When Ernesto Valverde left his post to become the manager at FC Barcelona it was only right that Kuko Ziganda was handed the job at Athletic Club. He had overseen Bilbao Athletic since 2011 and was being groomed for the promotion. Fast forward to now, just six months into his first season, and it is clear that things have not gone according to plan. The Lions have taken a significant step backwards from the last few years and all signs point to a managerial change this summer.
If there is going to be a new manager at Athletic next season he will have to meet several qualities that the club looks for. To begin with, there will have to be a focus on youth and a willingness to utilize Lezama. Secondly, the club tends to favor someone who either has experience coaching in Spain or a proven track record internationally, or both if possible. Lastly, and this goes without saying, Athletic wants a manager who understands the club’s identity. The belief is that Josu Urrutia would like to bring in an exciting name this summer, so with that being said, let’s take a look at some of the managers who could be in the running.
Former Athletic President Fernando Lamikiz recently said in an interview that “If football were fair, Mendilibar would get a second chance at Athletic”. That is an interesting way to look at the situation and possibility.
We will begin with the name that everyone is talking about, and for good reason – Unai Emery. The Basque manager took over Sevilla in 2013 and during his three years at the helm the Spanish side won three consecutive Europa League titles. The immense success thrust his name into many top coaching searches before he eventually agreed to take over at PSG. His time in Paris hasn’t been quite as successful as expected.
During his first season PSG was unable to retain their Ligue 1 title for a fifth straight year due to a very impressive campaign from Monaco. The Parisians also bowed out of the Champions League early after allowing Barcelona to come back from a 4-0 loss in the first leg. This season it looks like the French side will once again exit the Champions League early despite breaking transfer fee records over the summer. They do hold a 14 point lead over Monaco in the table, but their rivals did lose a few key players before the season started.
Emery is currently completing the second year of a two year contract with PSG and does hold an option for a third year. It will be interesting to see what happens and reports surrounding the club seems to be in disagreement over what Emery’s future holds. If he does leave Paris he would be a very attractive name for Athletic Club, but many other clubs would be courting him as well. That makes it very difficult to believe that he will be the next manager at the San Mamés. Certainly it isn’t impossible, but it would be extremely difficult to pull off for Urrutia.
The next round of names that could be discussed all come from within La Liga and could fit the bill for various reasons. José Luis Mendilibar is well known by Athletic fans, having played at Bilbao Athletic and coached at the youth level. He did oversee the first team manager back in 2005, but only lasted a few months due to dreadful results. More recently, he took over at Eibar in 2015 and has had the Basque side playing at a very high level. The 56-year-old has more of an offensive mind for the game and some fans believe he could be an electrifying influence on someone like Iñaki Williams. It is unknown whether or not he is interested in leaving Eibar at the moment, but there is familiarity. Some fans refuse to consider Mendilibar based on his results back in 2005, but Ernesto Valverde also proved that a reunion can be a good thing.
Next up is Pablo Machín who took over Girona in 2014 and led the Catalans to their first Primera promotion in club history. The 42-year-old is still relatively young for a football manager but is very demanding and seems to get the best out of his players. Girona are currently 8th in the La Liga table, which is remarkable when you consider that they were expected to be a relegation candidate. Meanwhile, Machín’s love for a three-man defense is intriguing as well, though it isn’t certain he would still want to use that system were he to take over at Athletic Club. Machín still has a lot to prove, but he can bring energy.
Quique Setien was one of the names linked to Athletic Club when Ernesto Valverde left over the summer, but he eventually took over at Real Betis. The Beticos have been playing great football this year and are currently in the middle of the table, just five points off of sixth place. Setien has always been a manager that likes to constantly adjust his system and just this season alone his side has utilized eight different formations. The 59-year-old has proven that he can be successful in La Liga, but with the success of Real Betis no one knows if he is interested in a change of scenery. Often seen as a brilliant mind for strategy and the nuances of the game, Setien could offer something unique.
Another name that was linked to Athletic last summer was Argentine Eduardo Berizzo who was doing some fine work while in charge of Celta de Vigo. In the end he joined Sevilla where his side would win 14 of their 27 games under his charge. Sadly, Berizzo was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had to undergo surgery. Sevilla eventually let him go and decided to bring in a new manager, claiming the break up was due to poor form. Berizzo was believed to be the favorite to replace Ernesto Valverde if Athletic did not promote Ziganda so it is expected that his name could be linked with the Lions once again.
Lastly, there is Asier Garitano who seems to be the fan favorite at the moment. As a player, Garitano grew up at Lezama and spent a few years with Bilbao Athletic but never reached the first team. He has been quite successful as a manager and is most well known for what he has accomplished at Leganes. The 48-year-old took over in 2013, when the club was still in the third tier of Spanish football, and immediately earned promotion. After two years in the Segunda Leganes again earned promotion and have been a mainstay in the top flight ever since. Garitano is known for his exciting football and high understanding of the game of football. Take into account his past with Lezama and it makes a lot of sense as to why fans would love to see him take over this summer.
While all of the names above seem to be the ones that will most heavily get talked about if a coaching search does take place this summer, there are a few others that fans have thrown around. Manuel Pellegrini’s name has come up a few times, although he is currently coaching in China and doesn’t seem to fancy a change. Beñat San Jose has also been brought up, but he just took over at Universidad Catolica in Chile. Of course some fans remain hopeful for a return of Marcelo Bielsa, but that also looks highly unlikely.
At the same time, you also can’t rule out a promotion for Bilbao Athletic manager Gaizka Garitano who led Eibar from the third division all the way to the Primera. He does have Primera experience and is being acquainted with Lezama right now. Still, that move may feel too much like Ziganda all over again. In the same line of thinking, Athletic legend Joseba Etxeberria might be someone to keep an eye on. He has risen through the coaching ranks rather quickly and is currently managing CD Tenerife. He dreams of leading Athletic Club one day, but one would assume that he still doesn’t have the experience at this point.
In the end, it does appear as though Athletic will have at least a few names to sort through. Most of them are currently managing other clubs so that would, of course, be a hurdle to overcome. In the meantime Kuko Ziganda will be leading the club for the remainder of the season but all signs point to his departure when the campaign finally comes to an end in a couple of months. With a strong squad, new players coming in, and Aritz Aduriz not getting any younger it is vital for President Josu Urrutia to find the right fit as quickly as possible.