Ernesto Valverde’s appointment as Athletic Bilbao boss in the summer, following his failure to lead Valencia into the Champions League, has so far gone some way to disproving the old adage that you should never go back. The 49-year-old represented the club as a player in the 1990s and then as first team Coach from 2003-05, leading his team to fifth place in his first season and subsequent UEFA Cup qualification, while a disappointing mid-table finish 12 months later saw him lose his job.
Nonetheless, with a third of the current La Liga term already played, Valverde goes into the international break having already having broken records in his second spell at San Mames. Lying a healthy fifth with 23 points from 13 games, it is Los Leones’ best start to a season since three points for a win was introduced in 1995-96, with the opening victories over Real Valladolid and Osasuna also constituting Valverde’s best first two games as a Coach. However, not everybody is convinced his brand of football is something the notoriously demanding Bilbao fans want to watch and there is still an air of scepticism among some supporters.
Former Espanyol, Olympiacos and Villarreal boss Valverde’s arrival has undoubtedly seen a keener competitive edge to the side, yet there have been accusations they are weak at the back and do not excite the San Mames faithful going forward. Indeed, attacking performers such as Iker Muniain, Benat Etxebarria and Ander Herrera have not exactly set the world alight so far, whereas striker Kike Sola, a €4m close-season signing from Osasuna, has featured just once due to injury.
In addition, three of the five home victories have necessitated Valverde’s men having to come from behind to claim the spoils, a point midfielder Ander Iturraspe touched upon after the recent 2-1 win over Levante, when he claimed the team is underappreciated.
“It’s funny. Whilst it’s true that we can play better, we have shown that as a team we are competitive and can play well when things are not going to plan. I believe we’ve not been given enough credit.
“I understand that at Athletic the demands are great, but I think we must take into account that as a group we compete well and are winning games that we didn’t last year. It’s very difficult in football today and we deserve more recognition,” considered the 24-year-old.
For Bilbao it follows two vastly contrasting years under Valverde’s predecessor Marcelo Bielsa. The former Argentina and Chile boss steered the Basques to both the Europa League and Copa del Rey Finals in his first campaign, losing both matches, but could not build on that initial success last season when they found themselves battling relegation until the final weeks.
Valverde’s team, like the club’s new stadium, is a still a work in progress and the Coach admitted after the recent 2-0 defeat at Atletico Madrid that their opponents were on another level. Even so, the feeling is that with a little more patience Los Rojiblancos could be mounting a serious challenge for the European places come next May.