The summer of 2017 may go down in history as the one in which the transfer market exploded into a barely recognisable mush of TV dollars and Qatari cheques, but one team avoided it completely. In fact, they didn’t sign any players in the three previous transfer windows either. That team is Athletic Club Bilbao, who have not signed a single player for their senior squad since purchasing Raúl García from Atlético Madrid on August 31, 2015.
Why is that? Well, the club is famous for its policy of only fielding players born in the Basque region or of Basque descent, meaning that their options in the window are limited. This summer, for instance, their efforts were essentially focussed on one player, Borussia Dortmund’s Mikel Merino, so as soon as he went to Newcastle United it meant that Athletic were left with little else to choose from. Like a little old man who can only reach one or two shelves in the supermarket, there was nothing left for the Bilbao-based team once Merino was pinched by Rafa Benítez ahead of them.
Yet Athletic will cope just fine without Merino and without any other new arrivals. They always do. When they lined up against Eibar in the second round of this LaLiga season, the 10 players on the Athletic teamsheet not named Raúl García were all graduates from the club’s Lezama youth academy. That’s right, T-E-N. Or 91% of the team. That is beyond incredible for a top-flight club in the year 2017, yet Athletic is different.
“The secret of the Athletic transfer policy is that while Real Madrid or Barcelona or the big teams around Europe spend big or invest their money in signing the best players from around the world, what Athletic do is to invest that money in bringing young talents to the academy,” local journalist Eduardo Fernandez-Abascal has explained in a video with Copa90. The fact that Athletic is one of the biggest clubs in all of Spain means that they earn a substantial amount from shirt sales, matchday revenue and TV income, so there is a huge budget available for the scouting and coaching of their youth setup if they’re not frittering those euros away on transfers – even at the same time as they built a brand new stadium, which opened in 2013. As such, their academy is one of the best in the country, as evidenced by the fact that their B team (Bilbao Athletic) were competing in the second tier of professional football just two seasons ago, a division only Sevilla and Barcelona’s B teams have reached since.
“The secret of the Athletic transfer policy is that while Real Madrid or Barcelona or the big teams around Europe spend big or invest their money in signing the best players from around the world, what Athletic do is to invest that money in bringing young talents to the academy,”
Finding and developing these youngsters is only half the battle, though. Barcelona’s youth academy is similarly always pregnant with talented young players, but they so very rarely get a chance, spoiling the fruits of the academy directors’ work. In Bilbao, though, there is a clear and obvious pathway from the B team to the first team, often passing through fourth-tier affiliate club Basconia first. This progression is most recently symbolised by the fact that the just-departed Ernesto Valverde was replaced by B team coach Cuco Ziganda. “Some people who aren’t from here might not understand it,” Ziganda said in a recent press conference, referring to the lack of summer signings and the trust in youth. “But our strength comes from the youth academy, which is the key to everything, and two players have just come up to the senior squad,” he added, referring to 20-year-olds Iñigo Córdoba and Unai Núñez. Already both have represented the senior side in 2017/18.
It also helps that when Athletic do pull the trigger and decide to buy a player that they so often hit the bullseye, whether by signing a complete outsider like Raúl García or Ander Herrera, or whether by re-signing a former youth graduate who’d gotten away like Aritz Aduriz or Beñat Etxebarria. These players have all contributed to the first team’s success, while Herrera even moved on to Manchester United for a tidy profit.
One other important thing to consider in all of this is that they do still sign players from other clubs at youth level; it’s at senior level that they’ve not made a purchase in two years. So this summer, for example, they brought in Jesús Areso from Osasuna, Gaizka Larrazabal from Zamudio, Jon Rojo from Deusto and Asier Benito from Alavés. For other clubs in the region, this hoovering up of the very best Basque talent has become an increasingly thorny issue, with Osasuna even throwing such a hissy fit over Athletic’s activating of Areso’s release clause that they cut ties with the Bilbao club and that they even sought to insert anti-Athletic clauses into the contracts of players they were selling to other clubs. For Athletic, though, it makes perfect sense to acquire the best from the small pool of eligible players at an early age, paying smaller transfer fees and then being able to school them in the club’s style and ways at the Lezama academy.
This way of operating may seem strange to many clubs, but it has served Athletic well over the years, with the Bilbao-based club one of just three LaLiga founders never to have been relegated – with Barcelona and Real Madrid being the other two. In recent times, Athletic have been able to qualify for Europe in each of the past four seasons, including a Champions League group stages appearance in 2014/15. Throw the 2015 Supercopa de España triumph in as well and there can be no doubting that Athletic know what they’re doing. Going two years without making any signings may be unusual. But Athletic Club Bilbao is an unusual, and successful, club.