Third instalment of Valverde’s Athletic Bilbao trilogy is best yet
Getty: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce

They say you should never return, but Ernesto Valverde has done it twice now and proven them wrong.

The man from Extremadura in central Spain has been back at Athletic Bilbao for over 18 months and his third spell in charge of the Basque club is quickly becoming the best of the trilogy.

Valverde’s win percentage since taking over in June 2022 is higher than during his two previous stints as manager (2003-05 and 2013-17) with the team currently one of the most fun to watch in Spain.

When he rejoined this time around, his last job had ended with him being sacked by Barcelona. Valverde cut a tired figure in those winter days of 2020; he was someone, it felt, enduring rather than enjoying the last few months of his tenure at one of the biggest clubs around.

After 30 months in the wilderness, filled by spending time with family and his main hobby of photography, Valverde signed for a single season at Athletic. It was only meant to be a short steadying of the ship job, but that he remains in situ even now highlights the impact he has made again.

Getty: Soccrates Images
Getty: Soccrates Images

Perhaps it was the feeling of returning home and being appreciated again that has seen the relationship between manager and club rekindle so easily. His first season back saw Athletic finish eighth in La Liga, which is the highest since his previous time there. But they were only getting started.

Athletic now sit fourth and are on course for a Champions League place next season. Yet, it says something that Athletic’s game away to leaders Real Madrid this weekend will not be their biggest over the next 10 days. Instead, that will be the Copa del Rey final on Saturday week.

A first major trophy in 40 years is long overdue for such a storied club that has been in existence since 1898 and is celebrating its 125th anniversary this season. They have 23 cups in total, along with eight league titles, but nothing for a while.

Spanish Super Cup triumphs in 2015 and 2021 came as a result of them being losing cup finalists. In fact, they have lost their last six Copa finals — including a gut-wrenching defeat to neighbours Real Sociedad in 2020 — and the feeling in Bilbao is that this upcoming final against Mallorca in Seville is their time.

You would not bet against them either. They have reached three of the last four cup finals but never before like this. Valverde’s team put four past Barcelona to advance from the quarter-finals and then trounced Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals, winning 1-0 away and 3-0 at home to book their place in the final.

That second leg at San Mames a month ago was something to behold. Admittedly Diego Simeone’s Atletico have been particularly poor away from home this season, but Athletic whipped up a storm in front of their own supporters and put their opponents to the sword.

Getty: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce
Getty: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce

And it is at San Mames — Athletic’s rebuilt stadium that is one of the best in the country, if not Europe, for atmosphere — that Valverde and his players have excelled. They are unbeaten there since the first day of the season, when Real Madrid won 2-0, and have won 14 of their 17 home games this term.

On their own patch, Athletic simply wear teams down. Their goalscoring record at home is unmatched in the league and they are entertaining to watch. The locals laud their team and even say this is some of the best football they have seen in a generation.

Valverde has Athletic outperforming their rivals

Their play is aggressive, often deemed vertical, too — meaning they go from back to front very quickly — and their intensity makes them a nightmare to face.

It is also worth remembering the club’s Basque-only policy regarding players; something one would assume inhibits them but instead appears to do the opposite. Recruiting and developing players from a region that accounts for less than eight per cent of the Spanish population goes against the tide in modern football. Yet, Athletic make it work and more.

From their goalkeeper Unai Simon (Spain’s No 1), through the defence featuring Dani Vivian and Aitor Paredes (the most-featured centre-back partnership in Primera this term) and energetic captain Oscar de Marcos to Oihan Sancet (provider of six assists) in midfield and Gorka Guruzeta (a striker three goals off the top of La Liga’s scoring charts).

But, perhaps, it’s the Williams brothers who epitomise this version of Athletic most.

Getty: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce
Getty: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce

Inaki, 29 years old, and Nico, 21, are, arguably, La Liga’s two best wingers. The eldest has nine goals and three assists from the right wing, having shifted from centre-forward, while his younger sibling has five goals and eight assists from the left. Their backstory is remarkable and one that cannot be told enough.

Yet, it is Valverde who directs it all in his own understated way and has been welcomed back so effusively — even if his time at the top felt like it was coming to a premature end. Now 60, the Athletic manager is showing that the best may yet be to come.

It was Valverde who helped Athletic finish fourth the only previous time this century, he is the only manager to take them into the Champions League in 25 years and he won the Super Cup with them in 2015.

There are still nine games to go and a mammoth 90 minutes to navigate too, but you suspect that Valverde is already glad he returned once more.