The only way is up

This season was always going to be a difficult one for Athletic Bilbao after Ernesto Valverde’s move to Barcelona. After finishing fourth, seventh, fifth and seventh again and winning the club’s first trophy in over 30 years, his successor had his work cut out, which has definitely been proved under Cuco Ziganda.

Having lost more games than they have won and being knocked out of the Copa del Rey by third-tier Formentera, there have been some difficult moments for the 51-year-old, who previously coached the B team. He has not managed to get as much out of his players as Valverde, with performances looking quite ordinary and flat and the team lying 14th, seven points off a European place.

Things started to go particularly poorly after Iker Muniain’s knee injury in late September. The winger had been enjoying himself after his previous lengthy lay-off and was starting to look like the player that had been so sorely missed during that period on the sidelines. To say that this is the sole reason for Los Leones’ disappointing campaign would be wrong, though, as there has been a general lack of creativity and imagination in their play, even before Muniain’s ACL tear.

After not winning in five League games, Athletic’s impressive 1-3 win at Spartak Moscow in the first knockout round of the Europa League was a welcome reminder of exactly what this group of players is capable of, which put them in a good position to progress on Thursday, leading to a last-16 tie with Marseille. However, the 2-0 loss at against Atletico Madrid, in which they did not have a single shot on target, perhaps proved that Ziganda really is struggling to put together a decent run of results in this job.

Athletic President Jose Urrutia looks to have fired a warning shot his Coach’s way after being asked whether Ziganda will retain his post next season.

“There are no absolute guarantees in football,” he admitted, according to Marca. “You sign a contract to fulfil it, but then there are situations. We always provide support to our Coaches, but the interests of Athletic are above people and contracts. Our team has been a guarantee during these seven years of coming out one way or another towards good results and we are in a moment where we need to lift ourselves and reach the top. We are optimists. We are at the halfway stage and there are games ahead.”

One thing is for sure, and that is that with or without Ziganda, the Basque club’s future looks secure. Both Inaki Williams and Kepa Arrizabalaga have signed new contracts recently, meaning that they should remain at the club for at least the next few years. Despite the departure of Aymeric Laporte to Manchester City, Inigo Martinez not only represents a fantastic replacement but provides a big confidence boost given that they snatched him from rivals Real Sociedad. Furthermore, there have been breakout seasons for Unai Nunez and Inigo Cordoba, who both look like real talents.

Whether or not Ziganda will be given another shot next season remains to be seen, but not qualifying for Europe will be a big blow for the club. A good run in the Europa League and a top half finish would go some way to proving his credentials.