Julen Guerrero Discusses Athletic’s Need To Balance Growth While Holding To Their Unique Values
Julen Guerrero is a living legend at Athletic Club and a media personality that always seems prepared to talk about his boyhood team. He understands the identity and philosophy as well as anyone, but also has a good grasp on where football is going as a whole and how the Lions can keep up. Earlier this week he sat down with Robert Basic of El Correo to discuss how last season played out, but admitted that there have been plenty of bad campaigns in the past. It is all about how you rebound from it.
“In the 120 years of the club there have always been seasons in which expectations were not met. Not every year has been good and there have been seasons of transition. Looking at history, tradition, and the team…the demand is high. The budget is what it is and the fans expect what they expect. The season went awry at the beginning and it was difficult to straighten out. The team didn’t have the resources to turn it around. The team struggled to find an identity. At the beginning there was an illusion, but Athletic didn’t know how to handle matches, especially in the center of the field.”
Most of the blame for last year’s disappointing campaign has been placed on manager Kuko Ziganda, who was relieved of his duties after the final game. When asked if the responsibility should be shared, Guerrero admitted that he thinks there were more factors at play than what fans have been focused on.
“I think the blame should be shared. The coach tries to put together a system, but if the players are not comfortable with it then it is important to have a conversation with the coach. I don’t know if that happened or not. The commitment is a mutual thing and the feeling outside the club is that the team did not know how to fix the problems. It didn’t look like there was a connection between the coach and the squad, or some of the players at least. Kuko received a lot of criticism and faced most of it alone. Athletic is a different club and should work in a different way. The commitment has to be shared by everyone, when things go well and especially when they go wrong.”
One criticism that has been directed at the club over the last few years is the lack of signings. Athletic went over two years without bringing in a new player, but have since announced the arrivals of Ander Capa, Cristian Ganea, and Dani García. Guerrero understands the negative impact this can have, but believes there aren’t many strong options on the market. There is one player he would to see the club sign, though.
“I can’t say that a lack of signings is the cause for last season. In previous seasons the team played at a high level and kept qualifying for Europe, which may have made everything seem fine at the time. There has been clear concern over the offense, especially considering Aduriz’s age. We will have to see how the kids from Bilbao Athletic get along and, if they don’t do well, we’ll have to trust in Muniain and Iñaki Williams. There aren’t many options outside the club. There is a lot of talk about Mikel Merino who plays in the midfield and the possibility of a return of Llorente, but I don’t know how that would be received. If I could sign one player it would be Mikel Oyarzabal. He can score goals and provide assists, while also helping on defense. His signing would be complicated because Real Sociedad would defend him.”
Guerrero was asked how Athletic can keep up in today’s game that is so focused on money. He made it clear that the club must grow their brand on an international level and continue to be a reference point for kids in the Basque country to want to come and play at the San Mamés in the future. There will always be a danger of losing talented players, but the former Lezama graduate believes that players will stay at Athletic if they are taught the right things at a young age.
“The problem is that clubs are growing a lot and Athletic is closed off to many things. You have to know how to grow in football while still keeping your values. The world is an open brand and Athletic can’t just grow in Bizkaia or the Basque Country. It must grow the brand internationally. There is always a danger of a young player being tempted to leave. It is a dangerous thing, but if you work with these kids the right way I have no doubt that in the end they will choose to stay at the club. The kids can see Athletic as a winning club who can compete with anybody. Part of developing players is teaching them how to be winners.”
In closing, Guerrero was asked for his opinion on new manager Eduardo Berizzo. He had kind words for Toto, highlighting his time at Celta Vigo, and seems to be excited about the style of play that he will be bringing to the San Mamés. Guerrero also made it a point to say that fans have to trust Berizzo, especially after going through a rough season under Kuko Ziganda.
“He did very well at Celta. He left good feelings both with the fans at with the club. He is a dear person in Vigo. Due to his illness he could not do his best work in Sevilla and lost his job, but he can do things very well. The fans have to trust him. He is going to meet with everybody at the club and players are going to deliver. The fact that he won’t have to coach in Europe will allow him the time to work calmly and outline his team and style of play, which can be very exciting.”
The Eduardo Berizzo era will officially being in one month when preseason training kicks off on 9 July. The players are currently on vacation, but the new coach is hard at work preparing for the upcoming season. As things stand right now, he will have 33 players under his direction next month which means that difficult decisions will have to be made. At this point, fans are just ready to put last season in the past and that means that Toto is already carrying expectations on his shoulders.