This time last year Athletic Bilbao were embarking upon what was to prove a wonderful if ultimately fruitless journey that put their name back not only among the footballing elite in Spain, but made them one of the most admired and talked about teams in Europe last season.
From the beginning of January until the end of May they played 38 times, playing every midweek for nearly five months and progressing to the finals of the Copa del Rey and the Europa League in Marcelo Bielsa’s first season in charge.
In just over a year though, the Argentine’s project seems to have come off the rails. Defeat to Levante at the weekend left the Basques 14th, precariously positioned above the six sides most certainly involved in a relegation battle, and just six points off the drop themselves. Moreover, they have already been eliminated from the two competitions they excelled in last season after a humiliating away goals defeat to Segunda Division B side Eibar in the last-32 of the Copa del Rey and failing to qualify from a Europa League group that included Sparta Prague and Hapoel Kiryat Shmona.
The disappointment is only compounded by the fact that this is the club’s 100th and final year at San Mamés before moving to the neighbouring San Mamés Barria stadium next season. So what has gone wrong in Bilbao?
The easy answer lies in a disruptive summer, the poisoned chalice of success are the vultures that lurk looking to snap up players. The club tried to play hard ball with their two most prized assets in Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente, but have ended up losing both, in the process alienating two players that had given them great service.
With Martinez, president Josu Urrutia can at least point to the €40m the club received by him demanding Bayern Munich match his release clause. However, receiving money in the transfer market means less to Athletic than almost any other club given their Basque only player policy greatly restricts what they can do with it and it also arrived far too late in the window for Munich’s millions to be used on any of the targets that were available to Bielsa.
Conversely, by holding onto Llorente despite the 27-year-old being in the final year of his contract, Urrutia has lost a valuable asset for nothing should he not move before the end of this month, and gained little on the field as Bielsa has alienated his talisman from last year in favour of Aritz Aduriz. More than one member of the squad has commented on how tired they are by the constant speculation of where Llorente will end up.
Aided to that disruption has been the loss of form for many of those who sparkled last season. Iker Muniain in particular has looked a shadow of the player who was touted as Spain’s brightest talent with his brilliant close control, eye for a pass and capability to score the odd important goal.
Indeed the man capped by Vicente del Bosque as recently as February, who scored both Athletic’s goals as they squeezed past Lokomotiv Moscow in the last-32 of the Europa League and in the memorable away wins at Manchester United and Schalke, has found the net only once this season - against Croatian minnows Slaven Belupo in the Europa League qualifiers.
Oscar de Marcos, Ander Herrera, Fernando Amorebieta and Andoni Iraola are also amongst those who have failed to hit the same heights this season, but perhaps the most worrying trend for Athletic fans is the feeling that their success last season was always going to be a flash in the pan because they were never quite as good as they seemed.
Despite threatening to challenge for the Champions League places well into the season, Athletic actually finished the campaign 10th on 49 points, just eight points ahead of relegated Villarreal and nine behind fourth-placed Malaga. Three of their four Copa del Rey opponents before facing Barcelona in the final were Segunda Division B sides and the other was a Mallorca team who were, at that point in the season, more interested in securing their survival in the top flight.
And indeed statistically their performance in the league has been remarkably similar this season compared to last. In true Bielsa style they continue to dominate possession with the third highest percentage in the league, but are still failing to turn that control into goals or even efforts on target. Moreover, Bielsa’s aggressive pressing style means his side’s will often be amongst the league’s most fervent tacklers but also leaves space once that line has been pierced, often leaving their goal wide open to efforts from the opposition.
Perhaps the most telling statistic of all though is the one that has significantly changed. Last season Athletic managed 1.28 goals per game and conceded 1.36. So far this term they have managed 1.22 a game but, without Martinez in the backline, have conceded at the much higher rate of 2.05.
Whether indeed it is the lack of the Bayern Munich midfielder, the benching of Llorente and Muniain’s slump that has caused the regression to the mean for a side that was possibly just riding the crest of a wave when it struck thrice at Old Trafford and four times in Gelsenkirchen, or whether it really was a summer of uncertainty that rocked the boat enough to capsize it, we will never know.
But sadly for the Bielsa brigade, Athletic fans and mere football lovers who enjoyed their adventure, Athletic, and the old San Mames, will never truly know what might have been.