What’s going right for Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic Club?

Ernesto Valverde’s long relationship with Athletic Club, which dates back to a six year spell as a player in the 1990’s and is now a season and a half into its third managerial stint, continues to make light of the old footballing notion that “you shouldn’t go back”.

That being said, even the most ardent of Valverde admirers in Bilbao, of which there are many, might admit to having allowed one or two doubts to creep in midway through 2023.

Season one of his third reign at San Mames was not a success. While they only missed out on European qualification on the final weekend, Athletic’s tally of 51 points was the joint lowest across Valverde’s seven seasons in Bilbao and four fewer than Marcelino managed in LaLiga 2021/22 when European qualification also proved just elusive.

What’s more, the overriding sense was that Athletic got gradually worse as the season progressed, with Valverde’s third honeymoon period sparking a bright start before a gradual decline set in with goals and points increasingly hard to come by. 

Athletic won just one of their final eight league games with a Copa del Rey Semi Final defeat against Osasuna another lowlight in a difficult end to the campaign.

So, after another summer of only limited transfer activity, what has changed this term at San Mames as Athletic eye up 3rd place, heading into this weekend’s eagerly awaited Basque derby against fellow high fliers Real Sociedad?

Double trouble – Williams brothers lighting up the flanks

As far as the main catalyst for Athletic’s charge up the table into serious Champions League contention goes, it’s hard to look much further than two wingers, who just happen to be from the same family.

The Williams brothers have been magnificent this season, causing big problems for opposition full backs and there are few more exciting sights in LaLiga right now than Nico and Iñaki tearing down the flanks with a boisterous San Mames in full voice.

Iñaki is playing some of the best football of his career at 29 and with eight goals at the midway point in the campaign, he’s on course to better his best ever LaLiga goal tally of 13 (2018/19). A trip to Ivory Coast to take part in the Africa Cup of Nations is untimely as far as Athletic are concerned but it’s a wonderful opportunity for the older Williams brother to show what he can do on the international stage while he’s on top of his game.

In the meantime, Nico, eight years his junior, looks increasingly like he’s capable of relishing the extra responsibility that will fall on his shoulders while his brother is away.

Nico’s skillset is different to that of his sibling and while he’s still a raw talent, his natural ability on the ball is starting to deliver tangible results in the final third on a more consistent basis.

The 21 year old has registered 3 goals and 5 assists so far in LaLiga 2023/24 with the Williams brothers on a combined 19 goal contributions. According to WhoScored.com’s ratings, they are the second and third best performers in the whole of LaLiga this season behind only Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham.

It’s certainly a proud time for the Williams family and following Nico’s recent contract renewal, Iñaki described playing with his brother as “a dream come true and what we’ve fought for all our lives.”

“It’s moving for us to play together at San Mames and see our parents in the stands” he continued. 

“Hopefully he’ll be here for many more years. It’s also a message for the lads in the academy, that they should put their trust in Athletic.”

Valverde’s loyalty reaps rewards

There’s certainly more to Athletic’s improvement this season than just the brilliance of the Williams brothers though.

For starters, the widemen have been really aided by the intelligent movement and increased goal threat of striker Gorka Guruzeta.

The 27 year old never quite felt like the right fit last season and there was always the sense that he was a “needs must” signing, rather than the man who would lead the line in Bilbao for many years to come.

However Valverde has shown faith in Guruzeta and largely resisted the trap that many Athletic coaches fall into which is to move Iñaki into a central role where the burden of being expected to be the team’s main goal threat has often weighed heavy on a player who has never been the most natural finisher.

Another big decision Ernesto Valverde appeared to make early in his third spell at San Mames was that he would pick either Oihan Sancet or Iker Muniain in midfield and not both. It also became pretty clear that Sancet was the preferred pick, a big show of faith in the youngster given Muniain was arguably Athletic’s best player during the 2021/22 season.

Despite calls to reintegrate the talented Muniain into the starting eleven, Valverde has doubled down on that stance this season, with the 31 year old making just three league starts as Sancet has continued to develop and grow in an advanced midfield role.

A new generation emerging

Perhaps most encouraging for fans of this unique football club, is that there is now evidence of a new generation starting to emerge.

While they might not necessarily admit it, there’d have been a few envious glances from Athletic fans across the Bay of Biscay in recent years at Real Sociedad and their unwavering ability to keep producing talented young Basque players.

Athletic’s own production line, so crucial to the ability of this club to compete in the upper echelons of Spanish football, appeared to be slowing slightly with the very notable exception of Nico Williams.

However things are looking up with a host of other young players from the club’s Lezama academy also starting to make their mark in the first team.

The departure of Iñigo Martínez and injury problems for Yeray, had the potential to create a problem in central defence but 23 year old Aitor Paredes and 24 year old Dani Vivian have really stepped up with some assured displays and Athletic boast a better defensive record this season than the likes of Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Girona.

In recent weeks, we’ve also seen 22 year old Beñat Prados break into the team in midfield while 20 year old Unai Gomez looks another exciting prospect with the youngster heading in a key late winner against Las Palmas in Athletic’s final game of 2023.

In short, things are looking as bright in Bilbao as they have done for many years, perhaps even since Ernesto Valverde’s most recent departure to take charge of Barcelona in 2017.

San Mames is sure to be rocking when La Real come calling this weekend with the big two Basque clubs both fighting hard for a place amongst Europe’s elite next season.

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