The key to every great team is balance. Not only do you need a very strong starting lineup, but also key depth at every position and players who can change things up when called upon. This balance is exactly what Kuko Ziganda is trying to figure out in his first season as the Athletic Club manager. He started the summer with 30 players and is now looking at a squad of 27 following the release of Javi Eraso and allowing Unai Lopez and Alex Remiro to leave on loan. Who else will be on their way out?
The magic number seems to be 24 right now, meaning Ziganda will need to trim three more players. Of course, he could decide to keep more or fewer, but that remains to be seen. As of right now there is one guaranteed player to leave and that is goalkeeper Unai Simon. The 20-year-old has spent the summer training with the first team but isn’t going to break through Kepa Arrizabalaga or Iago Herrerin. Unlike Remiro who left on loan, Simon is expected to return to Bilbao Athletic to be the starting keeper for Gaizka Garitano’s side. And then there were 26.
The next place to look for cuts is at striker. Aritz Aduriz is the starter and that is without question. Ziganda has spent the summer deciding on who will be the backup and has decided that Iñaki Williams fits the bill perfectly. Following the friendly with Liverpool he said, “Iñaki has different qualities than Aduriz and we want to take advantage of his strengths and speed. He can play as the striker”. The winger has long been considered Aduriz’s eventual heir and now Ziganda is ready to give him more minutes in the role when the 36-year-old is out of the lineup.
In fact, Sabin Merino would likely feature as the second backup for the striker role. He has split time between winger and center-forward ever since he was promoted to the first team and there is no reason to believe that won’t continue. All of this being said, Asier Villalibre and Kike Sola may not have a place in the squad. Ziganda recently admitted that at least one will definitely leave and wen’t as far to say that it might actually be both. “It is clear that the two cannot stay. One will certainly leave and the other, we will see. We have to think through all the possibilities”.
Villalibre could greatly benefit from a loan back to the Segunda where he could play every single week. While he has played a handful of meaningful games with the first team, he still just doesn’t look ready to be a major contributor. The most important thing for him is regular minutes. Sola, on the other hand, has left on loan to three different clubs over the last few years and failed to hold down a starting role at any of them. He has looked pretty capable in preseason training, but that is no guarantee of anything. If one does stay in the team it will likely be Kike Sola, but in truth it looks like both will be on the way out. That gives Ziganda 24 players.
There is a chance that Kuko Ziganda could go in another direction with whom he decides to cut. A few names stand out as possibilities, but are much more unlikely than the three listed above. For instance, it is very clear that Enric Saborit has not played at the same level as his teammates, but he is the only other true left-back in the team behind Mikel Balenziaga. Inigo Lekue could be used in that role, but Ziganda appears to favor him on the left side of the pitch. Likewise, Mikel Rico is going to find it very difficult to get on the field this year. He currently has Beñat, Mikel Vesga, Mikel San Jose, and Ander Iturraspe in front of him in the pecking order. That being said, Rico is a very important veteran leader in the team and the fact that Athletic will be competing in three competition makes keeping him a solid plan.
Some may also suggest that Inigo Cordoba and Unai Nunez, who joined the team from Bilbao Athletic, should be sent out on loan in order to play regular minutes. However, Ziganda admitted after the Liverpool game that they will stay in the first team which is exactly what they deserve. Cordoba has played very well and looks to be the perfect backup for Iker Muniain. He can provide a spark, pace, and elusiveness that can change games. Meanwhile, Nunez has arguably been better than both Xabi Etxeita and Eneko Boveda this summer. At 20 years old he is still very young, but he will stay in the team at least until Yeray makes his return sometime next month.
In closing, Kuko Ziganda needs to say goodbye to three more players this summer and those look to be Unai Simon, Kike Sola, and Asier Villalibre. That would leave the team with 24 players, which is the perfect number for how many games they will be playing this year. There would also be at least one capable player backing up each position which will provide strength at depth for a long season. It still remains to be seen exactly what Ziganda will choose to do, but those close to the manager seem to believe that this will be the course of action.