To some people’s surprise, Athletic Bilbao remains one of only three clubs never to have been relegated from the Spanish top flight since its inception in 1929. The other two being the traditional powerhouses of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
An achievement that is impressive nevertheless, but even more so when you consider the club has achieved it by following a tradition that stems back to 1912 of only ever fielding Basque players.
Despite last season’s seventh-placed finish, only missing out on the Europa League on goal difference, after a disastrous start the club lingered around the relegation zone and looked in real danger of going down for the first time in their history. A position Athletic fans won't expect to see themselves in this time around.
Transfer Business Overview
Due to the club’s policy of only fielding Basque players Los Leones' transfer business usually looks a little different to those around them.
Youngsters Asier Villalibre, Gaizka Larrazabal, Peru Nolaskoaian and Ingio Vincente have all been promoted from the B side, Bilbao Athletic.
Villalibre joins the club after scoring an impressive 28 goals in 38 appearances last year in Segunda Division B but it remains to be seen whether he can make the step up into La Liga.
In addition, defensive midfielder Mikel Vesga and winger Sabin Merino return from loans at Leganes and left-back Andoni Lopez, centre back Xabier Etxeita and left-back Cristian Ganea have returned from UD Almeria, SD Huesca and CD Numancia respectively.
Because of the club’s recruitment policy, the success of their transfer market is often judged on their ability to hold onto their star players. The club has managed to hold onto star man Iñaki Williams, who scored 13 and assisted four in La Liga last season. Williams attracted interest from Manchester United amongst others, but no club was able to match his €80 million buyout clause. The player has now put all speculation to bed by agreeing on a massive nine-year contract that saw his buyout clause rise to €135 million. Athletic will now hope the player can explode this season after showing glimpses since making his debut in 2014.
Gaizka Garitano took over from Eduardo Berizzo last December and guided the side to seventh. Garitano usually favours a 4-2-3-1 formation with Williams or veteran Aritz Aduriz upfront with Iker Muniain, Inigo Cordoba and Raul Garcia behind. Spanish international Inigo Martinez leads the line in defence with Unai Simon in goal.
Player to Watch
Pacey forward Williams will be Athletic's player to watch this season as he looks to add to his 49 goals for the club. Williams has taken over from club captain Munian, who has suffered a lot from injuries in recent years, as the sides standout man when the club looked in real danger of the drop last year.
A special mention also goes out to the veteran striker Aduriz who announced he will retire at the end of the 2019/2020 season. 38-year-old Adruiz is a traditional centre-forward who made the headlines last season for this unorthodox penalty technique.
One for the future
Despite being 22, old enough to flirt with the first team for some time, Unai Núñez is a player that could well force his way into the starting 11 on a more regular basis. Núñez is a traditional centre back, powerful and quick and he reads the game well but the player can also pass the ball, which is ever so important in modern football. Núñez was thought at one point to be Aymeric Laporte's long term successor at the club.
The player would likely benefit from a consistent run in the team and could learn a lot with Spanish international Martinez at his side. Núñez made 13 appearances in La Liga and two in the Copa del Rey but there is a good chance that could increase this year.
The lack of European football could come to benefit Athletic as they will look to improve on last year’s seventh place. With a full pre-season under their belt with Garitano, who only took over last December, the club will hope to hit the ground running but they have a tricky opening day test of the champions Barca at home.
Predicted finish - Sixth.