FEATURE | Athletic Club: The start of a crucial period in Bilbao

Athletic Club have stalled. The Bilbao-based side are in a troublesome patch as they head into a monumentally important February. They’re not at battle stations yet, but alarms bells are certainly ringing. And the next two fixtures, Barça on Thursday in the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey and Real Sociedad in the league on Sunday will be decisive for Athletic’s European aspirations this season and Gaizka Garitano’s hopes of retaining his place in the dugout for the next campaign.

Garitano’s side are without a league win since December, having drawn five and lost two of their last seven fixtures. The only victories in this period have come in the Copa del Rey. In two of those Athletic needed penalty shootouts to see off lower-league sides, Elche CF and CD Tenerife – granted the Tenerife match was affected by keeper Iago Herrerin’s early sending-off and the subsequent penalty.

The club have the third-best defensive record in La Liga, but they have serious issues in attack. Since their last victory against Granada on December 2nd, Athletic haven’t scored more than two goals in a game against a top-flight side. In fact, since the 3-2 defeat to Real Betis on December 8th, they’ve only beaten a La Liga keeper three times. 

This could stem from a lack of mavericks. Iker Muniain, arguably the only player of that ilk in the squad, hasn’t sparked consistently this season. His only assist in 15 appearances came against Espanyol last week.

Statistically, the squad’s most creative players are attacking midfielder Raul Garcia – six goals, one assist and Right-back Ander Capa – two goals, four assists. Midfielder Unai Lopéz has three assists, but it’s worrying that Capa has been involved in more goals than everyone bar García.

Another issue is that Athletic don’t presently possess a natural number nine that is consistently good enough, or fit enough. These are the options: 

Aritz Aduriz, turning 39 next week and retiring at the end of the campaign, has been out for three months with a hip injury. He did make an impact as a sub against Getafe – one of the few positive points of the game for Athletic fans. Long balls stuck to him like glue, he linked up well and he caused their defenders problems, but it wasn’t enough to turn the game around. And it’s doubtful he’ll be able to play a full 90 minutes at this point in his career.

Iñaki Williams wants to be the star forward. He’s had his opportunities but failed to make them count. Lately, Garitano has played him on the right-wing wing with Raul García through the middle. Rulo does a job there, but it’s not his best position. 

In recent weeks, academy product Asier Villalibre has broken into the first-team, making his a goal-scoring debut against Espanyol. There’s a lot of faith in him at the club. He burst onto the scene at third-team CD Basconia a few years ago before some less productive loan spells. He was brought home and built back up in the reserve side Bilbao Athletic, where last season he notched 23 goals in the Segunda B. 

His strength – they call him El Búfalo – and the fact he’ll run through brick walls are useful and have quickly endeared him to fans. But he’s relatively untested at the top level and it’s not certain he will be the 20 goal-a-season forward the club needs.

The other first-team striker is Kenan Kodro. He’s predominantly used as an impact sub and hasn’t been called up to the previous two matchday squads. Gaizka Garitano does like to use for big games, so there’s a possibility he’ll be on the bench against Barça. But, he won’t be leading the line as a regular starter anytime soon.

In order to find a solution, Athletic will first look within. They have one of the most effective canteras in world football, and both their affiliate sides are in decent league positions. CD Basconia are 4th in the Tercera División Group 4 having not lost in 11 games, whilst main reserve team Bilbao Athletic are second in the Segunda B Group 2.

Just one problem, all of Bilbao Athletic’s natural strikers keep getting injured. Youngsters Ewan Urain, Gorka Guruzeta, and Andoni Tascón have only managed to start ten games between them this campaign. 

The side’s top goalscorers wingers/attacking midfielders Jon Morcillo and Juan Artola, with eight goals each. These two along with left winger Iñigo Vicente, impressing on loan with five goals and three assists in 20 appearances, will provide Iker Muniaín with stiff competition soon, but they’re not natural number nines.

With the transfer window closed, there’s no chance of signing now and the only option was Fernando Llorente anyways, who a large group of fans still haven’t forgiven for the nature of his departure in 2013. 

With nobody coming through the system and nobody available on the outside, Gaizka Garitano will be hoping the likes of Williams, Muniaín and Aduriz can step up their game. The boss is under increasing pressure. Already rumours abound of phone calls to the newly clubless, fan favourite, Ernesto Valverde.

Athletic Club aren’t in the business of sacking managers mid-season – Eduardo Berizzo’s termination was the first time in almost a decade – so it would be surprising if Garitano left before the end of the season, especially with Athletic in no real danger of getting relegated. But with Europe seeming ever more out of reach, February is vital for Garitano’s future prospects.

The Copa game against Barça precedes three consecutive Basque derbies, starting with an away game at Real Sociedad on Saturday, a game made more important due to the fact that La Real are three points ahead of Athletic the league in 8th place. A victory at Anoeta could put Athletic back into European contention.

As for the Copa quarter-final, there won’t be many surprises in terms of selection, but Athletic might bring in an extra defender in the shape of Unai Nuñez and line up with three at the back in an attempt to deal with Barça’s array of attacking talents.

This will also allow Berchiche and Capa to concentrate on attacking Barça’s full-backs. A weakness they exploited in August when Capa crossed for Aduriz’ spectacular goal.

Barça are a different team from the one in August. New manager Quique Setién has taken the Catalan side back to the possession-based style that served them so well under Pep Guardiola.

Athletic will be content to let Barça keep the ball, whilst attempting to get Iñaki Williams and Iker Muniaín in behind their slower defenders on counter-attacks. 

In the past, Setien has also been highly critical of Athletic’s more physical style. One word you often hear at San Mamés is garra: courage, spirit and guts. It’s important for fans to see this on Thursday and the amped-up players should bring it in force. San Mamés will help as Athletic look to get in Barça’s faces.

This is a classic fixture of Spanish football and it has delivered some iconic clashes over the years. The Copa Final of 84 and its infamous post-match brawl, Aduriz’s hat-trick in the 2015 Super Copa, Lionel Messi’s wonder goal in the 2015 Copa Final and many more moments. There’s every likelihood that this Thursday will create more memories.

Beating Barça, as difficult as it may be, is an opportunity for Athletic to get their season back on track. Everything seemed so hopeful back in August when Aduriz scored his last-minute bicycle kick. This time around there’s more tension. It’s a pivotal moment in the season and a lot’s at stake. Everyone in Bilbao knows this is a make-or-break point. 

Another Aduriz stunner on Thursday might just be the boost Athletic need. It’s certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.

Dan Parry

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