Can Los Leones Roar Again?

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It’s been coming for nearly two seasons now.

The momentum at San Mames, home of Athletic Bilbao (one of only three Spanish sides never to be relegated from the top flight along with Barcelona and Real Madrid) has been on a downward trajectory. The rot set in some time ago, almost as soon as it became clear that Ernesto Valverde was the man that the aforementioned Catalan side were wanting to steady the ship after a tumultuous end to the Luis Enrique era. To his credit Valverde still did enough to steer his side to a comfortable 7th place finish and a place in the following seasons Europa League but there were signs that all was not well.

Fast forward to the end of the 2017/18 season, and under the guidance of former youth team coach Cuco Ziganda, Los Leones had finished 16th, a poor season that was punctuated by an end of season run that included just two wins from their last ten games and a limp Europa League exit to a Marseille team that would be thoroughly trounced in the final by Atletico de Madrid. Another change in management came for the start of this season with hopes high that former Celta de Vigo and Sevilla manager Eduardo Berizzo would be the man to arrest the slide. That assumption wasn’t without caution though, as although his Celta side were viewed as one of the league’s entertainers his time at Sevilla ended after a poor run of results where he appeared to be scrabbling and clueless in his search for the formula to halt their own particular side.

It soon became evident that despite a decent start, including a draw against Real Madrid, the latter had arrived. Whilst draws kept them hovering just above the relegation zone the inevitable happened following a 3-0 (going on seven) trouncing by Levante on 3rd December 2018. The Argentine was replaced by another youth team coach, this time former Eibar manager Gaizka Garitano. Garitano, one of the catalyst’s in the rise of the tiny Basque club, has a big job on his hands as not since a final day victory against Levante at the end of the 2006/07 season secured their safety has Athletic’s status as one of the three founding members never to have been relegated seemed so at risk.
When referencing that side who completed a final day escape there are some areas for concern to consider for this current iteration of Athletic Club. Whilst in 2007 Mane (who replaced Felix Sarriguarte mid-way through the season) was able to guide them to safety on a points per game ratio of just 1.05 per game. The current side have – at time of writing – only amassed 16 points from 17 games at an average of only 0.94 per game. Not a massive drop but one significant enough that would have seen them relegated at the end of the 2006/07 campaign.

Whilst the mid-season change of manager is an often used technique by struggling sides there are further parallels to consider too. The 2006/07 season, despite reaching the heady heights of 9th on the opening weekend, saw Los Rojiblancos climb no higher than 15th over the following 37 weeks, a position that the current version of the side haven’t made there way past since the 7th week of the season. The last four of those weeks have been spent in the relegation zone. This current side also has the same over-reliance on their main striker: Aritz Aduriz. Twelve years ago he finished the season with nine La Liga goals forming part of an attacking duo that contributed just 17 goals over the course of the season with a further eight contributed from the boot of 36 year old Ismael Urzaiz, who at the time was the kind of talismanic striker Aduriz himself has become. With six goals to his name so far this season, including two penalties in recent weeks, he is once again the sides top goalscorer. The penalties themselves demonstrating the level of cajones needed to hep his side get out of their current predicament. One in injury time to earn a win over Girona and another a quite ridiculous one step stroke into the corner during a 1-1 draw against Real Valladolid.

Aduriz however can’t do it alone, and there is a feeling that at 37 his powers may not be as enduring as they once were. Whilst there is no doubt that this current side is not of a classic vintage there are players there with the potential to help really make difference. At 26, Iker Munian has now played over 250 games at San Mames and beyond but there is still a feeling of unfulfilled potential, his four goals so far this season feeling like the bare minimum to expect from a player who stood shoulder to shoulder with contemporaries such as Isco in Spanish youth squads of the past. Another player to contribute four goals to the current La Liga campaign is Inaki Williams. At 24 he is now entering a crucial stage of his career where the need to match his blistering pace with a consistency of performance has perhaps never been greater. A standout performance during a 3-2 defeat away to Atletico showed exactly what he could bring to the party, although the strange decision to substitute him with the game stretched as Atletico went on the search for goals perhaps underlines the fact that, for some managers, there is still a measure of trust to be earned.

Athletic’s Basque-only signing policy is widely known but only in recent seasons has there been a feeling that this has started to leave them a little hamstrung therefore there must be a hope that two of their summer signings from Eibar, Dani Garcia and Ander Capa, will start to find their feet under former boss Garitano and that Raul Garcia can continue to drag his broken body through the season in helping to support the cause. Bilbao have talent out there to grab too though. Fernando Llorente’s desperation for a return from England is one of the worst kept secrets in Spanish football at the moment whilst the form of Alaves midfielder Ibai Gomez may see him make a return to his former club whilst any player with a Basque enough link to go by the name will be considered in the quest for improvement. Money, unlike for most Spanish clubs, is available to spend.

How that money is spent will no doubt be influenced by the recent presidential elections with well known Basque chef and entrepreneur Aitor Elizegi gaining the majority to become the newly appointed president. Elizegi himself is a member of the Basque Nationalist Party, a well known independentista and supporter of the recent motion for FIFA to recognise the Basque Country as a separate footballing entity. Mixing these ideologies together will no doubt lead to the recurring thought that his cause would only be diminished if Los Leones drop out of the top tier for the very first time.

At the end of the day though the Athletic Bilbao story will forever be wrapped in romance. Whether it be the legend of Pichichi and the fact his name adorns the golden boot trophy in Spain’s top division, their La Catedral home of San Mames and the tradtions and fans held within to their policy of only signing players of Basque origin, all contribute to the feeling that most people, including this scribbler, would be sad to see them fall. The good news is, that hope may have just arrived in time.


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