This season was always going to be an extremely challenging one for Athletic Club Bilbao. Manager Ernesto Valverde’s departure to Barcelona represented a massive blow to a club centred on continuity. Valverde let 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 the San Mames for so long.
As is tradition with Athletic Club, the new era would hopefully be similar to the last so Jose Angel Ziganda – Valverde’s former teammate and tactician of the club’s B team Bilbao Athletic – took the reins. With less than two months of a pre-season and a testing Europa League schedule, alongside the January sale of Aymeric Laporte, it has been far from easy sailing this campaign.
The pressure has been cranked up on Ziganda in recent months as the club languish in 14th place in La Liga – seven places down on last season’s finish and well below the expectations of the club, who have one of the league’s healthiest budgets. Despite going two years without adding to their first-team squad, Athletic Club’s ranks are packed full of talent and those with a deep passion for the club.
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. That result could spell the end for the club in Europe this season and it will crank up the pressure on the under-fire boss, with a change in the dugout anticipated at the end of the campaign. Athletic have only two wins in their last 13 – one of those was at home to basement club Malaga and the other, at Spartak Moscow. The recent performance in the 2-0 defeat at Sevilla was limp.
Yet it is not all doom and gloom in Bilbao with a series of important player renewals over the past year. The most public was that of goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, Spain’s number two behind David De Gea, whom had been long courted by Real Madrid. Despite Laporte’s departure, Yeray Alvarez has once again battled back heroically from cancer while Unai Nunez’s emergence this season has been promising.
The club’s succession planning and smart business model was evident in the signing of Inigo Martinez from Basque rivals Real Sociedad. The activation of his release clause saw Laporte effectively replaced within the squad, with the club netting a €33m profit in the process. Elsewhere, Aritz Aduriz continues to provide a significant goal threat and Inaki Williams liveliness has the potential to light up any game.
This is a season shaping up into an instantly forgettable one for Athletic Club and is a stark reminder that a strong knowledge of a club alone is not enough to be an effective manager.