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Published on March 14th, 2018 | by Paco Polit

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Athletic Bilbao struggling to survive in post Ernesto Valverde world

🕓 Reading time: 3 minutes

Constrained with a Basque-only buying policy and struggling without Ernesto Valverde, Athletic Bilbao are looking to Leganes for the man to lead their future 

With the season going into its final two months, rumors are swirling around La Liga club Athletic Bilbao, especially those concerning the identity of the man who will sit on the Basque bench next year. The dilemma is real: renewing trust in ‘Cuco’ Ziganda or a change of pace on the sidelines. And the signs are all pointing towards Asier Garitano, Leganes’ current boss taking over in San Mames next season. 

Let’s look at the current state of affairs in Bilbao: the club is not happy with Ziganda’s management to date. Yes, Ernesto Valverde’s shoes were always going to be very big to fill, but the team’s performances have been extremely unpredictable, with too many ups-and-downs and nothing really remarkable to point out.

In that sense, dissecting the squad’s strengths and weaknesses provides only a handful of the former and quite a lot of the latter: Iñaki Williams isn’t delivering as a center-forward, players such as Markel Susaeta, Beñat, Mikel San José or Oscar De Marcos have already reached their peak and won’t improve further.

This is, in fact, Athletic’s biggest problem. Relying on Ariz Aduriz’s goals, Raùl García’s hustle or Kepa’s fantastic saves is fine for the most part, but makes the team predictable and very easy to deactivate by opposite sides. It’s a problem highlighted by Athletic’s Basque-only players policy, which hugely reduces the pool of potential talent to sign further along the line.

Results to this point are worrying, to say the least. The fans are used to see their team fighting for the European places, but this season the fray seems more virulent than ever and Athletic haven’t been able to keep up with surprise packages such as Girona or Eibar. They currently sit in twelve spot, nine points away from sixth. In the Europa League, Athletic will need a miracle to move on to the next round after their first-leg defeat against Olympique Marseille (3-1). Things are not looking bright at all. 

Enter Asier Garitano. The Basque coach’s run with Leganés has been near miraculous, something pulled straight out of a football fairy tale: arriving in summer 2013, promoted to La Segunda in 2014, achieving a high-profile tenth place in 2015 and a surprise promotion to La Liga in June 2016.

Since that point, the ‘pepineros’ have remained quite confidently in the top-flight with a blend of exciting playing style, a great defending mentality and top performances being squeezed out of previously unknown players such as Alexander Szymanowski, Claudio Beauvue or Gabriel Pires.

Details of the alleged talks are being kept under wraps, but a large chunk of Athletic fans agree on the fact that this match-up actually makes a lot of sense. They believe Athletic and Garitano would ‘click’ immediately. Officially, Leganés are trying to extend Garitano’s contract, but they insist on putting the sporting side of the club as their top priority: once the sums say that the team is safe in LaLiga, they will focus on securing their boss on the bench for next season.

However, they know that Athletic have many attractive qualities for a manager who is Basque, who knows the club inside-out (he was a player for them for thirteen seasons in the youth system) and who seems to be ready to take on a different challenge after stringing together a series of miraculous achievements in the Municipal de Butarque stadium. The next few weeks will tell how this story ends.

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About the Author

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Paco Polit is a Valencia-based journalist with over ten years experience reporting La Liga, covering both Valencia CF and Levante's news, signings, ups and downs. Madrid and Barcelona are huge, indeed, but the Spanish La Liga is much, much more: regarded as the top football competition in the world, he enjoys explaining why to every reader from abroad.



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