Athletic Are Finally Loosening The Purse Strings, What It Means For The Club’s Future
Athletic Club sent shockwaves throughout La Liga in January when they signed Iñigo Martinez from Real Sociedad. Not only had the Lions lured away the captain of their biggest rival, they had also shattered their record transfer fee by paying his €32 million release clause. In today’s game it seems unbelievable that such a price is the record for a club like Athletic, but until they signed Martinez their previous highest fee came in 1997 when they signed Roberto Ríos from Real Betis for €12 million.
Over the last few decades Athletic have been notoriously frugal with their spending. The club has missed out on several top targets because they were unwilling to pay what it took to secure the signings, but that finally seems to be changing. Of course, it is important to put things in perspective. When Athletic signed Martinez in January they had just lost Aymeric Laporte to Manchester City and were sitting on €65 million. The Real Sociedad captain was the only player capable of filling the hole so the transfer made sense. The argument could be made that it was a one-time occurrence, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Since January’s record signing Athletic have been loosening the purse strings. They heavily pursued Newcastle’s Mikel Merino, who would have cost somewhere in the €15 million range, although he looks set to join Real Sociedad. At the same time, the Lions announced the signing of Yuri Berchiche on Monday in a deal with PSG that could see Athletic pay as much as €25 million if certain variables are met. Of course they could simply be trying to spend the rest of their Laporte money the best way possible, but sources around the club have been clear about the fact that there has been a slight change in ideology when it comes to chasing talent. But what does all of this mean for the club’s future?
Starting with the negative impact, Athletic are aware that this could set a precedent moving forward. In fact, this is the biggest reason why the Lions have been so hesitant to spend big because they don’t want other clubs feeling as if they can demand higher prices for their Basque players when Athletic are trying to negotiate. With Athletic’s unique policy they are always negotiating at a disadvantage and they really don’t want to make that more difficult than it already is.
The signings of Martinez and Berchiche will show neighboring Basques clubs that Athletic are willing to put the money on the table for a player they really want and that could lead to more difficult negotiations down the road. This could see clubs try to place bigger release clauses in contracts, but at the end of the day it will still be up to the players to accept or decline offers while deciding their own futures. It may be a dangerous game to play, but players will still hold all the cards.
As far as the positives go, these two moves at least show that Athletic are willing to do what it takes to sign top talent when possible. Heading into the future the Lions look more willing to spend for players that they used to miss out on which would be a huge change in trend that could lead to more success. Still, this doesn’t mean that Athletic are going to spend big for every good Basque player, as evidenced by their refusal to overpay for Mikel Merino and landing Dani García for free. This simply means that they will entertain the idea of doing so when a player is at the level and deserving of the high price tag.
Lezama is, and always will be, the pillar on which the club is built. Athletic are not going to stop putting their focus on youth development, but they are showing the willingness to supplement the team with great talent from outside when necessary. Fans still shouldn’t expect the club to spent a ludicrous amount of money every summer, however top targets will seem more realistic down the road. At the end of the day Athletic appear to have grasped the understanding that signing the best Basque players is not cheap and they are now open to the idea of loosening the purse strings when the situation calls for it.
Truth be told, nobody really knows what is going to happen in the future. For now the most important thing is to realize that Athletic have done a phenomenal job of signing players over the last year and have put together a strong squad for new manager Eduardo Berizzo going into his first season at the San Mamés. The future is as bright as ever and the expectations are growing.