It’s no secret that Athletic Bilbao are crying out for a striker at the same level of quality as the rest of their squad. On Saturday, the Basque side faced reigning champions Atletico Madrid and had two golden opportunities squandered by Inaki Williams and Asier Villalibre.
To date this season, Athletic have scored four goals from five games, 2.48 goals fewer than their xG. That’s the highest figure in La Liga. It’s a figure which is concerning for Athletic, not only for what it could mean in terms of points dropped in the opening weeks of the campaign, but regarding their long-term ambitions too.
Marcelino has got this squad to be rock solid defensively. Unai Simon, Inigo Martinez and Dani Vivian have proven to be a reliable core in defence that will keep teams shut out. But the long-term trend is troubling. From their first five games, xG against is 4.38, while only one goal has been conceded. That would suggest that eventually Athletic will start to concede more. And there has been no evidence that they have the firepower to fight back.
The man that Athletic have turned to is Inaki Williams. There can be no questioning his talent and reliability, particularly fresh off the back of his 200th consecutive La Liga appearance, but the problem is that he’s not a centre-forward. In each of the past six seasons, he has scored fewer goals than his xG would suggest he should have.
Having your most prolific forward averaging a goal once every five games over the past two seasons is simply not good enough for a side looking to push for Europe; if you have strong feelings on who could prove successful in the race for continental football, thienhabet is a good place to stake your bet.
But what can Marcelino do? The truth is, very little. His alternatives include a Raul Garcia who is increasingly showing his age and battle scars, and Asier Villalibre, who has scored only 7 goals in 64 appearances in La Liga.
The club’s Basque-only transfer policy, which limits them significantly with no clear candidates to invest in, can be praised in many ways, but its flaws are shown when the club’s youth academy at Lezama fails to produce talented youngsters in certain positions.
The club’s B team, Bilbao Athletic has two centre-forwards, Scottish striker Ewan Urain and Andoni Tascon, and while there are high hopes for Urain, he is yet to be involved with the first team and is already 21, while Tascon is even older at 23. Even at their so-called unofficial ‘C’ team, Basconia, teenagers Ibai Sanz and Inigo Lopez have failed to find the back of the net yet this season in their first taste of senior football and look unlikely to become world beaters.
Nico Williams is the brightest young attacking talent, but like both his brother and fellow youngster Nico Serrano, he is best out wide. A lack of a number nine is a major issue for Marcelino, and one that he has never before faced.
Not since Aritz Aduriz have Athletic Bilbao had a top class goalscorer. He’s left some big shoes to fill, and the club are struggling to find someone ready to step up. As long as that continues, and it seems that it could for some time, Marcelino will never be able to push Athletic on to become a team that really competes for more than a top six spot.