Kuko Ziganda was the easy choice. His experience managing Athletic’s youth sides stood heavily in his favour. For a club that has self-imposed such a strict recruitment policy in terms of Basque-only players, the ability to interact with the rest of the development pyramid below the first team is key. Lezama’s conveyor belt is not a luxury, nor a novelty; it is a necessity.
Ziganda’s deployment in the hot seat vacated by Ernesto Valverde, who had qualified for four consecutive seasons in Europe before taking the leap to Barcelona this summer, was logical. It made sense. With Aritz Aduriz and Raul Garcia in the twilight of their top-level careers, and with the likes of Inigo Cordoba and Ager Aketxe set to come into the first-team picture on a more regular basis, the 51-year-old would be a figure of consistency among the generational flux.
In terms of his experience and sentiments towards the club, especially within a managerial market that has few available for work with proven track records, Ziganda is perfect. He understands the infrastructure from top to bottom, he loves working on the training ground and he has relationships that stretch back a long way with many of Athletic’s playing personnel.
At the top level, however - where it truly matters in the short term - he is yet to impress. If anything, he has underwhelmed to the point of disappointment. After a slow start to the campaign, which offered little in the way of entertainment aside from a second-half flurry of three goals against Panathinaikos, Ziganda has failed to get any kind of reaction from his players.
Athletic’s first-team spine consists of Kepa, Aymeric Laporte, Mikel San Jose and Aritz Aduriz, with Iker Muniain absent having picked up a long-term ligament injury. Inaki Williams, Unai Nunez and Inigo Cordoba are quality options around this linear support structure, but it doesn’t appear clear that Ziganda recognises certain pitfalls with his team selections and rotation policy.
There has been an insistence to field both Mikel San Jose and Mikel Vesga in a defensive midfield two, which drives a wedge between the front four and defensive six, with Benat Etxeberria spending far more time on the bench than he was accustomed to under Valverde. The diminutive midfielder is a playmaker, as well as a set-piece taker, and his composure and invention on the ball is sorely missed.
Once Muniain picked up his knee injury, it appeared the easy choice was to reintegrate Benat into the first-team set-up. The sidelined No.10 was a playmaker, arguably the sole one in usual Athletic’s first-choice XI, but instead Ziganda opted for Ander Iturraspe. An elegant midfielder, but one who has not yet been able to live up to the reputation he built as a youth player.
Athletic look slow, predictable and flat, with their good moments coming from individual inspiration from out wide rather than any kind of cohesive team progression upfield. Inigo Cordoba has been great on the left wing in his first Primera season; he is willing to use his pace, beat his man and provide service for the likes of Aduriz and Raul Garcia, who need opportunities presented to them in and around the penalty area. Inaki Williams, too, has been incisive.
Ziganda is not to blame for Athletic failing to land Ander Capa from Eibar until next summer, nor can he solve injuries to Muniain, Oscar de Marcos, or Yeray’s second successful battle with cancer. For the moment, though, the aspects of management within the realms of his control are not good enough. Conceding two late goals to draw 3-3 with 10-man Malaga was a particular lowlight, while Zorya recently came to San Mames and took three points in the Europa League - an unthinkable occurrence under his predecessor.
There is no foreseeable brand or identity being developed, even after a couple of months on the training ground - where Kuko admits that he loves to be. In-game, Valverde was known for tweaks and changes, responding to queries posed by opponents in a never-ending back and forth. Ziganda rarely does such things, instead watching Los Leones labour through hard-to-watch performances, baffle fans with negative substations and rely on certain individuals to unlock the door.
It was clear that Ziganda's appointment as first-team boss was an organic extension of a long-term plan at San Mames. Sadly, there is little evidence that the 51-year-old has a plan or managerial personality of his own.