How Ernesto Valverde Turned the Tide at Athletic Club

Located in the energetic city of Bilbao, Spain, Athletic Club de Bilbao is a distinctive and legendary football team. Renowned for its unique transfer policy as well as its extensive history, Athletic Club takes great satisfaction in upholding a stringent tradition of featuring players who have Basque ancestry, with players and supporters alike have developed a strong feeling of identity and loyalty as a result of the club’s persistent adherence to this principle.


In a time when prominent transactions are frequent in the talk of the football world, Athletic Club’s emphasis on developing homegrown talent is evidence of their commitment in upholding cultural traditions. Athletic Club boasts the pride in being the only club to take part in Champions League football without any foreign players in the squad.


In addition, the team has an outstanding track record of never been demoted from La Liga, which speaks volumes about their competitive nature and reliable play at the top level of Spanish football. Athletic is still a source of pride for the Basque people, a symbol of tradition and resiliency as they face the difficulties of contemporary football.


Oihan Sancet: Can Lezama’s Latest Product Lead Athletic Club to European Football?


Having coached the Los Leones twice with the first stint from 2003 – 2005 and for the second time from 2013 – 2017, helped them to win Supercopa de España in 2015, Ernesto Valverde left Los Leones in 2017 after impressing the footballing world with what he had done at the club keeping in mind of their transfer policy and net transfer spendings. After winning two league titles and a Copa del Rey at Barcelona, he is back at the Basque side, signing for the Los Leones one a one-year contract in June 2022.


Athletic have won 23 Copa del Rey titles, the most recent coming in 1983/84, and after reaching the final four alongside Atlético Madrid, Real Sociedad and Mallorca, they have a golden opportunity to end their silverware drought. Whilst the Basque side are in the semifinals for a fifth straight year, they’re also chasing a return to the UEFA Champions League for the first time in a decade. Having finished no higher than eighth since 2017/18, Athletic sit fifth in La Liga on the back of Sunday’s goalless draw vs. Cadiz, two points behind Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, both of whom have a game in hand.


It has been a stellar run of form for Athletic under Valverde, who led them to the Copa del Rey Final only to lose to Barcelona in 2015. Prior to a 1-0 loss to Valencia on January 20, Athletic had not suffered defeat or been held scoreless since losing 1-0 to Barcelona October 22. They have taken 24 points from a possible 33, and they bounced back from their defeat at Mestalla with a 4-2 victory against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey, with Iñaki Williams returning from AFCON duty and scoring in extra time, whilst his brother Nico sealed the deal in the final seconds. Athletic will face off against Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey semifinals, with the first leg taking place on February 7 and the second leg occurring on February 29.


Today, we’re taking a data-based look at Athletic Club’s impressive form under Valverde, utilizing data from FBRef and indicating Athletic with the golden color in comparison to the other La Liga sides which will be marked in red.



Athletic Club has had many difficulties in the current campaign. The team has had to contend with suspensions, injuries, and challenging opponents in their quest to establish themselves in La Liga. This post will give a comprehensive rundown of the Athletic Club team, emphasizing the team’s standout players, noteworthy accomplishments, and current season standings. Iñaki Williams, Athletic’s explosive forward, is leading the attack, with the Ghana international hitting the best numbers of his career with 9 goals and 4 assists across all competitions.


Williams has been a major contributor to the team’s goal-scoring efforts and a constant danger up front because of his quick speed and accurate finishing. Furthermore, the team has continuity and confidence in the goalie position because to Unai Simón’s consistent participation. Pundits and supporters alike have praised him for his proficiency in stopping shots and his mastery of the penalty zone.


Iñigo Martinez, the centre-back with the best understanding of the game and aerial domination, has established himself as a rock in the defence. Raúl García has been one of the season’s best performers. The seasoned midfielder has proven his adaptability on the field by scoring goals, providing assists, and putting in a strong work ethic. His tenacity and leadership abilities have been crucial to the group’s accomplishments.


The team has struggled with injuries at various points during the current campaign. Óscar de Marcos and Iker Muniain, among other players, have been sidelined temporarily from the starting lineup due to nagging injuries. The depth of the team has been put to the test by these injuries, and the coaching staff has had to change their approach. Nonetheless, the group has proven resilient in the face of difficulty, and the younger players have stepped up when necessary.



Athletic Club has always placed a high priority on developing its young players, and this season has been no exception. Up-and-coming artists like Jon Morcillo and Oihan Sancet have been given the chance to play, and their performances have left an impression. These young players have not only proven their abilities, but they have also given the team a new lease on life and excitement.


Despite the difficulties encountered throughout the current campaign, Athletic is committed to finishing in La Liga’s top four, and unlike Real Madrid, Atleti, Barcelona, Real Sociedad, and Real Betis, they are not having to balance their top four pursuit with European competition. Leading players like as Iñaki Williams, Unai Simón, and Iñigo Martinez have enabled the team to stay competitive even against challenging opponents, holding Girona to a draw and beating Atleti 2-0.


Raúl García’s strong performances and the rise of new players highlight the team’s depth and potential. In order to succeed as the season goes on, Athletic will need to overcome setbacks, lean on their fundamental advantages, and keep their cohesive team spirit. With the support of their ardent supporters and an unyielding commitment, Athletic hopes to compete at the top level and make a lasting impression on the current season.



Athletic Club has been remarkable this season in terms of creating chances, taking on chances and converting them. They look to bring five or more than 5 players in the attacking 3rd where the left striker and right striker get to the edge of the touchline with the centre midfielders taking the position of an inverted fullback, supporting them comes the one central mid-fielder and one pivot to help them move out of trouble and holding the defensive line with three players.


This method brings out the shape of an arrow with the centre forward in the box moving the opposition defenders out of position by making quick runs off-ball. It is safe to say that this system of play has proved to be working so far for the men in red and white stripes as they have been showing consistent results in almost every game-changing aspect.



One of the many reasons for Athletic Club’s success this season has been the players’ ability to stick to their manager’s plan and execute them on-field. They take up a 3-4-3 formation when in possession of the ball, giving more time and space to keep the ball moving forward. They tend to go all out on in attack and keep the pace of the game on a higher level, two players in the midfield act as pivots to supply the ball to the front 3 where the other two midfielders take up the space and make runs similar to an inverted full back.


The midfield is very fast and constantly changes positions, often resulting in drawing fouls has been concerning for Los Leones as they lost Muniain in the promising season, the men in red and white stripes have drawn more than 11 fouls per game. Each of the four midfielders can rotate roles – when one of them decides to support the team upfront, the other will shift to a defensive position in order to cut out short passes, cover ground and stop dangerous transitions.



Athletic Club haven’t relied on possession and are comfortably soaking up pressure – their midfielders seek to keep the game at a high pace, looking for spaces and lines to break leading them to make many unforced errors in giving the possession away. They have kept the ball for almost less than half the teams in La Liga.


Going at such a pace for 90 minutes will lead to many mis-passes caused by mistimed runs, misplaced passes but this way of creating chances has made this team dangerous when the passes become successful and leads towards a goal-creating chance. This Athletic team has an amazing record in front of the goal despite being stopped by the woodwork a couple of times. The midfield has had a heavy load of work as they either look to break the defending lines by finding pockets for through balls or to look for players at the touchline spreading out the pitch, allowing another teammate to make runs or cross the ball into the 18-yard box.


Los Leones are very lethal when the forwards on the touchline receive the ball as they look for multiple options such as delivering crosses into the penalty area or cutting back into the shooting range or look for teammates in and around the box. Not to be surprised, most of the goals scored by this set of players have come from the range of the woodwork. The only setback of this type of play is it limits the midfielders from switching the area of play when under pressure as there are no open players on the other side of the pitch due to the type of position and style of play causing them to go out of possession too easily when under pressure. 



Athletic Club  are effective in terms of holding the shape and shifting the formations when needed. They shift formations based on the separation of which third the ball is being played at. The above picture shows the ball in the midfield third and the players are to be seen holding the team in a 4-3-3 formation.


Keeping the shape when shifting the side of play is key for Los Leones, when the opponents move into the defending 3rd of Athletic’s pitch they form a back line of 5 defenders along 3 central midfielders in which two of them act as a pivot to support the defenders and one is a central midfielder to stop the ball from reaching the centre or to cut passes and start a counter-attack and 2 strikers to put pressure on the opposing defenders when they tend to move the ball into the mid-field forming a 5-3-2 formation.


Sir Alex Ferguson once said that “Attacking wins you games but defence wins you trophies,” and Ernesto Valverde’s men are epitomizing this aphorism, having kept 9 clean sheets so far with a 45% clean sheet record thus far. They have been rock-solid defending in front of the goal but they tend to leave out holes when pressure is applied between the touchline and the 18-yard line. Los Leones have recorded 50 bookings (47-yellow, 2-red, and 1- 2nd yellow) so far this season and have conceded 14 fouls per 90, the players tend to give in early when trying to get the back from the opposition early and making a quick counter-attack.


Athletic are conceding just under a goal per game in La Liga, whilst they have scored 38 in 22 so far this season. Apart from their recent loss at Valencia and their 0-0 draw at Cadiz on Sunday, they have scored two or more goals in each of their first five matches of 2024, and they’ll be looking to bounce back from their stalemate with a win at home vs. Mallorca on Friday. Athletic are not only in a healthy position on the pitch — sitting six points above Basque rivals Real Sociedad and eight above seventh-placed Real Betis — but off it as well.


Since selling Kepa Arrizabalaga to Chelsea in 2018 for €80 million, making him the most expensive goalkeeper of all time, each of Athletic’s departures have either been loan moves or free transfers. However, if Athletic do seal a return to European competition, there may just be more than a few potential suitors looking to pluck the fruit off the trees at San Mamés, especially with Unai Simón, Nico Williams and Oihan Sancet likely to play a pivotal role for Spain in this summer’s European Championships.


By: Sive Vishwa / @sive_vishwa

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Quality Sport Images / Getty Images