This summer has been a big disappointment for Athletic Bilbao, to say the least. One year removed from two championship finals, Marcelo Bielsa’s men have only recently put the possibility of relegation to rest.
Bilbao has a very interesting transfer policy that some might not be aware of: the club only fields those born in the Basque country or of Basque decent. Though their policy makes this difficult at times, there are options this summer.
In this article we will take a look at what will be going on at Bilbao in the coming months.
We will begin by taking a look at the possible departures, transfers and even a very likely changing of the guard. Los Leones are in need of important additions, and fans are expecting an upgrade after this season.
Los Leones will already have gaps in their squad as soon as the summer begins. Two players will be moving on due to contract issues, and they are significant losses.
Fernando Llorente, one of the best players of all time for the Basque club, will be heading to Italy. The Daily Mail recently confirmed that the tall striker will be joining Juventus on a free transfer.
The loss of Llorente will not be as harmful as once thought. Aritz Aduriz has stepped up to become the first-choice striker, but allowing Llorente to leave for free is clearly bad business for Bilbao.
Another key player will be leaving the club as well, and again it is due to a free transfer based on contract issues.
The Mirror has recently confirmed that defender Fernando Amorebieta would be signing with English side Fulham at season’s end. The center-back has been a staple in the Basque lineup for quite some time, but can arguably be replaced.
Aymeric Laporte has stepped in at important times this season and proven a solid replacement for Amorebieta. Though Laporte is only 18 years old, he has already made a name for himself.
Though both departures will be a hard hit for Bilbao, it seems that there is coverage at both positions. But fans will be wanting moves to make up for the losses.
Luckily for Athletic Bilbao, there are not many rumors linking other players away from the club. The Basque side will need to keep everyone they possibly can this summer, but any big-money offers could force their hand.
The only real rumor swirling around at this time surrounds Kepa Arrizabalaga.
At only 18 years of age, Arrizabalaga represents the future of Bilbao. The promising keeper has performed well on the international stage, and the eyes of bigger clubs have noticed.
Inside Spanish Football has quoted a report from Spain claiming that Real Madrid is interested in purchasing the youngster. Bilbao president, Josu Urrutia, will need to do everything possible to keep Arrizabalaga at the Basque club.
Though Arrizabalaga is the only real rumor circulating right now, that does not mean that there cannot be other players sold if offers come.
Big clubs have also been interested in stars such as Markel Susaeta, but the winger has since signed a new contract to show his loyalty to Los Leones (via Goal).
Laporte, Iturraspe, Ramalho and Saborit could all receive interest from clubs as well, but have all signed new contracts in recent months.
Athletic Bilbao has a solid foundation of current stars and rising talents. If they can hold onto these players during the summer, improvement will definitely be made next season.
According to Transfermarkt.co.uk there are three players already set to join Athletic Bilbao in the summer. The trio will all be returning from loan spells, but will certainly be additions to the club.
The most important player returning will of course be Mikel Balenziaga. The left-back has spent time on loan at Valladolid and has honed his game quite well.
Balenziaga is averaging nearly three tackles and interceptions per game, and over six clearances as well. The 25-year-old will provide depth and experience for a defense in need.
Iago Herrerin will also be returning from a loan spell that saw the keeper spend time at Numancia. Though the 25-year-old is not expected to play a big part at the club, he will give Bilbao some depth.
Lastly, Iban Zubiaurre will be returning from Salamanca. The 30-year-old right-back will possibly leave the club again, as he really does not have a role to play in Bilbao’s squad.
Note: Statistics are courtesy of Whoscored.com
The reign of El Loco at Athletic Bilbao seems to be coming to an end. Though he led the club to a very successful season last year, Bielsa has failed to keep the Basque club on the rise.
Bielsa has also had issues surrounding him for the majority of the season, such as his near exit midway through the summer. It appears as though there really is no way El Loco will be in charge when the next season begins.
Football-Espana has reported that the club has a three man shortlist for coaches next season.
The first option on the list is keeping Marcelo Bielsa himself. However, it is becoming clear that he will not be staying, leading to the club truly having only two coaching options.
Valencia manager Ernesto Valverde found his name on the list as Bilbao president Josu Urrutia has been keen on him for a few years now. Negotiations will not take place until the current season ends, but Valverde will certainly be a very impressive replacement for Bielsa.
The second name on the list, and the one I believe to be the best choice, is Bilbao B manager Cuco Ziganda.
Ziganda is very familiar with the club and will offer and insight to players he is already working with. The club has been going through a youth movement and Ziganda would be just the man to make the most of it.
Marcelo Bielsa has even stated that he believes Ziganda should succeed him (via Football-Espana).
But fans would also enjoy Ziganda taking over due to the retired striker being Basque himself. At this point, there is no answer on the manager situation, but do not expect Bielsa to return.
By far the most important target for Athletic Bilbao this summer will be Betis midfielder Benat Etxebarria. The 26-year-old Basque star has made a name for himself lately, and the club has taken notice.
Bilbao recently submitted an offer for Benat, but was rejected. Betis desired to extend his contract, but that now appears to be something that will not take place.
Now it appears more than ever that Benat could realistically be heading to his boyhood club.
In a recent report from Goal, Benat stated that, “My dream is to play for Athletic Bilbao.” This has given both the club and the fans a great deal of hope.
Since losing Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich, Athletic has not been the same. But bringing in Benat would be a giant step in the right direction of answering the problems at the Basque club.
Bilbao will be hoping that Benat is not the only signing that takes place this summer. Dermot Corrigan of ESPN listed the club’s top targets last summer and they still hold true today.
Despite the possible signing of Benat, Bilbao is in serious need of a replacement for Javi Martinez. The most likely option seems to be Mikel Rico of Granada.
Rico is a true defensive midfielder and has had a brilliant season thus far. The 28-year-old has averaged three tackles per game, along with over two interceptions. Rico also boasts a passing rating over 80 percent (via Whoscored).
Truly Mikel Rico is the best choice to bring into the squad, but he is not the only option.
Raul Garcia of Atletico Madrid could also find his way to the Basque club. Garcia has yet to make a name for himself at the Madrid club but could provide depth at Athletic Bilbao.
The 26-year-old is very versatile and can fill in at several positions. At a club like Bilbao, where options are limited, Garcia would be a terrific signing.
Lastly, it looks as though the club will attempt to replace Fernando Llorente as well, despite having Aritz Aduriz and Gaizka Toquero.
Inside Spanish Football has rumored that the club is interested in bringing Kike Sola back to his boyhood club. The Osasuna striker has scored nine goals this season and has become what many would call a late bloomer.
The best options for Athletic Bilbao currently play for Real Sociedad. Historically, the club has been able to spend to take talent from their Basque rivals, but that is not an option this summer.
Inigo Martinez, Antoine Griezmann, Ruben Pardo, Asier Illarramendi, Agirretxe and others would definitely be great additions for Athletic Bilbao. But it is already clear that they will not be available.
Sociedad president Jokin Aperribay has made it clear that his club has no intentions of letting their young stars go.
Real Sociedad is not in as much financial trouble as most Spanish clubs, which means they will not be forced to sell. Also, their likely addition to next season’s Champions League will bring even more money into the club.
So the ripe vineyard of Real Sociedad will, for once, be closed off for Athletic Bilbao. However, if by some chance La Real miss out on the Champions League, they may actually be forced to make a few moves.
Though Real Sociedad’s young stars will not be available, there are plenty of options for Athletic Bilbao. The club will make important moves this summer and fans should expect Los Leones to return to their best next season.
Can Athletic Bilbao make the necessary changes this summer? Is Real Sociedad on the brink of becoming the top Basque club in Spain? Leave your thoughts and comments below.
Tre' Atkinson. Follow me on Twitter for more discussions on Athletic Bilbao and La Liga.