Breaking Down The Major Changes Coming To Athletic Club This Summer
For four consecutive years Athletic Club enjoyed European competition and were one of the best teams in all of La Liga. The Lions played tough football, were organized, and the San Mamés was a fortress that even the best clubs struggled to overcome. This season all of that has changed. Kuko Ziganda took over as manager after Ernesto Valverde left for Barcelona and the Basque giants have fallen from grace in an unbelievable way. Now, with Josu Urrutia entering the final year of his term as club President, the perfect storm is growing for major changes to take place this summer.
To begin with, Ziganda will not be staying. It has been clear for a while that he would be relieved of his duties this summer with some wondering how he has even made it this long. The manager does have a great relationship with Urrutia and that respect and friendship alone might be the only thing that has allowed him to remain on the bench. That being said, he won’t survive the summer. Athletic are in advanced negotiations with Eduardo Berizzo to take over when the season ends and, barring some unforeseen circumstance, the Argentine will become the new manager. In fact, Berizzo was actually the only other manager considered besides Ziganda last summer so things have really come full circle.
A few other clubs have been showing interest in Berizzo, but the Argentine has reportedly already told them that he plans to sign with Athletic. He loves the club’s identity, model, structure, and focus on youth development. The two sides are still negotiating wage demands, but sources say that both expect a deal to be reached with ease. Berizzo wants to coach Athletic and the Basques definitely want him to take over. Bringing in an established manager is a very big deal for Athletic, but it is just the very beginning of changes that will take place this summer.
Sporting Director José Maria Amorrortu is also said to be weighing up the decision to leave the club despite still having a contract through 2019. Many fans are not satisfied with the work that he has done for the first team, but there is no denying the talent that he has brought into Lezama over the years. To take it a step further, Amorrortu was the one who wanted to hire Berizzo over Ziganda last summer but was trumped by President Urrutia and the board who wanted to reward Kuko for his excellent time overseeing Bilbao Athletic. Amorrortu is at the stage in his life where he can retire and there is also the belief that he doesn’t want to get roped into another Presidential Election which will take place next summer.
As far as the squad is concerned, fans should be prepared to see a lot of changes take place. To begin with, Ander Capa and Cristian Ganea have already been signed and will join this summer, as will Eibar Captain Dani Garcia who is out of contract in June and has reportedly agreed to terms with Athletic. Although Urrutia hasn’t revealed whether or not he will run for President again, the belief is that he won’t. He has always been a proponent of Presidents only serving two terms which leads many to believe that this is his final summer in the role. With that being said, sources say that this could be the summer of spending at Athletic Club because Urrutia wants to leave fans with plenty to be happy about before he leaves his post.
With an eye on spending big this summer and overhauling the squad, Athletic have their sights set on a few big names. Ander Herrera, Asier Illarramendi, and Yuri Berchiche top the list of dream signings, while Mikel Merino is also a major target that many expect to be sealed this summer. Athletic and Newcastle reached an agreement on the transfer of Merino in January before Rafa Benitez vetoed the deal due to not having a replacement. Now the two clubs are set to meet again in June to work out the specifics with both sides expecting the transfer to take place. Merino has already agreed to personal terms with Athletic, but fans will understandably not get their hopes up until something is officially announced. Osasuna winger Kike Barja is also a target this summer with Athletic needing to decide if they want to pay his €4 million release clause.
That leaves Herrera, Illarramendi, and Berchiche as the last names to be worked out. Athletic have already entered into negotiations with PSG for Berchiche and the French giants are said to be asking €30 million for the left-back. That is a fee that Urrutia isn’t ready to pay and he is hoping to work the fee down to somewhere near €20 million. Still, it will be up to new manager Thomas Tuchel to decide on whether or not he will be willing to part with the 28-year-old. Signing Berchiche would be a huge addition to Athletic that would immediately improve the defense.
Herrera and Illarramendi are interesting cases. Reports in England claim that Herrera will be a casualty this summer despite having a year left on his contract, but there is no way to confirm if that is really the case. If so, reports suggest that his first choice would be to return to Athletic. The Lions contacted Herrera back in January and told him that if he wants to come back to the San Mamés they are prepared to go all out in order to make the signing happen. Likewise, Illarramendi knows that Athletic are heavily interested in him. The Real Sociedad star has a release clause of €35 million and the Lions are willing to pay it if the 28-year-old wants to make the switch. In both cases money is not an issue for Athletic, but the decision will have to be made by the players.
With a few new faces already set to join this summer, the current squad will suffer casualties. As of right now, there are currently 25 players under contract for next season and not all of them can stay. Enric Saborit and Kike Sola will see their deals expire in June and there are no plans for extension. The first situation that must be decided is in the midfield. If Dani Garcia and Mikel Merino are coming this summer, not even taking into account Herrera or Illarramendi, a few players will have to leave. It looks certain that Mikel Vesga will leave the club on loan or at least on a permanent deal with a buy-back option. That leaves Beñat, Ander Iturraspe, Mikel San José, and Mikel Rico in precarious situations. Meanwhile, Unai Lopez has enjoyed a spectacular season on loan with Rayo Vallecano and has arguably earned a place back in the team. The hope is that Rayo will earn promotion and the 22-year-old will be able to stay there on loan again next year.
Looking at the rest of the squad there will have to be some difficult decisions made. With Capa coming into the team it could be difficult for Iñigo Lekue to play regular minutes. The 24-year-old could also be allowed to leave on loan, perhaps to a newly promoted club, in order to continue competing in the Primera. Likewise, it looks certain that Sabin Merino will also be making his exit although there is a much better chance that he could leave permanently. Goalkeeper Alex Remiro will also be coming back from loan with Huesca where he has proven that he is ready to take the next step in his career. Iago Herrerín is still viewed as the backup to Kepa Arrizabalaga, but that isn’t a sure thing. Like Unai Lopez, Athletic are hoping that Huesca can earn promotion and keep hold of Remiro on loan for another season while he develops in the top flight. All of these decisions will ultimately come down to Eduardo Berizzo.
The last thing that needs to be mentioned regarding this summer is that a few starlets from Bilbao Athletic will get the chance to train with the first team. This doesn’t mean that they will be promoted, but that possibility is always there. Gorka Guruzeta, Iñigo Vicente, and Andoni Lopez will all be given that chance, but there are some others who are still waiting to find out. Iker Undabarrena and Peru Nolaskoain could join them, while Unai Bilbao, Iñigo Muñoz, Asier Benito, and Jesus Areso are unknowns at this point. Having so many promising players coming through Lezama is definitely a great thing and it will be up to Berizzo to make decisions on what will happen with those players. The best case scenario is Bilbao Athletic earning promotion to the Segunda were a lot of these talented youngsters can compete against much stronger competition without having to leave on loan.
This season has been a huge disappointment but fans really do have a lot to look forward to in the summer. Eduardo Berizzo’s expected arrival should immediately breath life back into the team as will having some new faces to add competition. Wading through the squad departures will be the most interesting thing to watch as the Argentine organizes his team for the upcoming season. If all goes according to plan, the Basque giants should be back competing for European qualification next season but only time will tell how everything will unfold at the San Mamés.