There was something different about the buildup to Sunday’s eagerly anticipated Basque Derby in Donostia, the first to be played out in front of a crowd in more than 18 months.
All the talk was of Real Sociedad. Top of LaLiga heading into matchday 12, La Real’s exciting young team have been making waves and rightly receiving plaudits from far and wide. That combined with their victory in April’s historic all-Basque Copa del Rey Final, has created the strong impression that it’s Real Sociedad, who have spent much of their history in Athletic’s shadow, that are now very much top dogs in this passionate football region.
As much as this is a friendly rivalry, it’s safe to say they don’t like that very much in Bilbao. Athletic, their pride wounded by that painful defeat in Seville, travelled across the Bay of Biscay on Sunday intent on making a statement to their increasingly noisy neighbours and the wider Spanish football audience, to show there is more than one improving Basque team worth taking note of right now.
While it took a 91st minute free-kick from Iker Muniain (which should have been saved) to salvage a point, to an extent they did just that. It was a typical derby in many respects. Played at a fast tempo with tempers boiling over on occasions, the weather and atmosphere befitting of the occasion at a Reale Arena that was packed to the rafters and confident of another victory.
At the very least, Athletic proved a point and the result was further evidence to suggest that Marcelino is now really starting to stamp his authority on this side, having taken over midway through last season. His intense approach to training and preparation has rubbed a few players up the wrong way during his coaching career but it has unquestionably yielded results and his style of management and brand of football always felt like a relatively natural fit for this squad.
LaLiga’s meanest Defence
Marcelino’s teams haven’t finished outside the top six during any of his last five full seasons in LaLiga and that’s exactly where Athletic want to get back to. Defensively at least, they are very much on the right track.
Their record of just 7 goals conceded from 11 games so far this season is the joint best in LaLiga. Were it not for a Stoppage Time Radamel Falcao goal in a 2-1 home defeat against Rayo Vallecano, where the former Villarreal and Valencia boss perhaps unwisely opted to rotate in key areas, Athletic would also have LaLiga’s only remaining unbeaten record.
With Spain’s number one Unai Simón behind them, Athletic’s back four has been assured and tough to break down throughout the season. All the more impressive, given this is anything but their established first choice defence.
Partly due to injuries initially, Marcelino put his faith in 22 year old centre-back Dani Vivian, without a single minute of top flight football under his belt before this season. He quickly forged a strong bond with Iñigo Martínez, meaning fellow centre-backs Unai Núñez and Yeray Álvarez have had to make do with limited game-time so far.
Surprisingly though, the player with the most minutes for Athletic in LaLiga so far this season is full-back Íñigo Lekue, a player who had made a total of just 13 league starts across the previous three seasons combined. Lekue has put in some excellent displays and was a standout performer on matchday 11 with a terrific performance at Espanyol.
On the opposite side, left-back Mikel Balenziaga is another who has been little more than a bit-part player in recent years. However the 33 year old has filled the void left by long-term injury absentee Yuri Berchiche and Marcelino deserves plenty of credit for getting the very best out of players at both ends of their careers, ones which other coaches may have overlooked or tried to move on.
Fresh Talent starting to shine
What will be getting Athletic fans most excited though, is that for the first time in a number of years, it feels like there is a fresh generation of talent starting to emerge which could be capable of helping the club kick on to greater things in the coming seasons.
While all clubs hope to see their academies produce young players good enough to progress and establish themselves in the first team squad, at Athletic the cantera is essential to their very survival. They have one of the best around, but there will always be periods when the talent dries up and that has perhaps been the case to some extent in recent years.
As well as the aforementioned Dani Vivian, 20 year old midfielder Unai Vencedor has also established himself as a regular this season, starting 10 of his team’s 11 games. Indeed the only game Athletic have lost this season came when both Vivian and Vencedor were rested against Rayo Vallecano.
Vencedor is one of four Athletic players to receive Spain U21 call-ups this season. Only Basque rivals Real Sociedad have had more. The other Athletic players to get picked include goalkeeper Julen Agirrezabala, who started his club’s opening two league fixtures this term while Unai Simon rested following a busy international summer.
21 year old forward Oihan Sancet has also come in and out of the Athletic team during Marcelino’s reign at the club while teenager Nico Williams is the fourth to receive a Spain U21 call-up and is regarded in Bilbao as one of the club’s brightest prospects in many years. On the opposite flank, 18 year old left winger Nico Serrano is also tipped for a big future and the emergence of some talented attacking players is much needed with Athletic short on goals in recent years.
Key Men back to their best
The dream scenario for Athletic Club will be that in a couple of seasons or two, generations will coincide and this bright crop of youngsters will be ready to deliver at the top level, meanwhile the likes of Iker Munian and Iñaki Williams should still be in their prime.
Much of the burden in terms of creating chances and posing an attacking threat has fallen on those two players in recent years with Athletic unable to find a replacement for striker Aritz Aduriz who top scored for the club for six seasons running between 2012 and 2018.
The lack of a reliable number nine is still an issue and may continue to be for some time, but it’s less felt when Williams and Muniain are on the top of their game. That wasn’t always the case during the latter stages of last season and Williams even lost his place in the side at one point but he has come back following the summer break with a point to prove and has been very impressive, perhaps spurred on by the regular presence of his younger brother in the matchday squad.
Muniain, perhaps a less natural fit with a coach that often favours counter-attacking football, has also found his role and has been the club’s standout creative force once more.
While they are only averaging one goal per game, there have been signs in recent games that Athletic are starting to offer a greater threat in open play, particularly in the draw at Espanyol last week where they created 3.68 xG, the most in LaLiga on matchday 11.
Their wastefulness in front of goal is a concern and doesn’t have a quick fix but all the signs are that structurally Athletic Club are in good shape under Marcelino. This batch of youngsters is only going to improve with more time and experience, and this has the feel of a side that is certainly capable of competing for European qualification this season, and could go on to achieve greater things in the years to come.
Athletic may continue to fly under the radar slightly in the short-term while their local rivals make the headlines, but Marcelino is busy establishing them as one of the toughest teams to play against in LaLiga. With the backing of big crowds at San Mamés once more and some exciting emerging talents, the horizon is certainly starting to look a little brighter for one of Spanish football’s grand, old clubs.