A Look at Bilbao’s Poor Season and Their Fresh Start Ahead

Posted: June 30, 2013 in La Liga



The 2013/14 season will see Athletic Bilbao handed a fresh start in the Primera. After a season of inconsistency, transfer sagas and stars in previous years drifting away from the constellation, Bilbao could be forgiven for a torrid 2012/13 season.

Marcelo Bielsa’s players felt the effects of the past season’s gung-ho, constantly attacking style of play. Bielsa’s somewhat ‘mad’ tactics, once a treat for Spanish football, had finally taken its toll on the club. The players looked tired, dejected and lacked the fitness to match the brilliance displayed in the 11/12 season, when Bielsa’s men beat Manchester United and went all the way to the final of the Europa League. There’s a reason Bielsa is known as ‘El Loco’ in Spain: despite seeing the effects his desire for attacking football had on his players, he’s always been a stubborn manager and continued to deploy these tactics. The crouching position, on the touchline, became synonymous with Bielsa, but last season’s crouching was different, as El Loco found himself constantly moaning and groaning, as his obsession with attacking football took a turn for the worse. Bilbao were now staring into the face of the relegation zone, and this was a recurring theme throughout the entire season.

Iker Muniain, a man who was tipped for stardom after his tremendous 11/12 season, struggled to find any form of consistency for the entirety of last season. Just one goal and three assist in 43 appearances, in all competitions, summed up the youngster’s season. Despite a few niggling injuries, he struggled to captivate and channel the same talent he once had shown the season before.

Fernando Llorente’s transfer saga was finally put to bed when a deal had been struck with Juventus which saw the striker spend the final season in his contract at Bilbao, so that he could join Juventus in the summer of 2013. Llorente’s saga didn’t help the fans, as they were looking for assurance following Javi Martinez’s big money departure to Bayern Munich. Bielsa felt that the fans would give Llorente a hard time and, rightly so, relegated him to the bench for the most part of the season. Making only eight starts in all competitions, Llorente’s lack of first-team football was a true reflection of Bielsa’s stubbornness. Llorente struggled to make an impact in his 26 substitute appearances, and so the stars of the 11/12 season had all but vanished: Martinez moved to Munich, Llorente hardly started and Muniain was almost anonymous on the pitch for the majority of his lackluster season.

Aritz Aduriz, a man signed from Valencia in the summer of 2012, filled his boots at Athletic last season, replacing Llorente’s goal scoring void. 15 goals and six assists, contributing directly to 21 goals, was the best of any other Athletic player. His time at Valencia was a bit hit and miss, but he returned to the club for his third spell, following a four year and two year spell previously. A more experienced Aduriz has oozed class and maturity, and this has shone on the pitch. He enjoys his football, in the later years of his footballing career, and had an impressive return season with Athletic.

In such a dark season where Bilbao’s fans’ search for a beacon of light was at its most difficult, the arrival of young Aymeric Laporte on the scene couldn’t have come at a more important time. Laporte, only the 2nd Frenchman to ever put a Bilbao shirt on (behind Bixente Lizarazu), started to appear regularly around late January. The versatile defender played at centre-back, as he replaced Amorebieta, who’d been struggling with injury, consistency and was involved in another contractual saga. Whether he was filling in at left-back or partnering Mikel San José at centre-back, Laporte rarely made mistakes. At just 19 years of age, he outshone some of the experienced men around him and really made a case for player of the year at the club.

Their player of the season, without a shadow of a doubt, was Ander Herrera. The midfielder, part of a double-pivot with Ander Iturraspe, took on the role of the deep-lying playmaker, whilst sometimes switching to a creative box-to-box midfielder. He stole the show, most nights at the San Mamés, when Bilbao weren’t getting torn apart. His intent to link the midfield to the attack is an important attribute in his game, as his distribution and spraying of passes is almost a joy to behold. Ander is an extremely smart player who understands that his manager insists on his team-mates playing a fluid, non-stop attacking style of football; Ander’s job, when his team all swarm forward and lose the ball, is to give away fouls to impede his side from being put to the sword on the counter attack. Averaging four successful tackles per game, Ander picked up the most successful tackles out of any Bilbao player, but also racked up the most fouls given away. Whilst this may imply that he’s a tad rash when not in possession, it also demonstrates his ability to understand that these silly tackles are necessary if his team are to not concede on the counter.

A 12th place finish, avoiding relegation by nine points, papered over the ever apparent cracks of the season just passed. The demolition of the most historic stadium in Spanish football – San Mamés – left the fans with little to look forward to for the coming season. The Nou San Mamés, currently being built as I type this, will be the new home to the Basque club for the 13/14 season. But, that won’t be the only change to the club when the Bilbao faithful brush past the turnstiles for the first time: Bielsa will no longer be in his crouching position by the touchline. They’ll have a new manager, but maybe new isn’t the most adequate term, in Ernesto Valverde. A man who returns for his second managerial stint at the club having played, managed the youth team and managed the senior side in previous years. Valverde comes to helm following a disappointing league finish with Valencia – 5th – not mostly his own fault, but more down to Mauricio Pellegrino’s shocking few months at Mestalla.

Valverde’s not only assured the Bilbao fans that he’s going to give them a better season than the one that just passed, but he’s also let actions speak louder than words as Beñat Etxebarria, the man who’d made waves in La Liga and gained interest from a host of clubs around Europe, returned to the club where he started off at. His €8 million buy-back clause was triggered and now he’ll, undoubtedly, pair the impressive Ander Herrera in the midfield which, on paper, looks like one of the best midfield pairings in La Liga. Beñat spoke about his return being a “dream come true” and that he likes Athletic’s “new project”.

Now there are reasons for Athletic fans to start looking forward to next season. The idea of a new project excites any football fan. The fact that a man that knows the club well has returned to manage it, and one of the better midfielders in La Liga has returned to further enforce their squad and midfield, it’s hard for the fans not to get excited. With Laporte looking to get a full season of first-team football under his belt, Ander looking to continue putting in performances of the highest order, and Muniain looking to silence his critics under a new manager, all is there for Bilbao to have a much better season than the one that has just stormed by.


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