How Athletic Club Rediscovered Their Identity Under Gaizka Garitano
Gaizka Garitano is making history at Athletic Club. Since taking over as the first team manager on 4 December he has overseen 7 La Liga games and has yet to taste defeat. He’s only the fourth manager in the club’s rich history to go this long without a loss in his debut and the first ever to do so while not trailing on the scoreboard a single time. Garitano has given the Lions new life and it’s all because of a culture change and a return to the historic way of playing Athletic football.
Promoting Garitano was a simple choice for Athletic. He knew the club well, having grown up at Lezama, and already had a great relationship with many of the players. The 43-year-old was well aware of the Athletic identity and the changes he made reflect that understanding. Garitano’s style of play should be familiar to Athletic fans because it is strikingly similar to what the club has normally done for decades. The emphasis is placed on being strong defensively, not taking unnecessary risks, and direct attacking mainly down the wings. Garitano has used a traditional 4-2-3-1, much like the formation that brought success under Ernesto Valverde, but there are some differences that are paying off in a big way.
Often the 4-2-3-1 will shift into a 4-2-2, usually when defending, which helps Athletic be more organized and not give up space. Organization has been a huge part of the team’s success with players like Iñigo Martinez praising how it has taken the pressure off of individual marking and allows the team to work together to win back the ball. The Basques have managed 4 clean sheets in their 7 league games and haven’t conceded more than one goal a single time.
The success of the defense isn’t just because of the back line, it’s been a combined effort. Players like Iñigo Córdoba, Oscar De Marcos, and Ibai Gómez are constantly tracking back to help the fullbacks who are then able to squeeze closer to the box and take away even more space. Aggressive pressing has led to turnovers and it’s the energy that the team is playing with that is making such a big difference. The midfield has also done a great job, especially Dani García who regularly drops in between the center-backs to eliminate passing lanes or give his teammates another option to pass to when they have the ball. His positioning has been an invaluable asset.
In Garitano’s system there isn’t much of a focus on possession. When Athletic do have the ball they want to do something with it and attack quickly. At times the team looks to play long balls up to the forwards but the general goal is to work the ball out wide and move down the wings before sending it into the box with a cross or low pass. The wingers and fullbacks play important roles by working together and somethings even overlapping to pull defenders out of position and create chances.
For the most part Athletic have thrived while playing this direct style of counter attacking football, but they have other options as well. The team’s ability to cross the ball into the box can cause a lot of problems for defenders as can their strength at set pieces. Iker Muniain has also played sensational football through the middle of the field and can cut through defensive lines with his dribbling and passing. The Basques have several different ways of scoring goals, but it all starts with an aggressive and organized defense.
Garitano’s Athletic look strikingly similar to the traditional Athletic which is a testament to his coaching ability. When he took over it was obvious that he had a clear and recognizable plan from day one and the players immediately responded well. He’s used their strengths, mitigated weaknesses, and the team is playing at a very high level. The manager’s tactics have had a massive impact on the success over the past two months, however it’s the culture change that is most worthy of praise.
When Garitano was promoted back in December the team was on a 13 game winless streak and drowning in the relegation zone with no hope, motivation, or confidence. In every game the players looked like they were just waiting for something to go wrong and it often did. Garitano changed that very quickly by introducing a system that the players understood and that got the best out of everyone individually and collectively. With every passing game that confidence has grown and now this is a completely different team mentally.
Many have said that Athletic have been reborn under Garitano and in a way that’s true. However, a better analysis would be that the Zurigorri have rediscovered their true identity and have returned to being the Athletic of old. Every player knows his role and expectations, the team is playing together, and the system is bringing results. Garitano has instilled confidence while always reminding his squad to take it one game at a time and to never rest because the job isn’t complete. There are still a lot of games left this season, but Athletic are finally starting to live up to their potential and if they continue at this level it will be an exciting finish to what was a disastrous year just two months ago.