5 Players That Must Step Up For Athletic This Season
The historically poor start to last season should serve as a warning to Athletic. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but when any club isn’t prepared is always leads to disappointment. Sure, the Lions managed to escape the relegation battle but they also fell short of Europe which left many asking What if all summer.
If only Markel Susaeta hadn’t been sent off against Real Betis. If only Athletic could have scored one more goal against Getafe or Real Valladolid. If only one of the several VAR decisions had gone the other way. If only one of the team’s 14 draws had ended in a victory.
If only Athletic would have earned one more point, the Basques would be playing in Europe this season.
The entire team will need to raise its level after going two straight years without qualifying for Europe. A top-seven finish is absolutely mandatory. While every single player needs to step up, there are five specific Lions who must take their game to the next level for Athletic to reach their goals this season.
No Athletic player has been treated as poorly by the fans than Iago Herrerín. The 31-year-old cavalier style of playing goalkeeper and tendency to make mistakes in big moments have seen many turn against him. By the end of the year, San Mamés was calling for Unai Simón and both will compete for the starting role this summer.
Statistically, Herrerín has actually been one of the best keepers in La Liga over the past two years. He bailed the team out of many dangerous situations last season with some big saves and has always been a strong leader at the back. Still, it’s difficult for fans to look past his mistakes. Herrerín needs to step up in a big way this season to silence his critics and if he doesn’t, Simón will be ready to take his place in the lineup.
During his career with Eibar, Dani García was one of the best midfielders in La Liga. It was a big deal when he signed with Athletic last summer and he arrived at San Mamés with the responsibility of bringing structure. When at his best, García was the most influential player on the field and the Lions rarely dropped points. Unfortunately, consistency was an issue for the 29-year-old.
If García can perform at the same level he did with Eibar, and do so consistently, Athletic could make a serious push for the last Champions League spot in the table. The midfielder has all the quality needed to control games and be the team’s engine. Going into his second year at San Mamés, García should be more comfortable and will hopefully show his best form under Garitano.
Work rate can only take a player so far. Constantly running, never tired, and always willing to do what’s asked of him, Iñigo Córdoba is a valuable weapon for the manager. However, playing on the wing demands goals and assists and the 22-year-old has struggled to provide either. Losing possession in important moments has also been an issue.
There’s reason to believe that Córdoba could take a massive step forward this season. Last year he played the best football of his career under Garitano and seems a natural fit for the manager’s system. The talent has always been there and it’s up to the Lezama product to make the improvements that are necessary. Becoming a reliable contributor on the left wing would give Athletic more versatility and over the course of the campaign. Since being promoted two years ago Córdoba has shown flashes of brilliance, but now it’s time for him to shine.
Seeing Alavés battling for a top spot in the La Liga table last season had a lot to do with the excellent form of Ibai Gómez. The winger made an impact on every single match and it came as no surprise when Athletic brought him back to San Mamés in January. The loss was felt by Alavés who quickly fell apart, but Gómez suffered an injury and was in and out of the lineup for Athletic down the stretch.
This season, with an entire summer to prepare, Gómez figures to be the starting right-wing for Athletic. The 29-year-old proved just how great of a player he can be while with Alavés and will be expected to do the same for the Lions. If Gómez can play at the same level this year he could be the key to unlocking Athletic’s attack and making the Basques a force in La Liga.
Iñaki Williams scored a career-high 15 goals last season, but it’s also safe to say that he’s still underperforming. As a youth product, the forward was a star and it was his ability to find the back of the net that saw him called up to the first team back in 2016. Athletic believe that Williams can be the striker of the present and future, but so far his finishing has left much to be desired and he’s capable of being marked out of games when not allowed space to run.
There’s no denying that Iñaki has all the qualities needed to be a world-class striker. He showed it all as a young star at Lezama, but over the past few years he hasn’t had the same killer instinct. The 25-year-old can’t just rely on being the fastest player on the field anymore. Athletic will be much more dangerous going forward if Williams can improve his finishing and doing so could also see him win the Zarra Trophy this season.