This article also featured on this week’s Onside Inzaghi podcast.
Everything and nothing has changed at San Mames this season. In December Athletic Club sat eighteenth in La Liga. In more than 100 years of history the Basque club have never been relegated, a fact only true of themselves, Real Madrid and Barcelona but fourteen games into coach Eduardo Berizzo’s reign at the start of the season, that looked like it might change. Nevertheless, thanks to Gaizka Garitano Bilbao are on the verge of a return to Europe having held true to their unique identity and one rule that will never change.
“Eduardo came here with his ideas,” explained midfielder Raul Garcia, “It was a totally respectable way of playing that had paid off in other places, but here it didn’t work. Maybe we didn’t play our best, but it just wasn’t the best fit for us.” Garcia was right. By the start of December, Athletic had just one win and were three points adrift in the bottom three. Defender Mikel San Jose said he felt "ashamed and defeated.” after their poor start. An in interim board in situ between presidential elections, only charged to make major decisions if they’re absolutely necessary, deemed the situation as one such case and Berizzo was out. The Argentine had even invited the situation himself beforehand. "What I'm thinking of is Athletic and if my resignation helps, so be it."
Athletic are rare in modern football in being a cash rich club, willing to spend but having few chances to do so. Although it’s strictness is manipulated on occasion, their famous Basque only player ‘philosophy’, as the club refer to it, is often questioned when the club start to struggle as they did under Berizzo. But never by those connected to Athletic however. Jose Lertxundi, a former Bilbao club president, once explained that "anyone who is a candidate and aspires to change that isn't a candidate. You don't even touch the philosophy, there are better ways of committing suicide." Athletic are seen as a symbol of Basque identity and many, if not the vast majority, of fans would likely prefer relegation to a change of philosophy.
Twelve years ago with Bilbao in similar trouble, Jose Manuel Esnal, or ‘Mane’, and assistant Angel "Ondarru" Garitano were charged with rescuing Athletic from the threat of relegation after just one win in their first twelve games. This time it was Angel’s son Gaizka who was cast as saviour. Success in keeping the club afloat, just as his father and Mane did in 06/07, has equalled a dramatic rise. With just one game to play, Gaizka Garitano’s Athletic need only a point to secure Europa League football and sit seventh in La Liga. Since Gaizka’s arrival only the Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid have better records while only Barca and Valencia have lost fewer games.
Having rejected a life as a ‘bertsolari’, a Basque street poet, Garitano has been both an Athletic player and member as well as having toured the region as a player and a coach, most famously leading tiny Basque outfit Eibar from the lower reaches of the Spanish footballing pyramid to the Primera for the first time back in 2014. Having left Eibar in 2015, before short stints with Real Valladolid and Deportivo La Coruna, Garitano had been coaching the Athletic B team in the Segunda B third tier but was promoted after Berizzo’s dismissal.
Central to Bilbao’s success under Garitano is their new coach’s deep rooted understanding of the club, and even the region, aiding him in fostering player support. As Garcia explained, “We connected with the coach from the beginning and his way of playing connects with us better than the previous one.” Under Garitano Bilbao have returned to the traditional style that has characterised Athletic teams; a solid defensive base, Athletic managed 4 clean sheets in Garitano’s first seven league games, and direct attacking play, oftem down the flanks.
Crucially, striker Inaki Williams’ form has returned under Garitano. Having incredibly not scored at home in two years, a 41 game run, before a superb brace in beating Sevilla in January, Williams now has 13 La Liga goals this season. Given their self imposed restraints on signing players, a forward has been difficult to come by. Although Aritz Aduriz continues to serve the club at 38, an injury affected season has left Williams as their only viable striker.
Considering their age, Williams (24) and creative attacking midfielder Iker Muniain (26) will be key to the club’s future as much of the squad approach, or have passed, 30. Although Basque football remains prominent in La Liga, the pool of players Athletic can choose from is growing narrower while other Basque clubs have significant leverage in demanding Athletic pay players’ (often very high) release fees, knowing that they have few, if any, other options.
Bilbao do the same when selling players given that they place such a premium on Basque players, hence the mammoth 80m euro fee paid by Chelsea for Kepa Arrizabalaga last summer. Meanwhile, given that players like Muniain and Williams are so rare and that the club have the money from sales like Kepa’s, Bilbao tend to (or are forced to) pay higher wages in order to help hold onto prize assets.
Initially only signed until the end of the season, Athletic extended Garitano’s contract to 2020 this spring. "It’s no problem, the club has told me that they want me to continue and I want to continue, it'll take a matter of two minutes… It's very easy," said Garitano simply. San Jose meanwhile told Marca Radio that "nobody can doubt that it is fully deserved, the growth of the team has gone hand in hand with him and Patxi [Ferreira, his assistant]”. Famous former player Andoni Goikoetxea told Onda Cero that Garitano “deserves a medal. It’s not that he’s the best option, he’s the only option” while sporting director Rafa Alkorta explained after the announcement that “Gaizka has done a spectacular job.”
Garitano however remains reserved, humble even cautious about the future. “I’m not a dreamer.” he said in April, “I like to live experiences and I’m living it to the fullest right now. I came to train Bilbao B and if I had to continue doing that I would have done so.” The coach had explained in February “I don’t believe in long-term goals in football, I don’t give that any value,” before stating ahead of the Girona game the following month that “if you lose, you're a disaster, if you win, they want to renew you for five years, you go from being good to the worst in the world, we live on the wire."
In six months Garitano has taken Athletic from the prospect of an unthinkable relegation to a miraculous return to Europe and doing so by holding true to the club’s philosophy, in more ways than one. As a result, although his team have gone from being “ashamed and defeated” to legendary players saying their manager is worthy of a medal, the Garitano revolution has changed very little at San Mames. And, for better or worse, it’s likely that ‘philosophy’ never will.
by Adam White