Asier Villalibre “I’m Grateful For The Support Of The Fans”
Great things have always been expected from Asier Villalibre, but breaking into the first team wasn’t easy. Having made his debut back in 2016, the young striker’s time in Bilbao looked to be in danger after three unsuccessful loan spells. That was until he returned to Bilbao Athletic last season where he revitalized his career and has now become an important player for the Zurigorri.
“I haven’t changed anything,” Villalibre told Juanma Mallo of El Correo. “What has changed the most is trust and confidence. When a ball falls to you and you put it in from there everything goes better, but not because you’ve changed anything more or less. I always train to be the best that I can be and that extra motivation always helps you. It does a lot and gives me that extra confidence that I need.”
Villalibre has never hidden the fact that he was unhappy during his time on loan. It was a rough time but he never considered giving up on football.
“I was in Soria for a month and was very comfortable with Jagoba Arrasate. The other two were tough. I was away from home and didn’t play. Looking back on it later, mentally it was great to help harden me and see there value of being home. Throwing in the towel? Never, I never thought about it. I never doubted myself. There were worse days, but I never thought of something like that.”
Going on loan was supposed to give Villalibre more minutes, but that wasn’t really the case. “It’s not easy when you aren’t playing,” he said. “Knowing that you aren’t counted on as much isn’t the best news, but I decided to stay. I had to continue trusting myself and the moment came. I took advantage of it and thus I have gained more confidence.”
Even though his time away wasn’t enjoyable Villalibre says that it helped him take an important step in his career.
“Everyone goes through bad times, but I’m still young. When I was away it wasn’t my best year, but psychologically it came in handy and then the year back with Bilbao Athletic was the same. This year, I’m 22, and I have managed to dedicate myself to the team. At the beginning I was a bit out of the team but with work I have managed to make a place for myself. I’m very happy!”
Villalibre has gone from less to more this season and has been a key player since the season resumed. The Lezama product has already scored five goals and many fans believe that he could become the starter next season.
“I’m grateful for the support of the fans. I take it well, but the coach is the one that decides and he chooses what is best for the team. We always go out to win and he starts those that he thinks are best to win each games. If I have to come off the bench then I have to try to do my best. Starting next year? That’s saying a lot. We have to think about the Valencia match which is a final for us. We can do well there. It’s a very difficult field, but they won’t have the support of fans.”
Fans have put a lot of pressure on Villalibre to become the next Aritz Aduriz, but he hasn’t done the same. He still sees himself as a young player who has to develop and improve at this stage of his career.
“I’ve never carried that pressure on myself. I have never thought about any pressure that might have been on me. People do talk a lot, but I have always thought that I’m young and everything that goes along with that. People need confidence and time so I’ve never had that pressure.”
The comparisons with Aduriz aren’t necessary. However, Villalibre admits that he’s learned a lot from the club legend who has helped him become a better striker in many facets of the game.
“He has always helped me, like everyone else. He’s a very good person who knows how to treat people depending on their situation. I really appreciate him and he’s given me a lot of advice in training. He’s helped me with positioning. Now I see the spaces in the area better. Many times you can say it’s luck, but it’s also positioning yourself.”
Villalibre has started to find his rhythm in the first team and it couldn’t come at a better time. When the season returned he was dealing with an injury but is fully fit again and excited to help the team however possible.
“I’ve recovered. I had discomfort in my quadriceps, but I’m fine now. At home we could run, but not kick the ball so after kicking the ball so much I hurt myself and had to rest. I try to available for all games and from there the coach decides. We have clear objectives and we know what we want. We have that mentality of going for every match to get into Europe and so, mentally, we’re handling it very well.
Like everyone else, Villalibre has had to adjust to playing matches without fans. Even being on the bench is strange, but adapting quickly has been necessary to get positive results.
“It’s weird playing without fans. It’s true that I’m handling it better and sometimes it even seems normal. Coming off the bench is more difficult though because you aren’t with the fans. You’re sitting in the empty stands and it’s very difficult. You feel like another fan because you’re in the stands alone. You have to scream to talk to each other.”
Villalibre started to break out during the Copa del Rey. The team had a great run which culminated in a late win over Granada to book their place in the final. In the locker room after the match Villalibre was filmed playing the Athletic Hymn which got a lot of praise from fans.
“I said to myself that I would take it to celebrate. In the stands, when it was 2-0, I thought ‘why did I bring it? I brought bad luck’. When we scored I freed myself from those thoughts.”
Villalibre may be a quiet young man but he loves football and music. In fact, he’s part of a band called Orsai which includes teammates Óscar De Marcos, Mikel Vesga, Iñigo Lekue, and Dani García. The group hopes to play a concert at some point in the future.
Life has changed quite a bit for Villalibre since his debut nearly four years ago. “I’m the same person,” he said looking back. “I’ve matured and I’ve learned things about life and football, but I’m the same person. A normal boy from Gernika. I’m happy with my work. I’m happy and I have to continue like this, giving a little more every day.” Asier Villalibre has fought hard to be where he is today, to become the present and future of Athletic Club.