Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Sevilla have all had good transfer windows, but you’ll be hard pushed to find a club who has enjoyed a better January than Athletic Club de Bilbao.
Before the window opened, Athletic goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga looked certain to be joining Real Madrid, while the club were braced for potential bids for defender Aymeric Laporte and forward Iñaki Williams.
Their Basque-only recruitment policy makes identifying possible replacements a tough job, and they would no doubt struggle to land adequate replacements if two or three of those players were to leave.
In an unexpected twist, Kepa’s proposed transfer to Real Madrid fell through at the last minute, apparently due to Zinedine Zidane vetoing the move. The promising keeper instead signed a new contract at Athletic until 2025, with his buy-out clause increasing from €20m to €80m.
Liverpool were said to be sniffing around Williams, and at the start of January €50m would have been enough to trigger his release clause. But halfway through the month, Athletic landed another major coup by persuading him to sign a new contract at San Mamés. His new deal, like Kepa’s, will run until 2025, with a buy-out clause starting at €80m and increasing every year.
So far, so good for Athletic. With the futures of two of their key players assured, they were able to consider the possibility of selling Laporte, if someone made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Enter Manchester City. Athletic were powerless to turn down an offer of €65m for the French defender from Pep Guardiola’s side, and the deal was done. In spite of the huge fee received, Laporte’s departure made it look like the Bilbao side’s transfer window would end in disappointment after all.
But they had an ace up their sleeve. With the ink barely dry on Laporte’s City contract, Athletic announced the signing of his replacement – none other than Iñigo Martínez, from their bitter rivals Real Sociedad.
This is a truly spectacular piece of business. €32m was all it took to trigger Martínez’s release clause, less than half the amount recouped for Laporte. In Martínez, Athletic have landed a player who is as good, if not better than Laporte, and pocketed a net €33m profit into the bargain.
On top of that, Athletic’s fans will be delighted to have got one over on their enemies from San Sebastián. While Athletic haven’t lost in ten La Liga games (despite drawing seven of those ten), La Real are slipping into a relegation scrap, and their cause won’t be helped by losing their best defender. The fact that Martínez has defected to Athletic is bad enough, but that he did so having previously said he would “never go to the other side” is unforgivable in the eyes of La Real fans, which only makes it sweeter for Athletic’s support.
Martínez’s release clause has been set at €80m, just like Kepa and Williams – high enough to be a deterrent, but not so high as to be prohibitive. All three men may wish to move at some point should a bigger club come calling, in which case those clauses will ensure Athletic are handsomely remunerated for their prized assets.
Such is Athletic’s standing in football’s food chain. They are a historically big club that is somewhat hamstrung by their own transfer policy, which ultimately forces it to be a selling club.
For now, though, they need not worry. There are many things to admire about Athletic Club, but the way in which they’ve handled their contract renewals and transfer business this month has been nothing short of exemplary. Not only have they made a tidy profit, they have also kept their squad in good shape and guaranteed themselves a decent income from future sales.
This allows them to prosper within their limits in the present, and to invest in their famous academy for the future. The transfer of Martínez has shown that Athletic are still the biggest fish in the Basque pond, and they will no doubt be able to tempt players to join from Real Sociedad, Eibar and Alavés in future should they so desire.
There has also been talk of Mikel Merino joining from Newcastle before the end of the January sales. He would be a great addition to the squad if they could get him through the door, but even if it doesn’t come to fruition, they can still consider themselves huge transfer window winners. Now all that remains is to start turning some of those draws into wins…