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Hinchas y Jugadores - Athletic Bilbao with James Etxegorri (5th May, 2017)

James Extegorri runs the website with the most up-to-date news on Athletic Club, insideathletic.com. You can follow it on Twitter here too.

A bit about yourself and your background...

My name is James Etxegorri. I am a Basque-Catalan who was born in the United States. I moved back to Bilbao when I was older to get close to my family and heritage. I grew up loving Athletic Club and the Basque Country. My heritage and family has shaped a lot of my identity.

How long have you been a fan of Athletic Bilbao and what made you support them in the first place?

I have been an Athletic Club supporter since I was a child. Being Basque, my entire family loved Athletic. Supporting Athletic isn’t just being a fan of a club; it is a way of life and an identity. I’ve seen the club’s ups and downs and have loved every moment.

Given the transfer windows and the squad that was assembled at the start of the season, is Athletic Bilbao where you want it to be?

Athletic’s Basque only policy does limit the transfer window, but there is always talent and ways to improve. Last summer the club did not make a single signing and chose to promote 3 players instead. Yeray and Kepa Arrizabalaga have become unrivaled starters this season, while Mikel Vesga is playing very well on loan at Sporting Gijón. When the season began I thought Athletic had to finish in the top 6 for it to be a successful year. Finishing 4th to be in the Champions League was the dream. Ernesto Valverde has had Athletic in Europe every single season, so keeping that going was the goal. Right now Athletic is 6th in the table with tie breakers on the two clubs right underneath them. Also, just one point separates Athletic and Villarreal for 5th place. Based on what I was expecting and hoping for when the season began, I’m happy with where the club is currently sitting in the table. The early exit from the Europa League was disappointing though.

Of the signings made this season, which one worked out the best/had the most impact and why?

Well, seeing as how no new signings were made I guess we can look at the promotions. Yeray and Kepa have been absolutely excellent and it is nearly impossible to separate them. Both have been vital to the club’s success so I really can’t choose one over the other.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of Athletic Bilbao this season? Any standout players?

Athletic’s strength continues to be the ability to control possession and dominate in the air. The midfield has been strong and is the base of operations. Going forward, the Lions like to use to wings to create space before moving the ball into the center. Aritz Aduriz is the focal point of the attack and is great at finishing crosses. Iñaki Williams and Iker Muniain are able to create out wide, using their pace and dribbling ability. The most important player is Beñat. He is the one who orchestrates everything in the midfield. When Beñat plays well, Athletic plays well; but when he goes missing, the Lions tend to struggle.  As far as weaknesses, Athletic can sometimes struggle to create chances and finish chances. There have been games when the team hasn’t created any real scoring threat, and there have been games when they had plenty of chances and just couldn’t finish. At times, Athletic has also started games slowly and that has hurt them.

List some things you appreciate and some things you can’t stand about the club management. 

To be honest, there isn’t much that I dislike about Athletic. I love everything the club stands for, from the Basque only policy to the focus on youth development. To highlight some specifics, Athletic has a very specific pay structure that I find amazing. It has helped the club not get into debt like the vast majority of other European clubs. The only thing I can really think of that I find negative is that the club will sometimes refuse to pay what it takes to sign a player, which causes them to miss out. Then again, it does make sense. The policy makes other clubs ask a ton from Athletic and the Lions shouldn’t really set the precedence of overpaying because it will only get worse. But sometimes the club should open the purse a bit more to get a player when they really want him.

 What has the mood among the fans been during the campaign? Do you generally agree/disagree with them?

The mood in Bilbao has been very good. Fans are excited to see the club making a strong push for 5th place. There was a lot of disappointment over being eliminated so early from the Europa League and rightfully so. The team should have made it further, but a strong finish in the league will be seen with a lot of joy. I agree with the general outlook of the majority of fans.

 Are there any talented youngsters at the club that you expect to have a big future?

Well, Yeray and Kepa have been great in their first season. Laporte, Iñaki, Lekue, Sabin Merino, and Iker are all still young as well. As far as players not in the first team, there are many who could have big futures. First is Asier Villalibre. He is a left-footed striker who is a great goal scorer and made his debut this season. Peru Nolaskoain (CM), Jon Sillero (RB), Iker Undabarrena (DM), and Iñigo Córdoba (LW) all have a high ceiling as well. Lastly, there are two young strikers who have really been turning heads. Iñigo Vicente broke basically every scoring record at Lezama and could make his debut as early as next year. Ruben Azcona set a Juvenil scoring record this year with 51 goals, nearly 20 more than the previous record. Lezama is full of talented youngsters.

If you could make one realistic signing for Athletic Bilbao this summer who would it be?
As far as realistic signings go, there are two players Athletic is looking at: Alex Berenguer and Mikel Merino. Berenguer can play left-back or left-wing and has a lot of pace. Merino is a central midfielder that could become Beñat’s eventual replacement. Both signings would be incredible, but Merino is the one I would sign if I could only choose one. He has the quality to become a world class midfielder.

Finally, predicted finish for Athletic Bilbao?

I think Athletic will and should finish in the top 6. Finishing 5th is definitely likely, but as long as they are in the top 6 then the goal has been achieved.

A huge thanks to James for agreeing to do this!

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