It has been one week since Athletic Club’s season officially came to a close. Now, the summer transfer window is right around the corner and it going to be massive. The Basque giants have a lot of work to get done over the next few months and those decisions could be the difference between another successful season and taking a step backwards. With that being said, here is the blueprint to Athletic Club’s perfect summer.
SIGN KEPA ARRIZABALAGA TO A CONTRACT EXTENSION
Kepa Arrizabalaga is the present and future of the Athletic goal and has already become an absolutely sensational keeper. This season he has been one of the best shot-stoppers in all of La Liga, maybe even in Europe. Right now the 22-year-old has a contract until 2018 that contains a €30 million release clause. The Lions need to extend his deal and raise that clause to ensure that he remains at the San Mames for the long term. In a recent interview he made it clear that he wants to stay at Athletic for many years, which has given fans comfort.
Kepa has been a Lezama legend for several years now. Around the age of 15 he was already being called the future starting keeper and he has certainly lived up to that hype. The youngster has always said that his dream is to keep playing for Athletic and help the club win titles. Luckily, recent rumors suggest that he is close to extending his contract. There will likely be interested parties this summer, but if Athletic can make an extension happen, he will be at the San Mames for a very long time. This is the top priority for the summer.
Kepa’s isn’t the only deal that Athletic needs to address, even though it is the most important. With more clubs starting to show interest, it may be time to give Yeray an increase in wages as well as a higher release clause. The young defender does have a contract until 2022 so the duration certainly isn’t a problem, but it would certainly be prudent to ensure that his €30 million release clause goes up to discourage any interested clubs.
SIGN MIKEL MERINO AND ALEX BERENGUER
As far as summer signings are concerned, Mikel Merino and Alex Berenguer are the top prizes for Athletic Club. Apart from Mikel Oyarzabal, these two are the most exciting young Basque players in football that aren’t currently at Athletic. Merino has shown the ability to one day become a world class midfielder, while Berenguer’s versatility, pace, and dribbling ability can give the team a new dynamic in attack.
If Athletic managed to sign just one of these players it would be seen as a good summer. However, signing both would be absolutely perfect. Merino and Berenguer would actually replace Saborit and Elustondo in the squad, which would be massive upgrades at a young age and high ceiling. Making these transfers happen could play a big role in creating depth in Ziganda’s squad and getting Athletic back to the Champions League.
Additionally, there are a few other names that the Lions could target. Eibar’s Ander Capa would bring strength to the right-back position and free up Oscar de Marcos to play in a more advanced role once again. Dani Garcia could also give a new dimension to the midfield if Mikel Merino isn’t brought in. The Basques are also said to be in the market for a new striker, such as Real Sociedad’s Jon Bautista, but he has a €30 million release clause which basically prices him out of Athletic’s market. Lastly, Kuko Ziganda is hopeful of convincing Nacho Monreal to make the switch to the San Mames, having coached him at Osasuna and given him his first team debut.
SAY GOODBYE TO ENRIC SABORIT, GORKA ELUSTONDO, AND JAVI ERASO
The door is closing for Enric Saborit and Gorka Elustondo. The pair will see their contracts expire in June and there is no reason that Athletic should offer them extensions. While neither has really been a bad player, they also haven’t played at a high level. If Athletic wants to compete in three tournaments they need valuable depth and they won’t get that from these two.
Saborit may have the opportunity to stay in La Liga if Eibar cannot come to an agreement on an extension for Antonio Luna, but it is more likely that he would find a home in the Segunda. Elustondo, on the other hand, has finally hit 30 meaning his footballing career is nearing the end. He may still be able to find a home as a role player in the top flight. Gorka Iraizoz will also see his contract end and he has been open and honest about the fact that he will not be continuing at Athletic Club. In a recent interview, President Josu Urrutia stated that there is no concrete plan for them right now.
Javi Eraso is another player that could be on the way out. After playing a big role in his return season, the midfielder has seen his minutes drop drastically. With Mikel Vesga returning, along with Ager Aketxe and Unai Lopez possibly, it will be even harder for Eraso to find playing time. Add in the possibility of Mikel Merino being signed and he just doesn’t have a place in the team. Luckily, there would be many suitors for Eraso who has a lot of experience in the first division. He has been a great role player for the club, but it is time to find stronger depth to compete on three fronts.
GIVE A FEW LEZAMA STARS A SHOT AT THE FIRST TEAM THIS SUMMER
The most important pillar of Athletic Club is the Lezama academy. Every year there are players that make their case for joining the first team and it seems like at least one youngster is promoted every summer. This time around, there are at five players who deserve to spend the summer with the first team: Asier Villalibre, Unai Nunez, Inigo Cordoba, Andoni Lopez, and Iker Undabarrena.
Villalibre has already made his debut and is a familiar name. The young striker is one of the few Lezama standouts that could one day replace Aritz Aduriz. His form over the last few years and while with the first team should give him a chance to earn his promotion. Unai Nunez is the latest young center-back to star for Bilbao Athletic. He took over for Yeray this season and has been absolutely phenomenal. His strength and leadership make him deserving of a shot, especially with Xabi Etxeita’s place in the team in question. Inigo Cordoba, Andoni Lopez, Iker Undabarrena should also be able to spend the summer with the Lions. The trio had strong seasons at Bilbao Athletic and have proven that they are ready for a step up in their careers.
Recent reports have said that Nunez and Cordoba will officially play the preseason with the first team, while Villalibre has been a guarantee for a while now. Andoni Lopez’s involvement will likely come down to whether or not the Lions are able to secure the signing of someone like Alex Berenguer or Nacho Monreal. It’s clear that Athletic needs to introduce new life into the first team squad and these Lezama stars could have the chance to earn a full promotion this summer.
MAKE A DECISION ON AGER AKETXE AND UNAI LOPEZ
Ager Aketxe and Unai Lopez could have very bright futures at Athletic Club, but it still doesn’t look like they have a place in the team; at least, not both of them. The midfield is crowded in Bilbao and it is very unlikely that both youngsters will be able to stay with the first team. It is time for Athletic Club to make a decision on what to do with the pair so that they can continue developing as professional footballers. Before tearing his ACL last season, Aketxe was guaranteed a place in the first team. Since returning and going out on loan to Cadiz, he has continued to play well. To many he does done enough to warrant a spot in Kuko Ziganda’s squad. Meanwhile, Lopez had a perfect chance to cement his place in the team while on loan at Leganes this year. But the midfielder failed to play at a high level and prove that he is ready.
At first glance, Aketxe is the one who has the best chance of staying with the first team, even though Lopez spent the year in the Primera. Aketxe has played at a very high level for Cadiz in the Segunda and has become a free kick specialist as well. His ability to influence games has improved quite a bit and he could seemingly take Eraso’s place in the team. Still, Lopez hasn’t played poorly while at Leganes and his experience in the top flight may be enough to convince the Lions to keep him in the squad next year. Whatever decision the club makes, it shouldn’t be dragged out all summer. These two have a lot of potential and need minutes if they are going to continue developing and growing.
DECIDE WHO WILL BE KEPA’S BACKUP
This year Ernesto Valverde began the campaign with three goalkeepers, which confused a lot fans. The idea was for Iago Herrerin to play cup matches while Iraizoz helped prepare Kepa for La Liga. Instead, Kepa quickly took over the starting role, which meant that there wasn’t room for three players in the squad. In January, Herrerin left to join Leganes on loan and has played well.
This summer there will still be three keepers in the squad and Athletic can’t make the same mistake again. Kepa’s role as the starter will not be changing, but Iago Herrerin and Alex Remiro will be fighting for their place behind him. It is important that the coaching staff makes a quick decision on who will leave so that there is no wasted time during preseason preparations. Right now it doesn’t look like Remiro will be ready to play in both the Copa del Rey and Europa League, so the more likely scenario is that Iago Herrerin will regain his role from seasons gone by. However, the keeper caused a bit of drama recently when he made a statement about not wanting to be a backup next year when he could start at a club like Leganes.
What do you think Athletic needs to do this summer? Who should they buy and who should leave the club? Will the Lions have enough to qualify for Europe for a fifth straight season?