Athletic Bilbao aren’t normally active in the transfer market, yet they pulled off the best deal they possibly could after selling Aymeric Laporte to Premier League giants Manchester City, bringing in Inigo Martinez from arch-rivals Real Sociedad.
Compared to the other teams in La Liga, Athletic are truly in a League of their own due to their unique youth academy and policy of only selecting individuals that are native to the Basque Country. Generally speaking, the player must have a concrete heritage in the area but don’t necessarily need to be born there.
Laporte, who is rated as one of the best young centre-backs in Europe, always looked like he’d leave the club before he reached his peak, despite rejecting a move to Pep Guardiola’s City last summer. The transfer also happened towards the end of the window, at a time when it’s not particularly easy to assess who to sign as a replacement.
Having arguably stagnated for the past 18-24 months and suffered various injuries during that time, Laporte won’t be missed at all by many Leones fans. The rise of Yeray Alvarez last season and promising performances from Unai Nunez in his debut campaign at San Mames meant the 24-year-old was only mentioned by the Press as the subject of transfer speculation and not for his displays.
However, Athletic have completed the unthinkable by strengthening themselves and weakening La Real at the same time in paying Inigo’s €32m release clause. The 26-year-old may not have the same potential or hype towards his personal development like Laporte, yet he has proven himself and silenced his critics time after time in the League, while being a regular starter at Anoeta for seven years.
The Spain international is a centre-back by trade but has also been used on the left and is also capable of filling in as an emergency defensive-midfielder. Just like your typical Spanish defender, his composure and intelligence on the ball is second to none, as is his ability to read the game. Furthermore, he is the type of player that isn’t afraid of going into crunching tackles and completing vital interceptions to help his team when they need him the most.
Overall, the contract renewals of Inaki Williams and Kepa Arrizabalaga, as well as the recent arrival of Inigo and those of Ander Capa and Cristian Ganea next summer, evidently show that Athletic have started 2018 very well, in terms of keeping their key players and strengthening at the same time.
Jose Angel Ziganda and his troops had embarked on a 10-game unbeaten run in the League, but a defeat to Girona and goalless draw with Las Palmas since then have left them in the bottom half of the table. Nonetheless, the Basques will surely get going once the Coach sorts his tactics out, with Inigo surely at the heart of them.