Athletic Club’s best season in years: How Ernesto Valverde built a winning team

The 2023/24 season will go down in history for fans of Athletic Club. The Basques’ fifth-place finish in LALIGA EA SPORTS is their best since the 2015/16 campaign, plus Bilbao became a city of football champions once again.

By winning the Copa del Rey, overcoming RCD Mallorca on penalties in the final, Athletic Club lifted that trophy for the 24th time and the first time since 1984. Since then, they had lost all six Copa del Rey finals they’d reached, but in April’s final Los Leones were able to respond to an early Dani Rodríguez goal, equalising through Oihan Sancet and then winning the shootout 4-2.

This is a squad with a winning mentality, and so much of the credit must go to Ernesto Valverde. The coach returned to San Mamés in the summer of 2022 for a third spell in charge of the club he used to play for, and just missed out on European qualification in his first season back.

This term, Athletic Club have been even better and Valverde has constructed the second-best defence in LALIGA EA SPORTS, thanks to a well-organised 4-2-3-1 formation. That solid defensive play translated to the Copa del Rey too, even with the usual backup goalkeeper Julen Agirrezabala starting matches in this competition instead of Unai Simón, as Los Leones conceded just four goals across their eight cup games.

Agirrezabala’s performances throughout the tournament were important, and he was decisive in saving one of the RCD Mallorca penalties in the shootout too. That speaks to the strength in depth of this Athletic Club squad, with lesser-used players such as Asier Villalibre or Malcom Adu Ares even scoring multiple goals during this cup run, supporting the usual attacking trio of Gorka Guruzeta, Nico Williams and Iñaki Williams, who made decisive contributions too. Interestingly, all four of the penalties the Basque outfit scored in the final were taken and converted by players who’d come off the bench. That includes Álex Berenguer, who converted the winning and historic spot kick, after also slotting away an important penalty away at Atlético de Madrid in the first leg of the semi-final tie.

It’s important to note that, on their run to the cup final, Athletic Club had to come up against FC Barcelona and Atlético de Madrid, yet they overcame both giants, scoring four goals against each. The boisterous San Mamés crowd certainly helped the team as they eliminated Barça and Atleti, and the Estadio de la Cartuja was so packed with fans of Los Rojiblancos that the final felt, at times, like another home game for Athletic Club. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 Athletic Club fans travelled to Seville for the final, the majority without tickets for the match.

This mass migration of fans was in stark contrast to the previous two Copa del Rey finals the Basques participated in, when no fans could attend due to the coronavirus pandemic. On both those occasions, the Athletic Club squad were praised for their tremendous sportsmanship after defeat, as the players stood applauding Real Sociedad and FC Barcelona for their success. This time, it was the turn of captain Iker Muniain to go up and collect the trophy and for Athletic Club to receive all the plaudits.

Muniain and Valverde had already felt the red and white confetti fall on their shoulders during their careers at Athletic Club, with the player winning the 2014/15 and 2020/21 Spanish Super Cups and with the coach there for the first of those triumphs. But, this Copa del Rey victory was extra special.

As Valverde told the media after the game: “It’s incredible, you can’t compare this title with any other. All you need is to see how the stadium was and how much this meant for the fanbase, after all these years fighting for this.”

Athletic Club will now play in Europe again for the first time since 2018, entering next season’s Europa League, while they’ll also return to the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia. After such an impressive 2023/24 campaign, Los Leones will look to build on that next year, and there’s every reason to believe they can achieve something special again.

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