Cuco Ziganda will be the next manager of Athletic Club de Bilbao. On Tuesday it was reported that Ernesto Valverde had informed club President Josu Urrutia that he would be leaving when the season ends, and the plan is for Ziganda to be promoted to first team manager. Urrutia is hopeful that he can convince Valverde to change his mind about leaving by signing Alex Berenguer and Mikel Merino, but it looks like Txingurri’s mind is made up. Luckily for the club, promoting Ziganda has been the plan for several years now and he has been preparing for the role since he took over Bilbao Athletic back in 2011.
With Ziganda ready to take over at the San Mames, the question must be asked: Is he ready to become the Athletic Club manager? There are certain things that every manager needs to have to be successful, and that list grows when the club is Athletic. So, does Ziganda have what it takes?
Relates to players well and can motivate? Check. Ability to work with and develop youth? Proven. Passionate about the club and it’s identity? Absolutely. Has proven that he can coach at the highest level? Well, this where the questions about Ziganda’s readiness come into play.
Ziganda’s had a very successful career with Athletic Club, playing in over 250 matches and being a focal point of the attack. After retiring, he returned to his boyhood club Osasuna where he took over the reserve team. The following year he was promoted to the first team coaching position. Osasuna made a deep run in the Europa League that season, making it all the way to the semifinals before being eliminated by Sevilla. They finished the year 14th in the league table, but were the top Basque club in Spain with Athletic haven’t avoided relegation by a single point and Real Sociedad not being as lucky.
The following year Ziganda’s Osasuna took a step back, narrowing avoiding relegation by one point. Losing key players like Raul Garcia, now an Athletic Club star, did not make things any easier and had some to do with the club’s drop. The next summer saw other players such as Carlos Vela and Javi Garcia leave the club, limiting the squad even further. Osasuna failed to win a single game in their first six matches of the next campaign and Ziganda was relieved of his duties.
After being sacked, Ziganda found a new home with Xerez who had earned promotion for the first time in their history. Understandably, Xerez found it very difficult to compete in the Primera and by January were at the bottom of the La Liga table with only 17 points. This lead to Ziganda’s release once again. Xerez would go on to be relegated and has never returned to the top flight, dropping several divisions over the years.
In 2011 Athletic Club needed to find a new manager to lead Bilbao Athletic and turned their attention to former legend Cuco Ziganda. From his time with Osasuna and Xerez they saw a lot of potential. Ziganda had showed the keen ability to develop and utilize youth as well as the great ability to relate to players and motivate them. The club signed him to be the reserve team manager with the intention of grooming him to one day take over the first team job.
Since taking over at Bilbao Athletic, Ziganda has done an excellent job. In his first season, the Cachorros finished 8th in the table, a four spot improvement from the previous year and their worst finish under Ziganda so far. The following years the lowest finish was 5th place and even included a promotion to the Second Division. This season, the reserve time currently sits 14th in the table with 47 points and four matches left to play, but it should be mentioned that they are only 4 points off of 6th place. Not only has Ziganda kept the team competitive this season, he has done so after losing his entire starting lineup from the previous campaign.
Ziganda has done an impressive job at balancing results with player development. His priority has clearly been getting players ready for the first team and he has utilized rotations as a key part of that. There are many stars who have played for Cuco Ziganda and gone on to make their first team debuts and becoming established professional footballers. Here is a sample list of those players: Aymeric Laporte, Ramalho, Javi Eraso, Erik Moran, Guillermo, Sabin Merino, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Enric Saborit, Ager Aketxe, Yeray, Unai Lopez, Inigo Lekue, Inaki Williams, Mikel Vesga, and Asier Villalibre.
Everyone who has played for Ziganda at Bilbao Athletic have the same things to say about him. He is a player’s coach who relates well to his team, can clearly convey his ideas and what he wants, and knows how to motivate. When compared to Ernesto Valverde, the tactics are nearly identical but the management styles are vastly different. Valverde is much more laid back and keeps a very professional relationship with his players, while Ziganda is more fiery and energetic while building more personal relationships. Aside from Bilbao Athletic, he also coached the likes of Raul Garcia while at Osasuna and the midfielder has backed him to take over if Valverde leaves.
So is Cuco Ziganda ready to take over the first team job? There really is no way of knowing until he does. He has proven that he can develop and utilize youth while also being a great motivator. Truly he has everything you want in an Athletic Club manager, other than proven success coaching in the Primera. In his two stints in La Liga he was forced to lead small clubs with limited resources, but was able to take Osasuna deep into the Europa League and Copa del Rey. Perhaps with Athletic Club he will have the squad and resources necessary to realize his potential as a football manager and continue the success at the San Mames.
At the end of the day, there is a reason that Cuco Ziganda is the heavy favorite to take over for Ernesto Valverde. He is a club legend, has build consistency in Lezama, and has worked hard to grow and improve as a manager. He has been on record saying that it is a dream and honor to represent the identity of Athletic and could even be a long term manager at the club, which would provide stability and consistency to the role. Ziganda has been preparing for this promotion for six years and it is now or never. The only way to really now what he can do with Athletic Club is to hand him the keys to the San Mames. Unless Josu Urrutia can convince Ernesto Valverde to change his mind about leaving, the Cuco Ziganda era at Athletic Club is about to begin.