“Previously I wasn't happy with our displays but I was satisfied with our attitude,” explained Coach Ernesto Valverde, "Now I'm concerned with both.” Embarrassingly beaten by BATE Borisov in the Champions League, the Athletic Bilbao side that pressed and fought their way to stunning victories last season was a mere shadow of itself in Europe, having managed only one point in four games. Depressed, broken and confused, losses can be tolerated but European football had seemingly resulted in the club losing its identity.
Having come fourth in the League last year, Athletic were the team no side enjoyed playing. Not only were they aggressive and opportunistic but teams exerted more energy playing them than any other side. They made life miserable for the opponent, especially when playing at home and exploited their opportunities to obtain a top four finish.
An impressive victory against one of Italy’s best sides, Rafael Benitez’ Napoli, showed many a glimpse of what to expect - a team that simply never gave up and used every last ounce of energy to grab a win. Champions League qualification was achieved at the end of August but after their victory against Levante, another win was not managed until the end of October.
Europe proved to be too much of a challenge for the Los Leones. For one thing, teams like Porto were not afraid of Athletic’s style of play and happily matched their intensity and aggression, waiting on their chances to score. Considering the verticality of their players, they achieved the victory with greater ease. European opponents were smarter, better and just as aggressive.
Valverde explained that unlike Barcelona and Real Madrid, who can afford to only play at 60% and still win, his men had to play to the maximum of their ability and with all their strength to simply compete. With such a packed schedule, it simply was not feasible to expect great victories. For now, their only hope is to make it to the Europa League.
The club’s miserable run of form started on September 13 when they were defeated 2-0 by Barcelona and it lasted until their win to Almeria in late October. They played nine games and conceded 15 goals, the once staunch defence collapsing too often. Some blamed their exhaustive style of play that requires exemplary levels of fitness - without it they risk exposing their back-line.
Unable to press with intensity in every match, Valverde’s squad was tired and incapable of remaining compact leaving opponents with ample space to create and finish in between the lines. Accumulating defeats, the squad understandably began to suffer mentally and soon surrendered their healthy state of mind, making way for even more individual mistakes and tactical confusion.
The win against Almeria restored some confidence and one began to see the effect of a beautifully stable Athletic back-line, allowing the team to defeat high flying Sevilla. The following week, they neutralised the strength of Nuno Santo’s Valencia, frustrating them with asphyxiating pressure. They were well and truly back.
Of course, they still have some problems. The midfield simply has to do more to help alleviate the pressure on lone striker Aritz Aduriz while it’s clear the skills of Ander Herrera are still terribly missed. However, the Champions League exit is perhaps a blessing in disguise for a squad that is simply not large enough to partake in several competitions.
Without the pressure of impressing in Europe, the Basque team can now devote all their energy to the one competition they care for more than anything, the league. As such, do they really want to qualify for the Europa League?