As the years roll by, the list of football clubs never to suffer a relegation from a top flight becomes ever more exclusive. Once you’re out, there’s often no getting back in. It is perhaps little surprise to learn that Real Madrid and Barcelona have thus far navigated their existence without having to learn what it means to be a second-division side, but Bilbao-based Athletic Club are the third and final outfit to share such a record on Spanish soil. That privileged status has rarely looked more at risk.
Since 1929 Athletic have dined at the top table, a stretch that spans over 86 seasons. Los Leones’ achievement is even more impressive when it is taken into consideration that they have operated on a Basque-only player policy since 1912, sourcing players solely with heritage from the Basque region.
Local rivals Real Sociedad did the same until 1989 before breaking ranks to sign John Aldridge from Liverpool, leaving Athletic as the sole La Liga club to maintain their recruitment policy. Sitting in the relegation zone after 14 games, the question of whether to break from this unique tradition may loom larger as the season progresses.
Lacking philosophy and personality
A coach is brought in for their ideas. If they choose to take a different route, it pulls the rug out from beneath their feet and doesn’t leave them a recovering leg to stand on. Eduardo Berizzo had impressed in La Liga in the past, guiding Celta Vigo to impressive finishes and on long European journeys, but a strange press conference in October paved the way for his sacking this Tuesday after a 13-game winless run.
“We can’t negotiate in terms of intensity, aggression, our pressure. We need energy,” Berizzo explained, well aware that his Athletic side hadn’t picked up a league win since the opening weekend. “We have to prioritise energy and intensity before football.”
Berizzo was brought in during the summer as a reaction to a dreadful 2017-18 campaign under organic appointment Cuco Ziganda, looking to add intensity and further attacking structure. After the departure of Ernesto Valverde to Barcelona in the summer of 2017, Ziganda was promoted from within. After Berizzo’s departure, B team coach Gaizka Garitano will take the step up and the situation will go full circle.
Ziganda guided Athletic through a disappointing season, finishing 16th, as his reductive and disciplined usage of a talented squad relied on commitment, grit and grinding out results. Los Leones were tough to beat, not least down to how Ziganda packed his midfield with defensive options and hard workers to slow games down, but he made them incredibly tough to watch. After failing to get immediate results, Berizzo resorted to the same formula, asking for hard graft rather than craft.
Finding Aduriz’s heir
Since returning home to Athletic in 2012, 37-year-old Aritz Aduriz has been a reliable source of goals, netting at least 14 per La Liga campaign until 2017. Since then, however, it has become all too clear that age is finally catching up with him. Strong in the air but unable to offer too much in the way of energy or acceleration in and around the box, Aduriz desperately needs support.
There is no heir ready in waiting. Inaki Williams is seemingly unable to score at home, but has four goals for the campaign so far, while Iker Muniain has chipped in with the same amount from midfield. Beyond them, there is little in the way of creative inspiration or killer instinct and no way of splashing the cash to plug the gap – a curse of the Basque-only policy.
Aside from Fernando Llorente, who is very much a rotation player at Tottenham, it is tough to see where Athletic could turn in the transfer market. With no other natural No 9 in the squad other than Aduriz, Gaizka Garitano has no option but to use wide players in central areas, or promote 21-year-old B-team striker Asier Villalibre who is yet to burst onto the scene at top-flight level.
The club’s long-standing record of survival has always made slow starts to the season seem like nothing less than minor inconveniences. Los Leones would always turn things around, they had to. It was Athletic, they couldn’t go down.
A 16th-placed finish last campaign might have felt a little too close for comfort, dispelling the belief that things would always improve as the season wore on. Now stuck in 18th place in the most competitive La Liga season in recent memory, they can no longer depend on those around them to be simply worse. This time, it’s serious.
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