Selecting The Athletic Club All-Decade Team
The year is coming to a close and with it the end of the decade. There have been many ups and downs for Athletic over the past 10 years, moments of pure joy and others filled with tears. The Lions made a number of finals, won the Spanish Super Cup, qualified for Europe several times, battled relegation, welcomed new faces, and said goodbye to a handful of legends.
Overall, it was a successful decade for the club and one that will be looked back upon with fondness and pride. To celebrate the last 10 years of Athletic football, Inside Athletic has selected the following All-Decade Team for the Zurigorri. As a rule, players are only allowed to be selected for positions they actually played and their level of performances for the club throughout the decade.
GOALKEEPER – GORKA IRAIZOZ
The goalkeeping position is very special at Athletic. With legends like José Ángel Iribar having graced San Mamés, others who have followed have had big shoes, or gloves, to fill. Unai Simón has done a fantastic job since arriving in the first team and Kepa Arrizabalaga was a star before him. While both may be considered more talented players, neither achieved the same level of success as Gorka Iraizoz.
Joining Athletic in 2007, Iraizoz would go on to make 392 appearances for the club while also wearing the captain’s armband. The goalkeeper was a vocal leader at the back, made countless outstanding saves, and was the epitome of professionalism who always put the club first.
Iraizoz was a key figure at Athletic until leaving the club in 2017 and helped lead the team to two Copa del Rey finals, one Europa League final, and was the starting goalkeeper when the team won the 2015 Spanish Super Cup. Unai Simón could go on to have an even better career in the end, but no other goalkeeper matched Gorka Iraizoz’s consistency, leadership, and success in the past decade.
RIGHT-BACK – ANDONI IRAOLA
Not only the best right-back of the last decade, Andoni Iraola is widely considered the greatest to ever play the position for Athletic. The Usurbil native grew up at Lezama and would go on to make 510 appearances for the club while also serving as captain and leading the team to two Copa del Rey finals as well as a Europa League final. Oscar De Marcos then Ander Capa have filled the void following the legend’s exit, but Iraola played at the highest level for the club.
Though in the twilight of his career, Iraola was still the club’s best right-back of the last 10 years and was a difficult player to replace once he left in the summer of 2015. Oscar De Marcos transitioned to the position after the departure and spent several seasons as the starter before eventually losing his place to Ander Capa. Iraola’s longevity, leadership, example, and quality in attack and defense set him apart as one of the greatest to ever wear the Zurigorri colors.
Iraola wore the captain’s armband in his final game for the club in 2015 where the Basques fell 3-1 to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final. The previous match, during Iraola’s last league appearance, he turned down an offer from Aritz Aduriz to take a penalty kick in favor of letting the striker convert the chance for the games first goal. Athletic would go on to win 4-0 in the captain’s final match at San Mamés.
RIGHT CENTER-BACK – YERAY
Athletic have fielded a number of center-backs on the right side of the defense but it was never a position of true consistency the way it’s become since Yeray arrived at the first team. A product of Lezama, Yeray was promoted in 2016 and was an immediate star. Two separate battles with cancer limited his appearances though his impact is undeniable.
Yeray has played at a very high level over the past few years and has been one of La Liga’s top defenders. His excellent positioning, tackling, timing, and aerial ability, and impressive reading of the game have always stood out and the 24-year-old has continued to improve every single season.
Being called up to the Spanish National Team and consistently performing at a world class level see Yeray named to the all-decade team above others such as Xabi Etxeita and Carlos Gurpegui. Athletic have been blessed with great center-backs over the decade and the argument can be made that Yeray has been the very best. In fact, it’s entirely possible that he could be named to this team next decade as well.
LEFT CENTER-BACK – AYMERIC LAPORTE
The Zurigorri have been blessed with a trio of excellent left center-backs throughout the decade. Fernando Amorebieta helped lead the team to a Europa League and Copa del Rey final before Aymeric Laporte took his place and quickly established himself as one of the best defenders in Europe. After his departure, Athletic signed Iñigo Martinez who many fans would argue has been even better in his nearly two years with the club.
Ultimately, Laporte spent the most time at San Mamés playing at the highest level. The Lezama product was a leader both on and on the pitch, often making massive tackles and challenges, and even scored a few big goals for the team. Even the way Laporte left the club was view in a better light than others as he was open and forthcoming about his future endeavors and remained close to the club who gave him his start.
Laporte was a key figure in the team that lifted the Spanish Super Cup and helped take Athletic to the Copa del Rey final the previous season. The defender was also named to the La Liga Team of the Year in 2013 and was one of the very best in his position before leaving Athletic for Manchester City in 2018 where he also ensured that the Lions would receive a large compensation for his exit.
LEFT-BACK – YURI BERCHICHE
When Asier Del Horno left Athletic for Chelsea in 2005 it would take the club nearly 10 years to eventually find a proper replacement. Jon Aurtenetxe appeared to be the answer in the early part of the decade, but the young left-back was unable to sustain his level and, though still only 27-years-old, hasn’t played football in a top league for a number of years.
Mikel Balenziaga’s return in 2013 proved to be the move that the club had been waiting for. After staring with Real Valladolid the Lezama product was brought back to San Mamés where he immediately won the starting role and would go on to feature heavily for the team for five years before eventually losing his place to Yuri Berchiche. Had that not happened, Balenziaga would surely be the left-back of the decade but there is no denying the extraordinary quality that Berchiche has shown in just a year and a half.
Berchiche has not only been the best at his position for Athletic since Del Horno, he’s been one of the top players in Europe since his move to San Mamés last summer. The 29-year-old’s ability to defend well and contribute heavily in attack has made him an invaluable player for Athletic. The club has been fortunate to have two great left-backs throughout the decade, though Berchiche has simply played at a much higher level in his short time.
CENTRAL MIDFIELDER – JAVI MARTINEZ
When Javi Martinez was signed from Osasuna in 2006 big things were expected of him and he delivered. Though he would only represent Athletic through 2012 before leaving for Bayern, he solidified himself as one of the very best defensive or holding midfielders to ever wear the Zurigorri colors.
Martinez featured heavily as a midfielder until 2011 when he was moved to center-back, though his impact as the team’s engine was undeniable. The Osasuna product protected the back line, contributed goals, and helped lead the team to a Europa League and Copa del Rey final before his departure. When Martinez eventually left the club under disappointing circumstances, he was widely considered one of the best defensive midfielder in the world entering the prime of his career.
Mikel San José benefitted the most from the departure as he became the team’s starting defensive midfielder and would go on to score many important goals and even receive a call from the Spanish National Team. Having made nearly 400 appearances for the club, San José also deserves recognition for his valuable contributions, though neither he nor anyone else has been able to match the level of Javi Martinez.
CENTRAL MIDFIELD – ANDER HERRERA
Ander Herrera joined Athletic in 2011 and made an immediate impact by becoming one of the team’s most important players. The Zaragoza product featured in a double pivot early on but would eventually be used as more of an attacking midfielder by Ernesto Valverde. Herrera excelled in both roles. One of the most creative Athletic players of the decade and an exceptional passer, Herrera was often the spark that ignited the attack.
In his three years with the Lions, Herrera played a key role in helping the team make it to a Europa League and Copa del Rey finals as well as qualifying for the Champions League in his final season. Leaving for Manchester United in 2014 was relatively unexpected as the midfielder had vowed to stay at San Mamés just days earlier and the team would struggle to replace him the following campaign.
Herrera’s early exit from Athletic was a case of what could have been, but his contributions while playing for the Lions was outstanding. As one of the best midfielders of his generations, the current PSG star offered things that no other player has throughout the decade.
ATTACKING MIDFIELDER – RAUL GARCIA
Raúl García was easily Athletic’s biggest signing of the decade and one of the most influential players. Joining the Lions in 2015 from Atlético Madrid, some considered the midfielder to be on a declined but his career was quickly revitalized at San Mamés where he has gone on to make 157 appearances and score 57 goals.
In a sense, Rulo was brought in to finally fill the void left by Ander Herrera. However, García is a much different player and changed the dynamic of the team entirely. While not the same type of creative presence behind the striker, García has been a constant goalscoring threat and physical presence in attack and defense. Apart from Aritz Aduriz, no other forward has been as dangerous for the Zurigorri during the decade.
By signing Raúl García Athletic gained experience, leadership, and immense quality that was missing from the squad. Now 33-years-old, Rulo is still playing at an extremely high level and has no plans to hang up his boots anytime soon. The deal for García, reportedly somewhere between €9-12 million, has been an absolute steal for Athletic who added one of the most outstanding players of the decade for a minuscule fee.
LEFT-WING – IKER MUNIAIN
Iker Muniain made his first team debut just before the start of the decade and has gone on to become one of the best players in the team and a living legend. Fans have had the joy of seeing the Lezama product grow up before their very eyes as Muniain burst onto the scene as an exciting 16-year-old who has now amassed 398 appearances while also being handed the captain’s armband.
Despite suffering two separate ACL injuries, Muniain was a huge factor in Athletic’s runs to the Europa League and two Copa del Rey finals. While he missed the 2015 Spanish Super Cup against Barcelona due to injury, Muniain played a big role in helping the team reach the two-legged tournament and tattooed a picture of the trophy on his leg in celebration of the victory. From boy to man, starlet to icon, Muniain can be considered the face of Athletic Club over the past decade.
No other left-winger has had anywhere near the same level of impact or success as Muniain who spent the large majority of the decade as the starter at the position. In recent years the 27-year-old has excelled in more of an attacking midfield role, though the Lions have found it difficult to replace his production out wide. Signing a contract renewal last year without a release clause with one of the biggest moments for the club over the past 10 years and showed the incredible loyalty and commitment that Iker Muniain has for Athletic.
RIGHT-WING – MARKEL SUSAETA
The argument could be made that Iñaki Williams has been the club’s best right-winger of the decade, though he has also been used heavily at the striker position. After making his first team debut in 2014 La Pantera has now reached 223 appearances for Athletic, scoring 53 goals, and setting the club record for most consecutive matches played in La Liga. His pace has been unrivaled, but overtaking a legend isn’t easy.
Markel Susaeta spent nearly the entire decade as the team’s starting right-winger and left the club over the summer having climbed to 5th all-time on the Athletic appearances list with 507 matches. While his performances diminished in his final years, Susaeta was one of the premier wingers in La Liga through a large portion of the decade and attracted interest from clubs such as Manchester United which he rejected in favor of staying at his boyhood club.
An excellent crosser of the ball and free-kick expert, Susaeta provided 88 assists in his 12 seasons with the club while also scoring 56 goals. The Eibar native was yet another instrumental piece of the team that reached the Europa League and Copa del Rey finals and lifted the Spanish Super Cup in 2015. Markel Susaeta finished his career wearing the captain’s armband with the universal love and adoration of his teammates who all referred to him as one of the best to ever step on the field at San Mamés.
STRIKER – ARITZ ADURIZ
Not much was expected from Aritz Aduriz when the striker made his return to Athletic in 2012 for the second time. Joining the club as a 31-year-old from Valencia, many considered his time in football to be coming to an end but Aduriz’s career was just getting started. The Lezama product was initially brought back to replace a departing Fernando Llorente and would do so much more.
Aduriz improved with age and became the team’s most important player of the decade by leading Athletic to big wins with huge goals. Now 38-years-old and retiring at the end of the current season, Aduriz has reached 400 appearances for the club and is 6th on the all-time scoring list with 172 goals. Zorro, as he is lovingly known, has been one of La Liga’s top striker of the past 10 years and arguably the most feared forward when inside the box. Aduriz finishes the decade having scored the 6th most goals in La Liga during this timeframe and most of those coming with Athletic.
For his goalscoring ability, leadership, and pure quality Aduriz stands alone at the top of the Athletic mountain for the decade. Little did he know when he returned to his boyhood club seven years ago that he would go on to have one of the best runs of form in club history. When Aritz Aduriz says goodbye to football in the summer he will hang up his boots alongside other legendary Athletic strikers like Telmo Zarra, Bata, and Dani Ruiz-Bazán.
MANAGER – ERNESTO VALVERDE
Marcelo Bielsa was the injection of intensity and excitement that Athletic needed when he arrived at the club in 2011 under new president Josu Urrutia. El Loco would produce some of the most exciting football ever played at San Mamés while also taking the team to the Europa League and Copa del Rey finals in 2012. However, his success was short-lived as the players struggled to keep up with the demand.
A managerial change was made in 2013 which saw former club forward Ernesto Valverde return to Athletic for a second stint during which he brought about one of the most successful periods in recent history. Txingurri led the team to four straight years of European qualification, one being the Champions League, as well as the 2015 Spanish Super Cup title with a 5-1 aggregate win over Barcelona which was the club’s first trophy in 31 years.
When Valverde left Athletic in 2017 there was great sadness and with good reason. Valverde had coached the Lions in 306 matches, a club record, including 288 league games and 42 European fixtures, both records as well. Txingurri also left the club with 140 wins, second only to Javier Clemente’s 141. Ernesto Valverde was not only the greatest Athletic coach of the decade, but led the Basque giants to the most successful period at San Mamés in over 30 years.