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Basque Managers: Mikel Arteta and Xabi Alonso spearing Basque Country's influence

What do Mikel Arteta, Xabi Alonso and Unai Emery all have in common? Other than being talented football coaches, they're all Basque.

At the start of the 2023/24 campaign, 20% of the Premier League managers hailed from the Basque Country.

An autonomous community located in northern Spain, the Basque Country is steeped in history, flaunting their own language and vibrant culture.

It’s not a region drowning in football honours, but their principles and deep-rooted traditions have produced a conveyor belt of talent in the sport.

Athletic Club, the region’s largest football institution, have abided by a strict ‘Basque only’ player policy throughout their 125-year history, which dictates that the club can only use players born or brought up in the region.

Real Sociedad also sworn themselves to the philosophy until 30 years ago, though they have now struck an effective balance between acquiring overseas players and promoting homegrown talent.

In a nutshell, the Basque Country is a place of opportunity. It’s a vital reason why some of the most meticulous coaches and tacticians in the modern game all come from the area, though Arteta was quoted suggesting that the Basque food is the secret behind the success of managers from the region.

What is even more astonishing is that Gipuzkoa, the smallest Spanish province located in the Basque Country, is the home of all three Premier League managers; Arteta, Emery and Andoni Iraola.

Juan Manuel Lillo, assistant to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, also hails from there. Even City’s departing director of football Txiki Begiristain is a Gipuzkoa native.

We look at the managers from the region that are currently making waves in Europe.

Mikel Arteta (Arsenal)

Completing his education under arguably the greatest football mind in Pep Guardiola, Arteta took the plunge into management with Arsenal; a significant gamble from both parties.

FA Cup success in his first season signalled a brighter future for the Gunners, though Arteta encountered plenty of hurdles as he assembled the building blocks to their current success. Sections of the fanbase had lost confidence in the Spaniard but the Arsenal board kept faith.

Competing for the Premier League title two years running, the evidence is clear that Arteta is pulling Arsenal in the right direction with his bold methods, forging an impenetrable defensive unit – David Raya’s three clean sheets clear of the next best Premier League goalkeeper – and a fluent attack that control possession and transition swiftly.

Were it not for the juggernaut that was Manchester City, Arteta would most likely be celebrating Arsenal’s first league success since 2004.

It does, however, feel only a matter of time before he’s adding major honours to his haul.

Unai Emery (Aston Villa)

The King of the Europa League.

Winner of the competition on four occasions with Sevilla and Villarreal, Emery boasts a superb European pedigree but it’s his work in the Premier League with Aston Villa that has earned an array of plaudits.

In the space of 18 months, the 52-year-old has transformed the Villans from relegation candidates to Champions League competitors, with the club on the verge of a top-four finish – their best season since 1995/96.

Reenergising the bond between club and supporter, Emery has transformed Villa Park into something of a fortress and the Spaniard has demonstrated his tactical versatility to overcome a number of injury setbacks throughout the season.

Emery’s Champions League record is not spectacular but he has a knack of proving his critics wrong; Villa will be one to keep an eye on in next season’s competition.

Aston Villa

Andoni Iraola (Bournemouth)

Eyebrows were raised when Bournemouth dismissed Gary O’Neil last summer, but the decision was entirely justified with the appointment of Iraola.

He rose to prominence through his exploits with Rayo Vallecano, guiding the Madrid-based club into La Liga and reaching the Copa del Rey semi-finals for only the second time in their history.

It took him a little time to implement his methods on the Dorset coast and adapt to the rigours of the Premier League, but Bournemouth clicked in November and are now set to record their highest-ever points tally in the top flight, resulting in Iraola receiving a Manager of the Season nomination.

His Bournemouth side play front-foot, high-energy football, focused on territorial gains and retrieving possession in the opposition half. And, as all top managers do, Iraola himself has evolved.

Signing a new two-year contract to stay at the Vitality Stadium, it will be fascinating to see how he and Bournemouth fare next season.


Xabi Alonso (Bayer Leverkusen)

The talk of Europe this term is the astonishing and unprecedented unbeaten record of Bayer Leverkusen and Alonso is the orchestrator.

Another to hail from Gipuzkoa, the former Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder spent three years in the Basque Country at Real Sociedad’s Zubieta base, enhancing his coaching skills.

He’s taken to management like a duck to water, moulding Leverkusen into title winners for the first time in their history.

That alone is a remarkable achievement, but Alonso’s team are on the brink of becoming the first Bundesliga side to go an entire season unbeaten. Not only that, but they’re yet to taste defeat in cup competitions either and are on the brink of an extraordinary treble.

Player development has been a key feature of Alonso’s skillset and there are a catalogue of players – young and experienced – that have enhanced their game under his stewardship.

Leverkusen have displayed excellent tactical discipline over the course of the campaign and it’s with thanks to Alonso’s incredible attention to detail.

Bayer Leverkusen

Imanol Alguacil (Real Sociedad)

Real Sociedad are enjoying arguably their most successful period since the back-to-back title successes in the early 1980s and Alguacil is the driving force behind Erraela’s sustained competitiveness.

A former youth team coach in San Sebastian, Alguacil inherited the managerial hot seat in 2018 after a tumultuous period at the club and immediately set about implementing an exuberant and fast-paced attacking style.

Under his tutelage they’ve been a constant force at the top end of La Liga, finishing in the top six in four consecutive seasons and winning their third Copa del Rey title in 2020, conquering rivals Athletic Club in the final.

Alguacil also led Sociedad into the Champions League for the first time in 10 years and they revelled on the European stage, finishing top of Group D above Inter and Benfica.

The Basque club remain proud to their roots, focusing on their youth system to hone local talents and Alguacil is a pivotal figure in being able to tie it all together.

Real Sociedad

Jose Luis Mendilibar (Olympiacos)

In a coaching career that has stemmed across 30 years, the last 18 months have perhaps been the biggest whirlwind for Mendilibar.

Hired by Sevilla in March 2023 for a firefighting mission, the veteran manager accrued 21 points from their remaining 12 league matches to hoist Los Nervionenses away from relegation trouble and finish comfortably in mid-table.

Mission accomplished, but Mendilibar was keen to maintain Sevilla’s status on the European stage. Conquering Manchester United and Juventus, Sevilla then defeated Roma in the final to secure their fifth Europa League triumph in nine seasons.

Mendilibar’s reign soon deteriorated; he was dismissed in October after a run of two wins from eight.

Olympiacos came calling in February and Mendilibar has been weaving his magic in Europe once again, eliminating Europa Conference League favourites Aston Villa to guide the Piraeus-based team to their first UEFA competition final.

He’s not stylish but the 63-year-old’s work is very practical, as demonstrated by his recent success in knockout matches.


Jagoba Arrasate (CA Osasuna)

Osasuna supporters were deeply saddened to learn that Arrasate will be stepping down from his role as head coach upon the conclusion of the current campaign, and there’s good reason.

The former Sociedad coach joined Los Rojillos in 2018 and in his first year, Osasuna were crowned champions of the Segunda Division.

Arrasate consolidated the club’s position in La Liga, finishing 11th, 10th and 11th in their first three seasons on return.

In the previous campaign they soared to lofty heights, qualifying for the Europa Conference League by finishing 7th and reaching only the second Copa del Rey final in the club’s history, where they were beaten by the might of Real Madrid.

Like many other Basque tacticians, Arrasate has grown synonymous with a high-intensity style, focused on forcing high turnovers and defending from the front.

He will depart Pamplona as one of the best coaches in the club’s history; succeeding him will be no easy task.

Ernesto Valverde (Athletic Club)

Born in Extremadura but raised in the Basque city of Vitoria-Gasteiz, Valverde returned to the Athletic Club hot seat and ended their 40-year Copa del Rey drought during his second season back at San Mames.

It’s actually his third stint in charge of Los Leones, having also managed the likes of Espanyol, Villarreal, Valencia and Barcelona, where his back-to-back league successes were tainted by Champions League collapses to Roma and Liverpool.

He’s a high-profile figure who maintains a low profile and Valverde has proven there is life after Barcelona, even when you’ve been acrimoniously cast aside by the Catalan giants.

Implementing an energetic and exciting brand of football, Valverde has thrusted Athletic Club back into the upper echelons of La Liga and the Copa del Rey success is a deserved reward for the transformative impact he’s enjoyed in Bilbao.

Athletic Bilbao

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