Espana and writes for a number of publications including the Daily Mirror NI.

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