Athletic Bilbao are one of Spain’s favourite clubs. Despite their Basque-only recruitment policy limiting who the club can sign, Los Leones are one of only three teams to have never been relegated from Spain’s top division. They managed a fourth-placed finish last season and secured Champions League football in August, but those highs were quickly washed away following a run of poor results that lasted more than half of the season. They’ve had an upturn in form since the turn of the year however, and things look like they’re back on track.
It’s been a funny season for sides from the Basque Country. La Real struggled early on before David Moyes was handed the managerial reins and Eibar’s surprising first half of the season compounded Athletic Bilbao’s poor performances; it seemed like the region had been tipped on its head. However, all three sides seem to be reverting to type – or closer to pre-season expectations at least – with Eibar’s draw against Granada last time out their first point in six games and Real Sociedad becoming much more difficult to beat and slowly climbing to mid-table safety.
What is most pleasing from a neutral’s perspective though, is the return to form of Athletic. Much like the physical alterations that have been made to the San Mames between 2010 and it’s unveiling in September 2013 (though with one side missing and then completed in the most recent off-season), the figurative fortress is also being rebuilt.
Following a top four finish last season and edging past Napoli in the Champions League qualifying round, another promising season lay ahead for manager Ernesto Valverde and his troops.
However, with only five points from their first eight matches, and early setbacks in the Champions League, it was not going according to script.
The club had bid farewell to yet another star player in the summer – this time Ander Herrera left for Manchester United, following the likes of Javi Martinez (Bayern Munich) and Fernando Llorente (Juventus) who had made their way out the exit at San Mames in recent years.
Despite the midfield stocks being relatively strong, with former midfielder Beñat rejoining the club from Real Betis last season and Ander Iturraspe’s form leading to a berth in the Spain squad, the loss of Herrera – in conjunction with the extra demands of Champions League football – seemed to be too much for Athletic.
The transfer policy didn’t help – though there is zero chance of that ever changing – and although they made moves for Asier Illarramendi with the sizable sum they had received from Manchester United, the likelihood of the former La Real man joining their fierce rivals was slim at best, meaning the club instead had to look towards its youth ranks to promote players who perhaps weren’t ready for the step up to regular first team football.
After dealing admirably with a squad often losing its crown jewel every off-season, the sale of key players appeared to finally be taking its toll. Additionally, this season’s La Liga is arguably the most competitive its been in practically a decade, and Athletic have suffered.
The Basques have sat in the relegation zone on two separate occasions this season, and, aside from a brief four-round spell beginning in round 12, it wasn’t until matchday 25 that they climbed out of the bottom half. Their form has improved in recent weeks though, and the San Mames – a stadium notoriously difficult to win at as an away side – is now beginning to look more like its old self.
Strong home form was generally something Athletic Club could rely on, only losing two matches at home in the league (to Espanyol and champions Atletico Madrid) alongside 13 wins (including a 1-0 against Barcelona) and four draws last season.
This season has been a far-cry from the clinical displays of last term though, winning only three of their first 11 matches at home.
From December 21st, Athletic lost three at home in a row in all competitions before drawing to Malaga, which was on the back of three home losses in the league as well making it one point from a possible 12 at San Mames.
Results started to improve following the turn of the year though, and since the defeat to Celta Vigo on January 14th in the Copa Del Rey – though they still went through to the quarter-final on away goals – they’ve only lost twice at home, to Barcelona 2-5 in the league and Torino 2-3 in the Europa League which saw them exit European competition completely after finishing third in their Champions League group.
In those two and a half months since the loss to Celta, they’ve beaten Malaga and drawn with Espanyol in the Copa to secure a place in the final, while they’ve taken 10 points from their five league matches at home, including a 1-0 victory over Real Madrid, with that result in particular viewed as a significant step back in the right direction after a tumultuous first half of the season. Even more impressive was the fact they were able to beat the reigning European champions without their defensive spine of Mikel San Jose, Aymeric Laporte and Ander Iturraspe.
Aritz Aduriz scored the winner against Los Blancos, and as has been the case throughout the last couple of seasons, he has played a crucial role in Athletic’s performances with 11 league goals in 23 appearances. It could be argued the Basques have become too dependent on the 34-year-old target man, often lacking a cutting edge without him in the line up and a lack of other attackers sharing the goalscoring burden; centre-half Mikel San Jose is the club’s second top scorer this season with four.
The likes of Markel Susaeta, Iker Muniain and Ibai Gomez have failed to provide adequate penetration when Aduriz has failed to find the net or been absent, with the lone goal between the three attackers coming from Muniain in a combined 65 league appearances this season. Muniain in particular has been disappointing, with so many hopes and expectations hung onto the youngster from Pamplona since his debut as a 16-year-old, and more should be expected from him now that he is 22 and one of the more senior players in the squad considering his experience.
He has had an upturn in form though, coinciding with this run of good results the team has put together, and despite not finding the back of the net for some time, he did earn man of the match honours in the win over Celta Vigo in mid-March.
Along with Muniain’s improvement, the last couple of months has seen the emergence of attacker Iñaki Williams – who became the first black player to score for the club – and young midfielder Unai Lopez, who were both promoted from the club’s B side.
Williams, born in Bilbao to a Ghanaian father and Liberian mother, bucks the trend of target men produced in the region – most notably Aduriz, Llorente and the legendary Telmo Zarra – and the energetic speedster could go on to lead the line when Aduriz inevitably hangs up his boots in the not-too-distant future.
Lopez too is an exciting prospect, and though it has taken time for him to find his feet in the first team, the club may have a replacement for Herrera in the young, quick-thinking playmaker. Though not like-for-like – the highly-rated Iñigo Ruiz de la Galaretta who is on loan at Real Zaragoza is a more similar player to the United midfielder – Lopez appears to be a perfect fit as the most attacking of Athletic’s midfield three and provide the link to the front men, which in turn could assist the likes of Muniain and Susaeta finding the net with more regularity.
Aymeric Laporte is another impressive youngster in the ranks, though he has been turning heads since the beginning of the season, and the cultured left-footer has been linked with some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Tying him down to a long-term contract should be a priority for Athletic in the summer, because alongside San Jose and behind a midfield containing Iturraspe, Lopeze and Ruiz, along with Muniain and Williams in attack, there is the spine of a La Liga side playing for European competition for the best part of the next decade.
In the here and now though, the two forthcoming matchdays provide huge tests for Los Leones, with a trip to Sevilla on Saturday followed by a midweek meeting with third-placed Valencia at the San Mames five days later.
Come Friday morning we will know for sure whether the fortress has been erected once again. Regardless of the result however, the last few months indicate Athletic have at least begun the rebuilding.