Ernesto Valverde

In 2024, is Valverde’s Athletic Club the most entertaining football team?

Ernesto Valverde feels football is like a film—sometimes a trilogy. The man who allayed doubts that sequels are never good by reminding everyone of The Godfather Part II when he returned to Bilbao for a second term as coach in 2013 and led them to their first trophy in 31 years has done it again.

If Part II was better than the first, with “The Ant” becoming the only manager who could match his success, Part III of his San Mames epic could be the best, with Valverde back to take them where they’ve never been, not even with him.

Athletic signed Valverde in the summer of 2022 after he was fired by Barcelona, had not worked in 30 months, and signed for one season. At least he was home with people who appreciated him, and he insisted it was an adventure, which was great.

Eighth in the league, Athletic’s highest position since he left, and four minutes from the Copa del Rey final in his first season, they reached the final in April against Mallorca in Seville a year later with his contract extended.

They scored two more to beat Alavés on Saturday and go into fourth, poised to qualify for the Champions League for the third time and first since his time as manager.

Victory wasn’t easy, but Athletic is irresistible. Alavés led for 30 minutes and won a penalty at 0-0 in their penultimate home game before the final, a last chance to wish them luck. However, Unai Simón saved well and 40 seconds later Nico Williams, who had conceded the spot-kick, set up Gorka Guruzeta to score.

“That minute determined the game,” Valverde remarked. Athletic dominated, with Iñaki Williams accidently setting up Guruzeta for a second. San Mames fans cheered their players off to Seville. “I enjoyed it a lot, especially when it finished,” Valverde remarked.

READ ALSO ⚽  Real Madrid vs Barcelona - The Story Of A Rivalry

There were others, and Saturday wasn’t an exception. There may be no team as enjoyable to watch, no one faster or more demanding, and no stadium so boisterous and unrelenting that what occurs on the pitch effects what happens in the stands.

Nowadays, every San Mames game is a fiesta, according to El Correo Vasco. Supporters are retrieving a lost emotion, like a childhood recollection for those in their 50s and 60s, after 40 years.

Yes, this is special. Athletic won the Super Cup in 2015 and 2021, but not a significant prize since 1984’s Copa del Rey. Forty years, a generation, and not just the cup: “It’s not easy not to think about the final,” Valverde said, but they had to try because there were other goals.

“We’re not renouncing anything, and that includes the Champions League,” the coach declared last week. Seven days later, custodian Simón stated, “We have to aspire to fourth place.” If they reach there, it would be huge:

Athletic’s Basque-only policy is almost normalised, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that a team with less than 8% of Spain’s population is competing in the fiercest, most global, most capitalist competition.

Style is also included. Athletic have won 11 of their past 12 home matches, drawing Barcelona three days after the semi-final after playing extra time.

They have no losses at San Mames since the opening night. No surprise the sporting director comments, “The fans are happy, and it’s not just results: it’s the way they play: vertical, aggressive.”

On Saturday, Alavés coach Luis García stated that they “flatten” you. “They’re spectacular,” said visiting defender Ander Guevara. “We try to be a nightmare for opponents,” Valverde says.

Nobody plays harder or higher. Whether that was true last year or not, presently it is efficient.

READ ALSO ⚽  Real Madrid - Barcelona 3:1 - Our impression

Teamwide, they fly. The Spain squad has five Athletic players. No primera centre-back pairing has played more games than Dani Vivian and Aitor Paredes.

Óscar de Marcos will eventually tyre, but not today. Midfielder Íñigo Ruiz de Galarreta, who made his Athletic debut in 2012, has returned after 10 years, seven teams, and three cruciate ligament rupture.

He appears to be the player they wanted Oihan Sancet has six assists. Guruzeta called Simón’s season “terrifying” and suggested he’s not far behind. “Well,” the striker adds, “if I don’t believe in me, we’re screwed.”

Guruzeta, an academy product, returned to Athletic last summer after two relegations from the second division. Teammate Iñigo Lekue says, “Everything he touches is a goal,” his two goals on Saturday bringing him to 13 in primera, three behind Pichichi.

His teammates compare him to Karim Benzema, a facilitator and finisher, not just a scorer. Iñaki Williams, playing on the right, has nine, aiming for his career high in the centre.

Without his brother, he could be La Liga’s finest winger: he and Nico are Spain’s best. Valverde may lead them all. “Ernesto is the boss and always right; he brings out our best,” Iñaki Williams explains.

After overcoming the difficulties to win two league titles, the first amid the approaching storm, Valverde was fired by Barcelona in January 2020. He left the club on top of the table, which collapsed in his absence.

He returned home in central Bilbao. Once, he wanted to escape and clear his brain. Cycled, played guitar in his band, snapped photos. He exhibited and published his photos, but he never liked promoting them, which may have hurt him.

Few have won so much quietly. After the Cup semi-final versus Atlético, he commented, “I would like to come bouncing in here, but it just doesn’t come out. “Maybe I’ll cartwheel out.”

READ ALSO ⚽  4 reasons why Real Madrid will win La Liga

During the presidential elections two years ago, Valverde remained neutral, believing that choosing a candidate would cause division and that he was confident in continuing with Marcelino García Toral.

No need to pitch—Athletic knew where to find him. He ultimately agreed on two candidates, a consensus. Only Valverde could have defeated Marcelo Bielsa, a third candidate. Ander Herrera: “Ernesto is the best coach Athletic could have.”

The connection is evident when Valverde says, “What Athletic means in Bilbao, Vizcaya, I have not seen anywhere,” admitting that there is stress that draws you in.

He is defined by his composure, ability to relativize, and ability to sail through the storm and the BS. “It feels like ‘bloody hell it’s the end of the world if we don’t win’ and on Monday life continues,” he says.

“Sun breaks out tomorrow.” Players like it. Herrera says, “He’s not a pain in the arse.” “He only values what matters. He’s normal.” As for Iñaki Williams, he says, “What can I say about Ernesto?” His stats speak for themselves.”

He alone can match such numbers, starting with three episodes that get better. Athletic has only finished fourth once before this century, with him. Only twice, they were fifth.

That was their only Champions League appearance in 25 years. One of their two Super Cups is his. They have never won a major trophy, but they are 90 minutes from a first since 1984, a generation ago, and nine games from the largest tournament.

It’s near, but two enormous steps remain. So much for sequels being bad. “I like all the Godfathers,” Valverde says. The first and second were good. The third? Maybe, who knows. We’ll attempt to ensure that too.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top