How does a club who does not sign players from outside their own region manage to compete at the top level? That is the question that surrounds the success of Athletic Bilbao of Spain, or perhaps more accurately of the Basque region. The process of talent identification and player development at Bilbao is second to none within world football. This is in part as a result of the close cultural ties that Bilbao maintain with their local region, young Basque children are taught the regions history from an early age and the presence of Athletic Bilbao as seen as something of a cornerstone to that history. A constant aspect of Basque life that represented the values of the region.
Traditionally Athletic are seen to embody what is seen as a traditional English style of football. The use of a target man as a forward and quick direct play from back to back. Indeed this style of football was seen to reflect the characteristics of the Basque people where hard work, honesty and integrity are held in such high regard. This rather robust style of football was changed when the club appointed the Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa in 2011.
The appointment of Bielsa heralded a tactical shift in world football as he installed his unique brand of high tempo, vertical and attacking football at Athletic. Suddenly this style of play with an emphasis on vertical passes through overloads to break through the opposition defensive line became fashionable and popular throughout European football. Combine with the high work rate which already permeated the squad and we had a team that were as quick and aggressive out of possession as they were in possession. Opposition sides struggled to cope with the furious pace of play from the Basque side and the added elements of attacking organisation and positional interchanging made the side from the North of the Spain a pleasure to watch for fans of the club and neutrals alike.
This period in the history of Athletic Bilbao however also coincided with the side being stripped of talent as the extra exposure led to clubs from around Europe coveting their stars. These buying clubs however were greeted with a barrier to their interest in Athletic Bilbao players that is almost unique amongst other European sides of this stature – The Spanish club had no interest in selling.
Whilst in most cases any player can be bought for a price this is not necessarily true of Athletic players, since the club only sign Basque players their market for potential signings is limited, this in turn increases the importance of the club retaining its own players. This was brought sharply in to focus when Bayern Munich registered an interest in defensive midfielder Javi Martinez and Juventus were chasing forward Fernando Llorente.
In both cases Athletic refused to negotiate on the player sales insisting that the interested party bought out the players contract for the release clause, in Spain it is a legal requirement that player contracts have a monetary release clause, In the case of Javi Martinez this led to a reported €36 Million transfer. Fernando Llorente on the other hand ended up seeing out the remainder of his contract before leaving on a free transfer to join Juventus, Athletic are able to take the financial hit of losing out on a transfer fee to maximise the value they get from a player contract.
Where though do the club sign replacements from? The Athletic Bilbao youth academy is a world class facility but it alone cannot support a La Liga side. Instead they target Basque players at other clubs and are willing to pay a premium to secure their signature. We saw this clearly during the winter transfer window when the club signed central defender Inigo Martinez from Basque rivals Real Sociedad for a reported €28 Million meeting the defenders release clause. The other regular source of playing talents revolves around the promotion of players from the youth system with the Athletic Bilbao B team used as a bridge between the academy and the youth system.
This season has seen the club promote two players who embody Basque spirit to the first team from the B team, the rest of this article will look more in depth at these two players.
The strong central defender – Unai Nunez
Whilst the winter transfer window saw Athletic go out and sign the Basque central defender Inigo Martinez for a large fee this was a move in response for their losing Aymeric Laporte to Manchester City for €58 Million, again his release clause. The centre of the Athletic defence however was further reinforced by the regular contributions of Unai Nunez, a 21 year old from the Athletic youth system.
Fellow graduate from the Lezama youth academy, Yeray, has also been featured at first team level but battles with cancer have led to prolonged periods of treatment and recovery. Thankfully Yeray is approaching full fitness again and the centre of the Athletic defence is again well covered with Nunez or Yeray partnering Martinez.
Unai Nunez is in many ways a typical Athletic player. Strong and rugged he is capable of dealing with physical battles from opposition strikers but he also has the technical and tactical abilities to hold his own when isolated against a forward or when stepping forward in possession of the ball. Indeed in many ways the Lezama Academy represents an interesting meeting or worlds as the values of Basque society, hard work, team work and honesty are melded with the technical elements which makes youth development in Spain amongst the strongest in the world.
In this example we see Nunez defending in a difficult situation against a striker moving forward at pace in to space to attack the ball. One of the worst scenarios for defenders comes when they have a pass played over their heads and they are forced to turn and run back towards their own goal, this simple change in dynamic increases the chances that the defender could make a mistake and that this mistake could be seriously punished.
Unai Nunez however has the physical traits to make up space in these situations without being completely outdone by quick wide players, he also has the positional sense to ensure that he is rarely caught out of position in quick transition.
Here as the ball is played forward Nunez was able to move across comfortably to win the ball before stepping out and starting an attacking transition for his side.
Again in this example we see Nunez playing as the right sided central defender although this time the defensive line is noticeably deeper in their positioning. As the attacking player looks to attack the corner of the penalty area in an attempt to penetrate in to the box we see Nunez move across to face him up.
Key is the positioning and body orientation from Nunez as he looks to force the attacking player to attack down the outside thus forcing him away from goal. His physical presence and positioning sense make it difficult for the opposition to bypass him.
The physical wide player – Inigo Cordoba
Inigo Cordoba is a tall, angular left sided player who plays primarily as a left winger since his introduction to the first team in Bilbao. He offers an interesting alternative to the other wide options in the Athletic first team, Inaki Williams offers blistering pace but is perhaps better suited to playing in a central striking role, Iker Muniain is smaller and more technical but likes to drift inside and Markel Susaeta is not as physically gifted but has great experience. Cordoba on the other hand is a strong runner with a clear focus to reach the opposition touch line before looking to cross the ball in to the penalty area.
Cordoba is also strong in the defensive phase, something that can be late to develop in young wide players, as he tracks back diligently in order to support his fullback.
Here we see Cordoba in the advanced left position. He has already burst forward with the ball at his feet driving towards the touchline, in doing so however he has already attracted two defensive players over towards him. If this were Iker Muniain for example we would see the wide player look to engage both defensive players in an attempt to penetrate the penalty area.
Cordoba on the other hand is intent on finding a teammate in central areas with an accurate cross, indeed that is exactly what we see with the ball bypassing the attacker on the front post and finding a player coming in from a deeper position for a headed chance on goal.
This time we see Cordoba as he engages in the defensive phase and moves to close down an opponent in possession of the ball. Instead of retaining a high and wide position as we may see from some young wide player Cordoba is always intent on tracking back to ensure that the fullback is not left isolated.
His work rate and understanding of when to press and when to drop set him apart from other young wide players when you consider his defensive metrics.
In many ways Athletic Bilbao are a reminder of how football used to be, that they are able to compete at the top end of La Liga despite the level of investment in their competitors is testament that a strong ethos and productive youth system can still lead to effective performance even in the modern game. The fact that they are able to constantly refresh their side and deal with the loss of key players shows the strength of their player identification and development departments.