For fans across the world, football has long been a game through which they can seek a subconscious identity. Through what their clubs represent and what they stand for, fans look to find themselves somewhere there, and through appropriation, it becomes an extension of themselves. With that in mind, the potential success of a club like Athletic Bilbao will send a lasting message across the globe—largely because of its distinct social identity in Spain.
Build, Break, Fix: Los Leones’ recent past
Following the exit of Ernesto Valverde, the Basque club finished in the top ten on two occasions. While the stints of Marcelo Bielsa and Valverde in the previous decade were almost like beautiful dawn after uncertain dusk, times under José Ángel Ziganda, Eduardo Berizzo, and Gaizka Garitano were the opposite. Slowly yet steadily, though, things seem to be back on track for Los Leones under the 56-year-old Asturian, Marcelino García Toral.
The most formative periods of the modern-day Basque club came under the tutelage of the workmanlike Bielsa and the more direct yet behaviorally toned down Valverde. The club reached the Europa League final in 2012 after famously beating Manchester United at Old Trafford on the way. While Athletic finished 10th and 12th under Bielsa, the Argentine established an overarching ideology at the club and created a spine of players that would help Valverde achieve an impressive top-four finish, including one Aritz Aduriz, who ended up as the club’s top-scorer every year between 2012 and 2018 and was the bane of Blaugrana in the Basque club’s famous Supercopa win of 2015.
Club icons Markel Susaeta and Mikel San José were part of the team before Bielsa, but the duo became vital cogs in the wheel from the 2011/12 season onwards. Óscar de Marcos, who continues to be a reliable squad option, became a regular under Bielsa himself. The mercurial Iker Muniain upgraded himself into one of the best talents in the country, even though he was going strong before Bielsa took charge of the club. Few would have thought that the diminutive attacker from Pamplona would still be getting San Mamés up on its feet in 2022 while staying at the club where he was bred.
Valverde’s exit in 2017 was pretty much the spark of a transition that was to bring in a fresh host of players that could usher Athletic Club into a new era of success. Ziganda, during his time with the club’s youth side, had worked with younger assets like Aymeric Laporte, Ramalho, Kepa Arrizabalaga, and Iñaki Williams; and the ex-Osasuna boss brought them to the first-team fold with him while keeping Valverde’s more direct, possession-oriented approach on the table.
Iñaki, then a scrawny and raw forward in his early 20s, had actually broken through under Valverde as a teenager and had been well amongst the goals at that stage as well. His debut for the senior side had come right after a spectacular goal-scoring season with Bilbao Athletic under Ziganda, which saw him find the net 13 times in 18 league games, taking the youth side by storm with his directness and supreme eye for goal.
Ziganda’s stint with the first team saw Los Leones finish 16th—their lowest since 2006/07. They lost Laporte to Manchester City in January but replaced him with Iñigo Martínez in a surprising winter move. The record departure of Kepa to Chelsea in the summer of 2018 followed Ziganda’s exit. In came former Sevilla boss Berizzo, about six months after being sacked by the Andalusians.
Kepa’s switch to pastures anew didn’t faze Athletic whatsoever. Losing their most valued players is business as usual, and as ever, they had a plan. The experienced Iago Herrerín, who had initially been a deputy to Kepa, stepped up to become a regular in the 2018/19 season while his understudy, the young Unai Simón, faced stiff competition to beat.
The experiment in Basque Country involving Berizzo didn’t last long. After a spell of winning once in 13 games, Berizzo was sacked when the club was in the relegation zone and at risk of going down for the first time in its history.
Once again, as they did with Ziganda, Athletic Club recruited a manager internally. Enter Gaizka Garitano from the club’s youth side. Basque born and bred, Garitano had come through the club’s youth setup as a player but played for the first team just once. A tall midfielder during his playing days, Garitano comes from a family of Los Leones supporters and has had a house beside the club’s training ground at Lezama.
“People say ‘OK, let’s change our philosophy and sign foreign players,’ but in my opinion, we have to continue in difficult moments like last year when we took charge with the team in the relegation zone, one of the worst situations ever. It is in these moments we have to be proud of our philosophy and try to work properly in the academy, trying to develop young people in order to refresh the first team a little bit.”Gaizka Garitano in an interview with The Guardian in 2019
After taking over the reins when Athletic were struggling in the drop zone, Garitano finished the 2018/19 season with the club at eighth, failing to qualify for the Europa League only due to an inferior goal difference to Espanyol.
Garitano carried on for the 2019/20 season in a campaign that was indeed a period of tough transition. The club didn’t sign a single player in the summer of 2019; they lost Ander Iturraspe, Xabi Etxeita, Álex Remiro, Sabin Merino, and Mikel Rico for free; and a 38-year-old Aduriz had declared he’d say his goodbyes at the end of the season. The idea seemed relatively straightforward—build around the likes of Iñaki Williams, Iker Muniain, Yeray Álvarez, Ander Capa, Unai Núñez, and Iñigo Martínez while promoting a set of players from the youth side, with a former Bilbao Athletic boss managing them once again.
The 2019/20 season had a fair share of spells, but riding on a 15-goal league season from the evergreen Raúl García and contributions from Iñaki and Muniain, an 11th-place finish beckoned the Basque club.
But the moment of the season arrived against Barcelona at San Mamés in the quarter-final of the Copa del Rey. A stoppage-time header from Iñaki sent Athletic to the semi-finals, sparking wild celebrations across the city and giving fans the hope of their first piece of silverware since their Supercopa win in 2015.
While Athletic did reach the Copa del Rey final (at the expense of Granada and thanks to the away goals rule), it wasn’t for the completion of Garitano’s redemption circle as a childhood Los Leones man. COVID-19 hit Spain hard, and once football resumed in August 2020 with the absence of fans, results started going downhill for Garitano. Question marks arose around a playing style that seemed increasingly dull and one-dimensional; the aggression that the team generally displayed waned, and the usually fluid attack became turgid and laboured. There were even suggestions that Garitano had stopped bringing in younger players into the first team. Álex Berenguer had arrived in the summer of 2020, but following a win over Elche, Garitano was axed, denying him the chance to play in the cup final from the previous season.
In about 24 hours, in came Marcelino—the Asturian who guided Valencia to the Copa del Rey title in 2019 before being infamously sacked by Los Che.
The Way of the Asturian
For a club that takes pride in their own like Athletic, Garitano’s exit was not going to be overly popular. But Marcelino’s CV and achievements in Spanish football could not be discounted. The Asturian guided Recreativo to promotion in his very first role after Sporting Gijón and followed it up by taking Racing Santander to Europe, notching up the highest-ever league finish at the Cantabria club.
Marcelino later took Villarreal back to the Primera in his first season at the club. Following their return to the Spanish top flight, the Yellow Submarine earned consecutive top-six finishes in three seasons under the Asturian. Amongst certain sections of fans, this was witnessed as a coup.
But perhaps the most defining feature of Marcelino’s managerial career has been his tendency to lead a club beyond the imagination of fans and then seek marshes dry and parched rather than pastures green. It was best delineated by his move to Zaragoza despite having taken Racing Santander to the UEFA Cup. Once he got Los Maños promoted, Marcelino took a dip into the Segunda with Villarreal, which isn’t usual for a manager who has already acquired a reputation in the Primera.
While this might come across as borderline under-ambitious for external parties, Marcelino seems to value his own morals, ethics, and style, albeit in a different way to Bielsa. That, in itself, sounds extremely synonymous to Athletic Bilbao—rooted in their own ways, regardless of what ensues or preludes. In seemingly intangible ways, this was a perfect fit.
For a squad that had witnessed a consistent identity float away towards the end of Garitano’s spell, Marcelino was meant to restore it and bring some sort of a winning pedigree to the table. And the Asturian has never been a stranger to all of that. He gave Valencia a tactical plan that the players fit into like a glove, despite all the outside noise surrounding the club and the controversial Peter Lim. At Athletic Club, apart from the Copa del Rey final from the 2019/20 season, Marcelino’s first major challenge was the Supercopa de España.
Right from the inception, Marcelino took a rather human-oriented approach to management in an attempt to rejuvenate a side that was potentially two games away from silverware. That is pretty much where it began, as it is suggested that the Athletic manager reminded the players of how close they were to winning before the semi-final.
While the change from the 4-2-3-1 under Garitano to Marcelino’s trademark 4-4-2 was not going to be massive on paper, Athletic had to become more proactive in and out of possession. The Asturian’s teams press high up the pitch more often and like to transition from defence to attack quickly instead of holding possession.
As the script would have it, the Supercopa de España semi-final saw them lock horns with Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid at La Rosaleda. Los Blancos came into the game on the back of their failure in beating Osasuna and Elche and increasing doubts about Zidane’s position.
Athletic limited the clear-cut chances for Madrid, even though Marco Asensio hit the bar twice. Raúl García had grabbed a quick, breakaway goal within the first 20 minutes and converted a penalty later in the first half. Like they did against Barcelona in the cup final of the previous season, Athletic picked up a 2-1 win courtesy of García’s brace and a compact defensive performance.
A task just as daunting awaited them in the final against Barcelona, but Marcelino didn’t quail at the idea of his side being the underdog and made the players embrace the value that a win in the final would carry.
The Miracle of Marcelino
“The players are on top form, they’re like cannons. They’re going to give their all to win. You don’t have to pay attention to motivation for this game. They have the chance to be champions and to do it by beating Real Madrid and Barcelona, I was going to swear… it’d be really something.”Marcelino
Amidst the cuddle with a dreamy-eyed nature of managing the squad, Marcelino intended to stick to his own principles of playing football regardless of whether a certain Lionel Messi played or not. After all, those methods had made him what he was. More than that, it was a thickly-veined approach at getting into the legendary Argentine’s head.
“We have to play our way but [also] bearing in mind how our opponent plays. We won’t change the main aspects of our play and we won’t divert from our idea whether Leo is playing or not.”Marcelino
Three days later, the club won its first Supercopa de España title since 2015, much to the increasing annoyance of La Pulga.
In what was an enthralling game of football, it was the experienced De Marcos who drew level two minutes after Antoine Griezmann opened the scoring for Barcelona. The Frenchman did strike again in the 77th minute, and just when things seemed to be getting away from Athletic, Asier Villalibre, who had come off the bench for Raúl García in the 83rd minute, struck in stoppage time to equalise, lunging goalward to guide Muniain’s free-kick past a seemingly clueless Marc-André ter Stegen.
Iñaki was the last to strike, setting himself up in the third minute of extra time with a few soft touches by the edge of the Barcelona box before launching a definitive effort that flew into the top-right corner. Marcelino’s men had the lead, and only the cules’ miracle man could have had any chance of snatching it away from them.
But Messi cut an increasingly frustrated figure for the Catalans amidst speculation about his future and contract. Marcelino heaping up the talk even more before the game only mounted the pressure even further, and his comments essentially hit two targets with one stone.
Villalibre, who had scored the 2-2 for Athletic, played yet another role in the script late in extra time, irking Leo Messi with his physicality to the point that the Argentine lashed out violently at him, earning a red card to eliminate any hopes of a comeback.
Athletic’s Supercopa showmanship was the coming together of two different generations of the Basque club: De Marcos, who had first made his mark ten years ago under Bielsa, and the Ziganda-fuelled players like Villalibre and Iñaki that made it all happen. While the trophy win sadly didn’t come under Garitano, it was a sign that bringing in Marcelino was certainly the right move.
The disappointment of losing the Copa del Rey final from the previous season against neighbours Real Sociedad in April 2021 was palpable, but the feeling of something fresh being built at San Mamés didn’t dissipate whatsoever. A tenth-placed finish in La Liga was not bad at all, considering how the season had begun with Garitano.
Muniain and Iñaki remain the cornerstone of what the club stands for, having scored ten league goals amongst themselves this season. Now the much adored and revered club captain, Muniain dazzled in Athletic Club’s impressive performance against Barcelona in January’s Copa del Rey round of 16. While grabbing a brace, the Pamplona-born forward ran Barça ragged. His performance was capped off by a spectacular curling effort from a tight angle in the second minute of the game, for which he was assisted by Nico Williams—Iñaki’s 19-year-old sibling who also won the penalty the Athletic captain would successfully convert.
Mikel Balenziaga remains the regular left-back option, and Iñigo Martínez continues to show what a great piece of business his signing was. Unai Simón has perhaps overgrown what Kepa was at the club and has replaced the Chelsea man between the sticks for the Spanish national team.
Young Unai Vencedor is the usual partner for the much more experienced Dani García in Marcelino’s 4-4-2. Like Muniain from all those years ago, De Marcos is still a key squad player with versatility across the pitch as he retains the very essence of what the outfit means to the fans.
For a club that was often seen as an outsider because of English roots and a distinct Basque identity when right-wing Spanish views ran rampant in the country during the Franco years, it will always be fascinating how Athletic Club remain true to themselves in a footballing era when the game seems to be losing purity quickly.
Through transitions on and off the pitch, clubs much bigger than Los Leones splash the cash when the need arises. But as Garitano himself observed, there is essentially no point in sticking to a unique identity if you can’t do it during the more demanding times.
This season, a European finish is very much possible for the club as they are four points away from sixth-placed Real Sociedad, whom they beat 4-0 three weeks ago at San Mamés. Los Leones may not be in a European final like they were under Bielsa, and they may not be finishing fourth as they did under Valverde, but things are finally looking bright once again for them. And as Marcelino would always want, they are unique in more ways than one.