After what seemed like an eternity without football, Athletic Club played their first friendly of the season on Wednesday. Due to a Mikel Balenziaga red card in the first half, the Lions had to play with a man down but still managed to put up a strong fight. At halftime the score was even at 1-1 and then Kike Sola took the lead for the Basques at the start of the second half. However, two late goals from Basel saw Athletic fall 3-2. Despite the loss Athletic showed a lot of fight and it is never too early to start breaking down performances. With most fans being unable to watch the match, let’s analyze some of the takeaways and talking points.Preseason friendlies are never about results. At this point teams aren’t playing to win games, but rather to prepare themselves for the season ahead. With this being Athletic’s first match of the summer it isn’t surprising that there was a lot of rust that had to be shaken off. Players like Mikel Balenziaga, Enric Saborit, and Eneko Boveda were all clearly working their way back into real football and it showed. Meanwhile, others like Mikel Vesga and Inigo Lekue started slowly and made some errors but looked much better as the game went on. That is what you want to see in these types of games.
Still, there were some players that looked sharp from the very beginning. Iker Muniain stands out as someone who had a great game due to the fact that he was constantly being defenders and causing problems. Others like Oscar De Marcos, Aymeric Laporte, and Ander Iturraspe looked like their normal selves. After the game Ziganda also praised Benat and Vesga as a midfield duo that looked very strong once they got into a rhythm.
Along with the seasoned players, there were some new faces that showed flashes as well. In the first half Unai Nunez started alongside Aymeric Laporte and looked very comfortable and composed in the center of defense. His strength was evident and his aerial ability helped to clear some possibly dangerous crosses. Meanwhile, Inigo Cordoba was the star of the second half. His pace and elusiveness on the left wing caused a lot of problems for Basel and his brilliant assist led to Kike Sola’s header which gave the Lions a temporary lead. Alex Remiro also featured but allowed two goals. Keep in mind that he was standing in goal with a man down, but he did very well leaving his line and claiming balls when needed.
As far as Athletic’s system is concerned, things didn’t look all that different from previous years. The team still tried to control possession through the midfield while using the wings to create their attacks. Crossing was the main form of creating chances, but players like Muniain and Cordoba added the dimension of taking on defenders directly. Benat still pulled the strings in the midfield and as long as he is doing that the entire unit tends to work well and be organized.It was also nice to see players like Sabin Merino and Kike Sola get on the scoreboard. Merino has dealt with two years of injuries and is finally fully healthy and ready to contribute. His run, which was set up by Muniain, led to a calm finish in stride in front of goal. Meanwhile, Sola showed positional awareness to get open in the box and did very well to place his header in the bottom corner after Cordoba sent in a deadly accurate cross. Last season the Lions struggled in front of goal. At times they struggled to create chances, but their biggest issue was finishing. Last summer Athletic really found it difficult to score so fans were happy to see these two goals go in to start the preseason.
Of course, not everything was good in the match. Balenziaga’s red card came because he tried to clear a ball off the line and it struck his arm. A sending off during a preseason game definitely seems unnecessary due to the fact that these games serve to prepare both sides for the upcoming campaign. Athletic was left playing for an hour with a man down while Basel didn’t get the test they wanted since they had an advantage. It definitely changed the complexity of the game and probably threw a wrinkle into Ziganda’s substitution plans as well. Ager Aketxe, Mikel San Jose, Javi Eraso, and Asier Villalibre all missed out and one has to wonder how much the red card played into that happening.
It also appeared as though the fullbacks were still finding their rhythm of when to push up and when to stay back in defense. Even before being sent off Balenziaga was caught out of position a few times, as was Enric Saborit on occasion. Basel constantly looked dangerous when attacking down the wings, but that also had something to do with having a man advantage as well. The most obvious issue was Athletic’s marking on set pieces. Twice Basel had open looks on goal, with one ending up as the winning goal with only minutes remaining.Cuco Ziganda admitted after the game that being down a man forced his side to use zonal marking when they always prefer to defend a specific player. He said that the team hasn’t really had the chance to work on zonal marking but he knows it is something that will need to be addressed. It is very difficult to gauge what are issues that need more work and what were symptoms of playing with a man down. Still, the team showed a lot of flashes and it was an entertaining game. Basel is a Champions League team and have already played a few friendlies this summer so they were expected to be the sharper team.
Apart from the actual game, it was also interesting to see the numbers that some of the players wore. In past summers, the Lions have just worn generic numbers in friendlies but in this game they all wore their regular numbers. From the start, Mikel Vesga was wearing 21 even though he wore 12 last season with Athletic. Enric Saborit sported the number 3, previously owned by Gorka Elustondo, as opposed to 25 which he wore last year. It is unknown whether or not these are permanent changes, but it did have fans talking. Meanwhile, Unai Nunez wore 30, Inigo Cordoba wore 28, and Alex Remiro wore the number 25 shirt. With Iago Herrerin wearing 13 all signs point to Kepa Arrizabalaga ultimately taking the number 1 shirt, as expected.
Athletic will continue training in Switzerland as they take part in the Festival of the Alps. They will be back in action on Saturday as they take on local club FC Sion. Cuco Ziganda trained earlier in the week with the same lineup that started against Basel so it will be interesting to see if that happens again. Players like Aketxe, Simon, San Jose, Eraso, and Asier Villalibre should get ample minutes against Sion after missing out in Wednesday’s match. The Lions will play the first leg of their Europa League qualifier in two weeks so these friendlies are vital to preparing for the upcoming season.