From Relegation Battle To Champions League Contention: Athletic’s Yearlong Journey Under Gaizka Garitano
Athletic Club was in a dark place just one year ago. On the morning of 4 December fans awoke after an embarrassing loss to Levante the night before and the team in the midst of a relegation battle. Eduardo Berizzo, the Marcelo Bielsa disciple, was supposed to invoke the massive success of his predecessor but in reality the club was cast into a living nightmare.
The defeat at the hands of Levante was the final straw. After winning the opening game of the season at San Mames, the Lions then went 13 straight games without a victory. It was a club record that nobody wanted and the one with which Berizzo will always be synonymous. With Athletic sitting 18th in the La Liga table the club had to make a change and did so by promoting then Bilbao Athletic manager Gaizka Garitano to lead the team.
Garitano immediately brought stability and installed a defensive-focused system into the team that was very similar to the football historically played by Athletic and success quickly followed. The Zurigorri would win their first match under the new manager, a 1-0 victory over Girona, which put an end to the dreadful winless streak. Throughout the following months Athletic quickly raced up the table and even had opportunities to qualify for the Europa League in the final weeks of the campaign.
The success under Garitano came as a result of several factors. To begin with, the manager brought in a style of football that best utilized the strengths in the squad and the players have spoke openly about how comfortable they have been in the system. In addition, Garitano’s demand to take the season one game at a time and not set long-term goals has kept the team extremely well-focused.
Considering that Garitano was able to make Athletic one of the strongest teams in La Liga after taking over in the middle of the season, there was confidence that the Mister could take the team to an even higher level with the entire summer to prepare. The manager delivered. Athletic defeated Barcelona in dramatic fashion to kick off the campaign and would go on to have one of the best starts to a season in club history.
Eventually, the honeymoon would come to an end. Athletic fell out of the top seven during a five-game winless streak and Garitano went from being last season’s savior to under fire for the first time. Tactics were brought into questions, doubts were raised, and some went as far to say that Garitano’s tenure was in danger. However, the team continued to work hard and remained committed to the Mister’s system. Garitano made necessary adjustments and the brewing storm quickly subsided.
Athletic turned things around and are now in the midst of a five-game unbeaten streak with three consecutive wins. The Lions boast the best defense in La Liga, having conceded just 9 goals through the opening 15 games, and have the league’s best record at home. A mere 365 days ago Athletic were drowning in the relegation zone and today the Zurigorri sit 4th in the table.
Since the managerial change Athletic have earned the fourth-most points in La Liga and the success is no accident. Garitano’s defined system, squad management, ability to adapt, and mentality have been remarkable and in just one year he has taken a team broken and starved for confidence and turned Athletic into a serious contender for Champions League qualification. With one of the most talented squads in recent memory at his disposal, including a great balance of youth and experience, Gaizka Garitano’s next year at Athletic could bring even more success and excitement.