Rafa Alkorta “Garitano Is The Ideal Coach For Athletic”
Athletic’s dream of lifting a 25th Copa del Rey title will have to wait. The growing coronavirus pandemic has brought football to a standstill with leagues uncertain as to when the season will resume, or if it even will. The Lions were scheduled to play Real Sociedad in the Cup final on 18 April, but that match has been postponed. Speaking to Javier Ortiz De Lazcano of El Correo over the telephone, Sporting Director Rafa Alkorta is confident that the final will be played.
“The only thing we know is that the final is postponed and that for the moment two weeks of the league have been stopped. We’re waiting. I don’t have any fear of the season not resuming because I haven’t had any communication about it. We only know that it’s been postponed. Everything will depend on how long it takes us to return to the league and what happens with the EUROs. There are two weeks of the league suspended and then an international break, but everything can go longer. The scenarios must be analyzed as the situation progresses.”
Nothing is certain in this unprecedented time, but Alkorta made it clear that playing the final behind closed doors isn’t something that anyone wants to happen. For now, selecting a reschedule is impossible with things constantly changing in the country.
“I hope the final is played. The season should end with the league and the Cup, but I think it’s unfeasible to play a final without the fans because it’s a high match for all fans. None of us want to see that. My opinion is that an event like this, a Cup final, has to be played with fans in the stands. We’re waiting for the evolution of the situation. What we are clear about is that we want to play the final and that it cannot be played without our fans. I imagine that La Real think the same.”
Many have suggested that EURO2020 be pushed back to next summer to allow domestic leagues to finish their seasons. Alkorta isn’t sure what will happen, but says club football should be the priority.
“We must analyze all the possibilities, but bearing in mind that the main thing is health. It’s early to know what is going to happen, but I am in favor of finishing the competition and looking for ways to do that. Ours priority is the League and the Cup and we must do everything possible, whenever the health authorities allow it, to finish them.”
So far, no one from Athletic has tested positive for coronavirus and training has been canceled until 30 March at the earliest. The players will be following guidelines to stay in shape at home in hopes of football returning quickly.
“At the moment we have no communication that there is any case of coronavirus at Lezama. We have suspended training and the last few days there have been very few people at Lezama, but we are aware that this can affect anyone. There will be no training and players have been given training plans to follow at home. The plans are very comprehensive. At this point in the season I don’t think the players will lose shape. In the case that does happen then it would happen for every team so the situation would be even all around.”
Despite the stoppage, Alkorta says the players are handling the situation well. The team was in a good dynamic before football was suspended but the medical staff helped the players prepare for the time away.
“I don’t see fear in the players. I see sadness because it’s difficult to have to stop when they were in a good moment and when there was already a countdown to the Cup final, but it’s an issue that goes beyond sport. Doctors and epidemiologists have spoken to the players and they are very conscientious.”
The conversation then turned to the upcoming summer transfer window. It’s very possible that Athletic will not sign any new players with Alkorta highlighting the importance of continuing to development talent at Lezama.
“It’s because it’s difficult to sign anyone. Our market is getting smaller and the clauses are higher. Our mission since we took over is to have strong youth teams to be able to live from Lezama. Lezama has to get stronger and stronger because every year we are going to have to live more from Lezama. We’re still looking at players and have reports, but there are footballers with whom we no longer have access.”
At many clubs, not signing any new players would be met with frustration from the fans. It’s different at Athletic. Fans get immense joy at seeing youth players promoted to the first team which will likely happen again this summer.
“We don’t know if there will be reinforcements in the summer. We have reinforcements at Bilbao Athletic, that’s for sure. Any player who can wear the red and white is in our sights, but we haven’t made any plans. The fans should have the same or more joy when a boy from Lezama joins the first team. When I was a fan there was no better news for me than a young player coming up. I’m the first person that wants to bring reinforcements, but this is Athletic and sometimes we can’t pay certain clauses or certain salaries. We have limits that we must work within.”
When asked about Athletic’s decision to not sign Fernando Llorente last summer Alkorta gave the same answer that was provided back then. “Llorente could play with us, but a bet was made to continue with Aduriz and we also had Kodro and Villalibre,” he answered. “I think it would be very difficult for Llorente to come back. He’s a great player but also has a lot of mileage. It’s very difficult even for Aduriz.”
On the other hand, Athletic have regularly been linked with moves for Javi Martinez and Ander Herrera in the upcoming window. Alkorta was careful to point out that both are still under contract for next season and revealed that the club has not taken any steps towards pursuing those transfers.
“With Javi Martinez we’d have to talk next year to see if we are interested. Right now we have an overbooking in the middle of the field so I don’t see it for this year. When he visited Lezama we didn’t talk about his return. Ander (Herrera) is another who has a contract. It would be a dream for all players who have left to return, but we have to be realists. I’m not closing the door on anyone, I went back. The door is open for all of those who have left.”
Torino winger Alex Berenguer is another possible target for Athletic. “Yes, I’ve followed Berenguer,” admitted Alkorta. “I’ve watched Torino matches, but we don’t know how much he would cost. We haven’t done anything in that regard and he has two more years left on his contract. It would be another complicated operation.”
Alkorta was then asked about Espanyol’s pursuit of Ibai Gómez back in January. The Sporting Director confirmed that Athletic were approached with interest in the winger, but explained that he and Garitano turned down the idea in order to keep the squad strong for the second half of the season.
“We knew that Abelardo had spoken to Ibai. Rufete called me and told me that they wanted Ibai. I said that I would speak to Garitano and he would tell me what he wanted to do. We concluded that it would weaken the squad. The next day I told Rufete that Ibai wan’t playing regularly, but that he’s a good player who can give us things. I don’t know about the summer. We’d have to sit down with him. I know he will give us a lot until the end of the season, but if a player wants to leave we will have to talk about it.”
While it will be difficult for Athletic to sign anyone in the upcoming window it’s likely that some players will leave. Mikel San José and Beñat are both in the final year of their contracts and are still waiting to be told their futures. “I hope to have an answer for San José and Beñat soon,” said Alkorta. “When I spoke to them in August I told them I was putting myself in their place. It’s not easy to be in this situation, but we want to manage it the best way possible for the team.”
Speaking of contracts, Athletic are currently working on a renewal for Unai Simón who has quickly established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. “Unai has a good clause but in the face of next season the normal thing is that we try to renew him for more years and raise the clause and his salary because I think he has earned it. We want to show appreciation for the work he’s doing.”
While the belief is that Simón’s renewal will be simple and straightforward, the same can’t be said for Unai Núñez. After refusing to sign a new deal due to his lack of minutes, Núñez has yet to agree to an improved contract despite playing more regularly since Garitano’s move to a 5-3-2 formation.
“Why hasn’t he signed? That’s a question for him or his representatives. We are waiting. At first he told us it was about minutes, that he wanted to play more. We told him that he was very young and that we’d like for him to continue with us. We will continue to wait, but he has to make the decision.”
Athletic have made it abundantly clear to Núñez that the club wants him to stay, but that will be his decision to make. Although still under contract through 2023, his minuscule €30 million release clause has already attracted a number of suitors.
“From the first moment we have wanted him to stay. Our goal is for him to renew because we want him to continue with us. He’s a very valuable player who gives us a lot. In addition, he has a contract until 2023. At first he didn’t play much because the bet was on Yeray and Iñigo Martinez, but with three center-backs he’s played many games and has done very well.”
Alkorta doesn’t think that Núñez will leave Athletic in the summer, though he admits it’s possible. The Sporting Director revealed that he’s already made three separate renewal offers and believes the one currently on the table is more than fair.
“I’m not afraid, but it can happen. The only thing I know is that he has three more years on his contract and that if someone comes with the €30 million he will have to decide whether to stay or leave. We cannot do anything more than we are already doing. Right now there’s an offer which, by the way, is the third one I have made and I think the numbers are very reasonable. We believe that the third will be the one due to the fact that he’s playing more minutes and is much happier.”
Earlier in the season Alkorta made things worse when he said that no club would pay Núñez’s release clause. He’s since elaborated on the point he was trying to make, that paying €30 million for any defender is a large sum, and says that he personally apologized to Núñez for the remarks.
“I was wrong when I said that €30 million was a lot for Núñez. I still think that paying €30 million is a lot for any defenders, but I should have said that about everyone and not just him. I went to the locker room and spoke to him in person. Unai López was next to me and I said ‘forgive me, I screwed up. I didn’t mean that, but I said it.’ The issue ended there and I have no problems with it.”
Núñez will have plenty of suitors when the summer transfer window opens. The decision will ultimately be his to make and Alkorta is comfortable with Athletic’s other options if the 23-year-old does choose to leave. “If he does leave we have (Dani) Vivian and (Peru) Nolaskoain who is doing well with Deportivo and coming back after the season. I don’t like anyone leaving, but I’m calm with Vivian and Nolaskoain. We also have good center-backs in the youth teams.”
Finally, Alkorta addressed the future of manager Gaizka Garitano who will be out of contract at the end of the season. Like last season, the Mister asked to delay renewal talks until later in the campaign so as not to be a distraction and Alkorta is confident that Garitano plans on continuing at Athletic.
“Garitano is the best for Athletic. We want to renew him soon, the sooner the better. We spoke in January and he asked for time. We have respected his request because he was in a whirlwind of matches. We have given him the time with the tranquility of telling him that we want him to renew. In any case it must be remember that last season he renewed in April. He told us that he needed some time but he’s been clear from the beginning. I have no doubt that he wants to continue.”
Of course, many fans have been quick to criticize Garitano’s playing style during stretches of poor form. Alkorta prefers to focus on the success and is happy with the work that the manager has done.
“There is a sector of the fans that will always criticize anyone, but that’s normal. It’s not something that only happens to Garitano. It’s happened to everyone. He took a dead team, was one goal away from getting into Europe, and there were still those chanting that it wasn’t good. We are in the Cup final, five points from Europe, and climbing with kids coming up from Lezama.”
Alkorta has no doubts that Gaizka Garitano is the right manager to lead Athletic now and moving forward. As a former player, Alkorta appreciates Garitano’s approach to football and has no plans of making a change this summer.
“I like the team and I like the coach. There are games that we play well and others that we play poorly, just like everyone else. What’s been transmitted to the group is that we want to be a solid team that takes the initiative at home. I like how Gaizka transfers the idea of the football he wants, to press in the opposite end of the field and create chances, but there are times when things don’t go well. I’m convinced that Gaizka is the ideal coach for Athletic. There’s no one better for us right now.”
From Gaizka Garitano’s renewal to the futures of Unai Núñez and Unai Simón, the coming months will be a pivotal time for Athletic Club. Many important decisions must be made, but for now the club is simply waiting with the hope that football will return soon and the team will have the opportunity to play the Cup final.