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Know Thine Enemy: Atlético-Athletic Q&A with James Etxegorri

We caught up with the Athletic Club authority in advance of Sunday’s match.

Atletico Madrid v Las Palmas - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Into the Calderón: First of all: how surprised/relieved were you at Kepa Arrizabalaga’s renewal considering Real Madrid’s heavy interest? (Very happy he stayed, by the way.)

James Etxegorri: I really wasn’t surprised that Kepa renewed. He’s always been outspoken about loving Athletic. The issue was always that he wanted a specific deal to renew and the Club wasn’t just going to hand him that deal. I expected that in the end they would cave in to his demands (as they should have). Still, I was very relieved because it wouldn’t have been a shock for him to leave. In the end, when the first few days of January passed without a deal with Real Madrid I expected that he was still in contract renewal talks and that had me calm.

ItC: Kinda by the same token, that Iñigo Martínez signing was pretty stunning. How weird is it to have him at Athletic considering his past?

JE: Iñigo joining was very much a shocker. He’s been very vocal about loving Real Sociedad and has said many times that he “would never join the other side”. You can’t ignore the fact that he wasn’t happy at La Real the last 12 months. The club were not trustworthy with things they had promised him and he didn’t feel valued anymore. Joining Athletic was definitely a hard decision but he got a very big deal and that can be very enticing. I also think playing for Athletic with their Basque-only policy piqued his interests too as he’s very in tune with his heritage.

It still doesn’t feel real that he’s an Athletic player but he’s been really happy and immediately filled the Aymeric Laporte hole at the back. Great, great job by the Club to make that happen. I never thought I’d see the day.

ItC: Kuko Ziganda’s first season in charge has seen mixed results, to say the least. What have the issues been with his coaching and does he have many supporters left?

JE: Kuko was always going to get the job when Ernesto Valverde left because he earned it and was being groomed for it. The players love him, front office loves him, President Urrutia loves him...but it just isn’t working.

Athletic Club v Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

For the most part he isn’t playing direct enough football which is making it difficult to score and put pressure on opponents. At the same time there have just been a lot of games where it seems that he doesn’t know what to do or what changes to make. I think fans want someone else who has a proven track record and can command a team. Kuko has always been a player’s coach who wants to partner with the players, but I think it’s time for a manager who will lead.

Kuko has lost almost all of his fan support, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will be gone soon.

ItC: Iñaki Williams is probably the most influential Athletic player not named Aritz Aduriz or Raúl García. Where do you think his ceiling is?

JE: Iñaki is such a special player that still has a lot to improve on. I don’t think we will ever see him as one of the best in the world, but I think he can reach the tier right below that. He has elite speed, touch and a powerful shot. He isn’t afraid to defend and is a team player who is loyal to his club. He just needs to improve his finishing and become more lethal. He’s one of Athletic’s pillars for the future and with good reason.

ItC: Without Aduriz and Rulo, what’s the game plan for beating Atlético Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano?

JE: Without Aduriz and Raúl García it is going to be very difficult for Athletic to take something from this, especially on the road. I expect Iñaki to start up top and the team to try to take advantage of his speed. A lot of through balls and playing through the middle, perhaps. Not having Iker Muniain will also limit the team a lot. Kuko could decide to shake things up and play Oscar De Marcos further up the pitch which could help a lot. Still, the entire attack is going to run through Iñaki.

ItC: Prediction time.

JE: I just don’t see any way Athletic can realistically win this match. Aduriz and Raul Garcia are such vital components to the team and the energy that breathes life into the squad. The Lions are going to miss a lot of punch and bite without those two. At the same time, Atlético is a more defensive team so I will go with a 1-0 win for los colchoneros.