Ernest Valverde He has already started his third stage at the helm of Athletic. The man from Gasteiz has a series of challenges ahead of him to improve the team’s performance. The first and most important is to achieve a European place again. The last time it was achieved was in the 2016-17 season with him on the San Mamés bench.
To do this, he will need to improve the scoring balance of recent seasons and, above all, find a scorer who exceeds the meager figures of the top scorer in recent years. Also avoid the disconnections that the team suffers from time to time and that gave Marcelino so much trouble last year, give his chest in the key games, when the lions need to make the final leap, and we will see his decision regarding the position in the field of Muniain and Williams. They are his challenges.
They have not played for the old continent since the 2017-18 academic year
1. Bring the team back to Europe
Reclassifying Athletic for Europe is undoubtedly the main challenge that Ernesto Valverde faces on his return to Bilbao. The rojiblanco team will complete its fifth consecutive season without being seen by the old continent, something very important both from a sporting and economic point of view to clean up the accounts of the Ibaigane entity.
Precisely the last time it was achieved was with Txingurri on the bench in the 2016-17 campaign before he signed for Barça. The rojiblancos were seventh in the League, but they achieved their goal thanks to Barça -second- winning the Cup final against Alavés. Since then it has not been achieved.
The team led by José Ángel Ziganda the following year made it through the group stage and fell in the round of 16 against Olympique de Marseille (3-1 at the Vélodrome and 1-2 at San Mamés), but finished sixteenth in the tournament regularity. The lions were eighth in the following season (2018-19), eleventh in 19-20, tenth in 20-21 and eighth in the past with Marcelino as coach. Valverde arrives to return the team to European competition
Need to improve performance
2. Find a top scorer with good figures
The lack of goal is the eternal problem in recent years, specifically since Aritz Aduriz lost his shooting ability before hanging up his boots. The striker from San Sebastian was the team’s top scorer with 16 goals in the 2016-17 season, Valverde’s last on the San Mamés bench.
It’s a good figure, but from then on the numbers of the team’s top scorer in the regular tournament have dropped: Raúl García (10 goals) in the 2017-18 campaign, Iñaki Williams (13) in the 18-19 season, again the Navarrese (15) in 19-20, Alex Berenguer (8) in 20-21 and the oldest of the Williams brothers (8) in the past with Marcelino as team leader. The last two courses have been particularly bloody in this regard. The Asturian coach himself recognized in some moments that a goal was missing and that this deficit had to be solved by closing the goal tight and tight. He half got it.
The truth is that all the teams that occupy the noble zone of the table have consummate scorers who do not fail when they face the rival goal. This is a problem that has the appearance of becoming structural in the Bilbao complex
On the right wing and midfielder?
3. The position of Iñaki Williams and Muniain
Iñaki Williams has played as a striker in Marcelino García Toral’s usual 4-4-2 and Muniain started from the left wing although with freedom of movement to get inside in search of his most natural position.
This is how it has been in the year and a half with Careñes, but there are many voices that demand that the eldest of the brothers play on the right wing of the attack, a position where he can exploit his speed much more to overwhelm the rival left back, and that of the midfielder Txantrea, precisely where he played with Txingurri at a high level before seriously injuring himself at the Sanchez Pizjuán.
The Gasteiz manager did not want to ‘get wet’ about it on Thursday in his presentation. “Let’s wait, when we get to the river we’ll cross the bridge. Williams with me played in a band but we had Aduriz. He also played as a striker. Iker has played outside and inside. We will clarify it over time and depending on the rest of the players, it is about having a roundness and fluidity in the game to make many chances and that they make you few, ”he said. With Williams on the wing, the option would be to place Villalibre as the striker: “It is clear that he is a different nine, which is not bad. You have to have alternatives, we will value it, ”he said about the ‘Buffalo’
Rayo, Cádiz, Celta and Mallorca
4. Avoid last season’s bloody defeats
Throughout a season, there are games that go wrong. It happens even in the best families, for example in those teams like Barça or Real Madrid that are always at the top of the table. But Athletic suffered four defeats last season that did a lot of damage, both for the image offered and for the points lost against rivals that were a priori affordable to add a good result.
The lions lost in San Mamés against Andoni Iraola’s Rayo Vallecano on matchday six (1-2), fell again at home against Cádiz on matchday thirteen (0-1) and already in the second round, when the League faced the final stretch, they also fell at home against Celta (0-2) in a very important game to get fully into the European fight, and in the visit to Granada (1-0) with two games to go to finish the championship . Marcelino left the press room sad, without finding an explanation for the role his players had played, taking into account that three of those defeats occurred in Bilbao and the Asturian had anticipated the need to make San Mamés a fort.
They fail when they have to take the final step
5. Respond in momentous matches
It is one of the defects attributed to Athletic in recent years. The lions fail every time they face a so-called transcendental match, when they have to take a step forward to get fully into the European fight.
It happened last season in the matches against Mallorca in Son Moix (3-2), Betis in Benito Villamarín (1-0), Villarreal in La Cerámica (1-1), Celta in San Mamés (0-2) and Granada in Los Cármenes (1-0), all of them very important matches to rise to the noble zone and reach the final stretch of the League with better options. Marcelino’s team failed in all of them, dropped from sixth and seventh place and the possibilities began to diminish.
On the last day they also failed. The people from Bilbao had to improve Villarreal’s result at the Camp Nou at the Sánchez Pizjuán to achieve a place in the Conference League. Sevilla won 1-0 with a goal from Rafa Mir and the yellow team did know how to do their homework at the Barça Coliseum (0-2). Not even a victory would have been worth Marcelino’s team, who said goodbye two days later in the press room at San Mamés. Ernesto Valverde has taken over