The wait is finally over. On Monday all of the Athletic Club players, minus a few, will report to Lezama to begin preseason training. Fans have been waiting for a while now, but the Lions are officially back. If the return of training wasn’t enough to get excited about, Monday will also bring the unveiling of the New Balance 2017-2018 kits as well as new player photographs and a press conference by Cuco Ziganda. The new season is so close that you can almost taste it, but not everything is in order. There are still a few important questions that need to be answered and the next few weeks will be vitally important.
Contract Extensions Needed
First is the situation of Kepa Arrizabalaga and the renewals of other key players. Kepa’s contract will expire after this season, but reports claim that he has already verbally agreed to a new contract. With Real Madrid showing interest in the 22-year-old it is more important than ever to sign the keeper to a long-term deal to shield him for the future. That being said, Kepa isn’t the only player in need of a new contract. Aritz Aduriz, Benat, and a few others are all set to see their contract run out in one year and are in need of extensions.
In total there are ten players who need extensions and fans are hoping to see the most important players ink new deals quickly. Still, there are other players that could do with improved contracts, such as Inaki Williams and Yeray. Both young stars have gained attention from other clubs across Europe and, while they have been vocally loyal to Athletic, it would be wise for the club to increase both their wages and release clauses. Iker Muniain has two years left on his current deal but has taken more of a leadership role as of late and may also be in contention for an improved contract.
When the summer began Athletic had their eyes set on three new players – Mikel Merino, Alex Berenguer, and Nacho Monreal. Fast forward to today and that list has dwindled to only Merino. The midfielder has made up his mind that he will join Athletic if Borussia Dortmund cannot guarantee him regular minutes, which looks nearly impossible at this point. Other clubs such as Valencia, Alaves, and Real Sociedad are also interested in the midfielder, but he only has eyes for the San Mames if he is to leave BVB.
Bringing fresh faces into the team is always important. Cuco Ziganda himself will bring new energy as the manager, but most of the players have already served under him so the switch won’t be that difficult to adjust to. As far as new players go, three Bilbao Athletic stars will spend the preseason with the first team – Inigo Cordoba, Unai Nunez, and Asier Villalibre. There is certainly a chance that all three could earn places in Ziganda’s squad, but that remains to be seen. The manager will have some difficult decisions to make over the next few weeks, but the biggest goal remains signing Mikel Merino.
Trimming Down The Squad
When the entire current squad is together Athletic will have more than 30 players available. That is quite a large number and will need to be trimmed down. Ziganda will need to make decisions for positions all over the pitch and it all begins with the goalkeepers. As of now Kepa, Iago Herrerin, Alex Remiro, and Unai Simon are all available to Ziganda but that clearly can’t last. Kepa is the starter and Herrerin will serve as the backup, hopefully. The veteran has been outspoken about his desire to not be a backup and that could complicate things. The club hopes to send Remiro and possibly Simon on loan, but that can’t happen unless Herrerin accepts his role in the team.
Additionally, there is a heavy problem of overbooking in the midfield. Mikel San Jose, Benat, Raul Garcia, Ander Iturraspe, Mikel Rico, Mikel Vesga, Javi Eraso, Ager Aketxe, and Unai Lopez are all vying for spots in the team and the possible arrival of Mikel Merino would add another competitor. Ziganda simply can’t keep everyone and will need to decide who will leave to gain valuable playing time. Clubs are already lining up in hopes of signing Vesga, Aketxe, Eraso, and Lopez but their futures at the club will not be decided until Ziganda has seen everyone in preseason activities. At the same time, players like Oscar Gil and Andoni Lopez are still waiting to see what their futures look like for the coming campaign.
It is exciting to see the players back at Lezama, but there are a lot of decisions that need to be made over the next few weeks. The Lions will play their first match of the new season in less than four weeks when they compete in the first leg of their Europa League qualifier on 27 July. It seems like a long time between now and then, but with training sessions and preseason friendly games it will pass by very quickly. The Cuco Ziganda era has officially begun at Athletic Club and it starts will some serious questions that need to be answered.