Losing your best player will always have an adverse effect on a team. Liverpool have struggled this season following the sale of Luis Suarez to Barcelona, while Tottenham failed to sufficiently replace Gareth Bale after his record breaking move to Real Madrid. Athletic Club are following suit having floundered through the first 6 weeks of the campaign on the back of Ander Herrera's big money move to Manchester United.
The Spaniard was Athletic's highest rated player (7.41) according to WhoScored last season and it's fair to assume they are still licking their wounds in the wake of his departure. It is no excuse for such a poor start to the campaign, however. Los Leones currently sit 1 point above bottom-placed Cordoba in La Liga having lost 4 of their opening 6 games of the season, their only win coming in a 3-0 win over Levante at the end of August.
Having succumbed to defeat at BATE Borisov in the Champions League on Tuesday night, supporters are understandably fretting over whether Athletic can match last season's exploits in Spain's top tier. Ernesto Valverde's side exceeded expectations in La Liga last term to secure a 4th-placed finish, while a 5-2 aggregate win over Napoli confirmed their place in the group stages of the Champions League. Now, ahead of the daunting trip to Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, home of the reigning European champions Real Madrid, it remains to be seen how Athletic will pull themselves out of this downward spiral of form.
As mentioned, the departure of Herrera has clearly hit them hard. With 5 goals and 5 assists to his name last season, the 25-year-old was a vital cog in the Athletic midfield from both a goalscoring and creative perspective. Only Cesc Fàbregas (48) attempted more through balls than Herrera (41), while only Fàbregas (24) and Isco (16) found a teammate with more of these passes than the current United star (13). Not afraid to attempt the seemingly impossible, Athletic thrived in the final third, netting 66 goals in 38 games last season - only 5 teams bagged more.
The main player to benefit from these passing attempts was the experienced Aritz Aduriz, who last season helped himself to 16 of the 66 goals the club netted. After 6 league appearances this season, however, Aduriz has just 2 goals to his name. The 33-year-old was scoring a goal every 150.5 minutes last term, a figure that has almost doubled this campaign (1 goal every 270 minutes). Failure to replace Herrera has evidently worsened their attack and those tasked with putting the ball in the net are struggling as a result.
This is the main struggle with Athletic's recruitment system, in which the policy is to sign professional players native to or having trained in the greater Basque Country. This approach has gained them admirers in football, but is a hindrance when it comes to replacing performers who depart for pastures new. Athletic received £28.85m from the sale of Herrera to United, but the constraints of signing Basque-only players means replacing the midfielder was far easier said than done.
More often than not deployed in the number 10 role, Herrera's replacement in the position - Beñat - has failed to match the form of the former Athletic star. Herrera was averaging considerably more key passes (1.6) and successful dribbles per game (1.2) than Beñat is this term (0.6 and 0.2). It's worth noting, though, that the 27-year-old is primarily a more defensive midfielder by trade, so is not used to the creative burden, but rather breaking up play and giving the ball to those more accomplished in the final third, which last season would have been Herrera.
This, ultimately, has slowed Athletic when pushing forward, with Beñat's indecisiveness hindering the fluency of their attack. The 27-year-old does not have the keen eye to execute a defence splitting pass, which helped Herrera's stock soar. Valverde has the option of using Ager Aketxe in the position behind the striker, but the youth-team product registering just 15 minutes of competitive action in the senior squad so far due to injury.
The dip in creativity in the final third of the pitch has resulted in fewer shots per game being taken this season (9.8) than last (13.4), with Aduriz in particular averaging fewer (2.7 last season down to 2.2). Without the chances being created for him as frequently in Herrera's absence, the 33-year-old has to work harder to forge goalscoring opportunities and his age means he tires quicker than when the chances were presented to him on a platter.
Opposing sides have benefitted as they are able to limit the efforts created, resulting in Athletic netting just 4 goals in the opening 6 games. The Basque side are able to hold onto the ball marginally better, with Athletic averaging more possession this term (57%) than last (55.2%), but with no spark in attacking areas, this dominance counts for little.
Without a player of Herrera's ilk, Athletic are struggling in Spain's top tier this term. Defeat to BATE on Tuesday only worsened their problems and Valverde needs to find a solution quickly. Along with Real Madrid and Barcelona, Athletic are the only team to have never been relegated from La Liga. However, if their form fails to pick up, and quickly, it's not unfeasible that three could become two by the end of the season.