Atmosphere, ethos and intensity – how Ernesto Valverde and San Mames have revived Athletic Club once again

Athletic Club, a week before playing in their 40th Copa Del Rey final – just two behind Barcelona for all-time final appearances – will face a huge challenge against Real Madrid in the league, with the next 10 days to define the Basque outfit’s season. A win against Real Madrid would not only help morale going into the final, but also their league standing; currently fourth in the league, it would be huge in their run-in against Atletico Madrid for a top-four spot.

Let’s zoom out a little; how did Athletic Club get here? How has Ernesto Valverde revived a team that finished eighth last season without fully replacing the important players who left before the season started? What has changed, and what has stayed the same?


Ernesto Valverde keeps evolving as a coach

Valverde has had three tenures at Athletic Club, and has managed to finish fifth or higher in at least one season in each of his past two tenures, with a third one likely on the way. He’s tailor-made for this club, and has proven that time and time again, with each of his tenures better than the last. Valverde has risen to the challenge yet again, when it looked mightier than ever. Athletic are currently on course for their first top-four finish in a decade – the last time they did it was 2013-14, and you would never guess who was coaching them.

La Liga aside, they’re 90 minutes away from winning their first major trophy since 1984. They’ve been close in the past, but this season feels different. It feels more real than in times past and more attainable than ever for this exceptional team. This season really seems something special – unexpected even at the club, achieved through maximising his players’ output while building a team that gets results, and shows no fear, come who may.

Ernesto Valverde tiene decidido el sustituto del capitán del Athletic

This season alone, we’ve seen Athletic beat Atletico thrice (twice in the Copa Del Rey semis, once in La Liga, scoring six and conceding zero), Girona once (they drew the other game), and Barcelona once (drew one, lost one). The only team in the top five that they haven’t beaten all season are Real Madrid, who are also the only team they’ve lost to at home. Expectations have not just been exceeded, but blown past – a ringing endorsement of how well Valverde has coached this team.


Athletic Club, simply put, are an outstanding team

In the games I mentioned above, Athletic Club had 40% possession or lower in all of those wins, but watching the game, you could argue that you saw more of Athletic than the team facing, or rather fearing them. Los Leones have utilised a brilliant style of football under Valverde, as they keep dominating without the ball against the big teams. With Valverde, pragmatism has been obviously present throughout his career, but in other games as well, they suffocate their opponents, they play aggressive, vertical football, better than they’ve ever played under Valverde. For the opposition, they’re as terrifying as they have been without the ball since perhaps the Marcelo Bielsa days, and some might argue more so.

This part wasn’t so obvious. There’s a certain fluidity about this team that hasn’t been seen from the Basque side in a long time, and there’s this ‘switch-on’ moment whenever they are not playing in their usual, cognitive way – after which Athletic start annihilating opponents through efficiency. They run, they create and they score. Athletic have the third most touches (4585) in the attacking third in the league; they’ve also got the most recoveries (1599) and won the most tackles in the attacking third (74) through high-pressing sequences.

Los argumentos de Aitor Paredes y Dani Vivian para ser titulares en la Eurocopa 2024
Athletic’s central defensive pairing, Dani Vivian and Aitor Paredes.

Los Leones lost a key player last season in Inigo Martinez, and didn’t really replace him with a new signing. All of their signings were either players coming back from expired loans or free transfers, none of them were defenders. Valverde’s system, along with the players he has revived’ and helped to grow into better players, has shown a drastic improvement in defensively even after the departure Martinez: just 26 goals conceded, only Real Madrid’s 20 best them. Spain number one Unai Simon has been a blessing, but his has been a contribution not a carrying.

Athletic also already have more wins (16) than last season (15). In fact, they have more wins this season than any of their last six full seasons, and we’re only on the 29th matchday. There are striking parallels to their 2013-14 campaign, where they finished fourth and managed 20 league wins. Four wins in the last nine games is very doable, and even with the Copa del Rey final likely to vacuum attention for the next few weeks, Valverde has rotated his side expertly, keeping most of his players fit throughout the season, and primed for the most crucial part of the campaign.


Valverde’s man management skills have helped players have career-best seasons

Gorka Guruzeta – top scorer.

Trust also seems like a big thing for Valverde. For example, Gorka Guruzeta, who only started 17 league games last season, has become a mainstay in attack, scoring 15 goals as Athletic’s top scorer in all competitions. The Williams brothers have been lethal too, with 34 combined goal involvements for them. Particularly impressive has been Nico, who has been a creative hub with his 12 assists. Valverde has helped him expand his bag of tricks, and the younger Williams is creating chances for his teammates at an elite level, tripling his assist count from the 2022-23 season, where he had just four.

The Importance of San Mames

Watching the second leg of the semi-final of their Copa Del Rey clash against Atletico Madrid, and one thing caught eye above all else – even more than the incredible performance that Athletic put in – the record crowd pushing them to greater heights, louder and more spine-tingling. That game, and the crowd was the impetus for the piece – every duel, every chance created and every chance saved celebrated with unabashedly. The 52,061 people ensured the entirety of Spain felt their presence. San Mames is renowned for its atmosphere as it is, but this was a different decibel level.

Even outside the stadium, the fans made sure the neutrals knew how good the folk at San Mames can be.

The crowd are also a big reason why Athletic have had such an exceptional season. Their average league attendance this season is 46,011 – by far the highest not just since the inauguration of San Mames, but in any season dating back to the 1999-2000 season. Before that, there’s no data.

“Football is like a film,” Valverde said once, and in all honesty, seeing the atmosphere at San Mames that night, it didn’t feel less than one. The occasion was cinematic, but no fan of the game woke up without thinking of adding San Mames to their bucket list.

Athletic Club - Athletic Club's Official Website | Bilbao

It feels tough to zoom out and consider the fact that Athletic are still only signing players from the Basque region; it’s an almost inconceivable notion, especially in this day and age, that a club would stick to its core, traditional values even after the overall capitalisation and commercialisation of this sport. Ethos, atmosphere and intensity, all of these three things apply to the team, the coach, and to the fans – how it should be. There needs to be a positive synchronisation between club and supporters, and Athletic are truly a prime example of just that.

As a Real Madrid fan, this weekend is last time I would want Athletic to lose this season in an otherwise fantastic success story. Maybe it hasn’t been as impressive as the one in Catalonia, but it feels just as surreal and electric. Don’t believe me? Just ask anyone at San Mames.

Guest Post from Hridyam Arora.

Tags Athletic Club Champions League Ernesto Valverde
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