5 Players Who Must Step Up For Athletic To Qualify For Europe Next Season
Missing out on European football yet again last season was a major disappointment for Athletic. With one of the most talented squads in recent history Gaizka Garitano was unable to secure a top seven finish for the Lions, although it could have happened by winning the Copa del Rey final which has been postponed until fans can safely attend.
Finishing in the bottom half of the table, behind rivals such as Real Sociedad and Osasuna, is difficult to accept. Moreover, the way it happened, with the team falling apart in the final two weeks of the season, was unacceptable. Garitano carries a lot of the blame for poor rotations and tactics, but the players must be held responsible as well.
Athletic have the quality to qualify for Europe next season, though it’s easier said than done. With the team beginning preseason training today there is newfound hope and excitement, but to have a realistic chance many players will have to contribute far more than they did last year and others must take on more pivotal roles. With that being said, here are the top five players that must step up for Athletic to get back into Europe.
There’s no denying the fact that Athletic were a different team with Unai López in the lineup. In fact, in games where he didn’t start Athletic recorded just one victory. As the only real creative player in the team, López offers things that no one else does and can be a catalyst for taking the attack to another level. Going into next season the 24-year-old is ready to be, and needs to be, a key element in the system.
The good news is that López was the revelation of the final eleven games of the season. After the restart the midfielder was in tremendous form and played some of the best football of his career. In the past López has struggled with physicality and defending, but those weren’t issues at all. On the contrary, López was excellent in defense and often one of the best players on the field.
López needs to build on his strong finish because Athletic need him to be a key player. Consistency will be crucial to keeping his place in the team, but Gaizka Garitano also has to give López the opportunity to establish himself. For whatever reason, López was often taken out of the lineup in games where his qualities were needed the most and that can’t be the case moving forward.
When it comes to Garitano’s defensive style of football, Iñigo Córdoba is a perfect fit. The winger offers incredible work-rate and brings important balance to the team when on the field. Córdoba’s numbers may not seem all that impressive, just one goal and four assists, but he does all of the little things that are so crucial throughout a game.
Unfortunately, Córdoba has virtually been a liability going forward. For all of the good he does defensively and when pressing, his impact in attack has often been nonexistent. In addition to poor decision-making, the 23-year-old regularly gave the ball away during promising attacks and was wildly inconsistent with his first touch and crossing the ball.
No other player in the team brings the same level of work rate as Córdoba, yet Athletic need more from him in the final third. It’s not as though Córdoba has to score 10 goals every year, but he must start making better decisions and consistently create chances. Still a young player, Córdoba can and should improve offensively.
Athletic should be praised immensely for the way Oihan Sancet was transitioned into the first team last season. The young midfielder began with manageable minutes but by the end of the year he was starting games and playing an important role. Sancet’s quality is undeniable and his potential is exciting, but he needs to take another step forward in the upcoming campaign.
With Athletic unable to make any transfer signings this summer, the club is trusting that Sancet will become an even more impactful player. The 20-year-old has proven that he’s ready to compete for a starting role and that he can contribute, though balancing pressure and expectations will be necessary in his first full year in the senior squad.
Sancet’s ability to play anywhere throughout the midfield, protect the ball, win possession, create chances, and score goals gives him the chance to be one of Athletic’s best players moving forward. Expecting the Lezama product to become a star next season may be asking too much, but he needs to at least build on previous performances and establish himself in the team. There’s a reason why Sancet is already viewed as a generational player and the time has come for Athletic to give him the opportunity that he’s earned.
Like Sancet, Asier Villalibre came on strong in the final stretch of last season. The young striker finally looked as though he had found his rhythm in the Primera and ended the campaign with 5 goals despite playing limited minutes. Interestingly, Villalibre had the best goals per minute ratio of any Athletic player and regularly showed his prowess for putting himself in scoring positions.
Unfair as it may be, Aritz Aduriz’s retirement has thrust Villalibre into the spotlight. The 22-year-old may not want to be compared to the Athletic legend, but he does play a similar style of football and can be a difference maker in front of goal. Over the past few years Athletic have struggled to score goals and Villalibre has to be one of the solutions to the problem.
Villalibre lacks pace and has never really been one to create chances for others, but he’s a goalscorer. With excellent positioning, strength to hold up play, and a talent for finishing Villalibre is the type of player that Athletic needs to be a better team in the final third. The club has been patient with Villalibre and this season the conditions will be perfect for him to finally break out.
As the highest paid player in the team, Iñaki Williams just didn’t contribute enough last season. Scoring only 6 goals in 38 La Liga appearances won’t do and moving forward Williams must find ways to put the ball in the back of the net with more consistency.
With each passing year is seems as though Williams, and Athletic as a whole, relies more and more on his pace. When not able to outrun a defender Williams is often isolated from play and can even be a liability at times. Garitano tried to use the 26-year-old in different ways throughout the season with mediocre success, but poor finishing continued to be an issue as well.
Williams is a special player and his elite speed can take over games and force opponents to play differently when he’s on the field. He has the quality and drive to be one of the best players in the league and that’s exactly what Athletic need him to be to challenge for Europe. There’s always been flashes of greatness, but it’s up to him to take his game to the next level as he enters his prime. At this point, the only thing holding back Iñaki Williams is himself.
In truth, the entire Athletic squad needs to step up next season. Competition in La Liga, especially in the race for Europe, is stronger than ever before. To finish in the top seven Athletic will have to play much better football and it will take the whole team stepping up to get back into Europe.