Why Athletic Bilbao’s new transfer strategy could be bad news for likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea

Athletic Club have just extended the contracts of Mikel Balenziaga and Oscar De Marcos until 2021, and if you’re fan of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea or Bayern, you should be sitting up and paying attention. Or a fan of any European super club, for that matter.

One player is a 30-year-old left-back, the other a 29-year-old right-back, and neither looked likely to go elsewhere any time soon. So why is their extended stay in the Basque city of any significance? It’s reasonable to ask. The answer can be found in the key detail of the deals they inked.

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Oscar De Marcos is one of a number of Athletic players who excluded a buyout clause in their new contract

The important point is that both chose to exclude a buyout clause from their contracts. It’s the third time in less than a month an Athletic player has chosen to do so, following on from Iker Muniain, who extended his contract until 2024 in late November and eliminated the buyout option when doing so.

For the last decade, the buyout clause has been the method used by Europe’s powerhouses to poach Athletic’s best players, much to the annoyance of their fans. The Basque-only policy at the La Liga side means a large part of their survival at the elite level relies on having a remarkably high success rate at taking footballers not quite considered strong enough for the big boys and turning them into the real deal.

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Kepa Arrizabalaga became the world’s most expensive goalkeeper when Chelsea paid his £71.6m release clause in the summer

But the omnipresence of buyout clauses means that quite often their hard work nurturing players into top class superstars benefits sides in the Premier League, Bundesliga or elsewhere before Athletic can reap the rewards.

Athletic don’t negotiate, but regardless, Manchester City were able to snap up Aymeric Laporte, Manchester United got Ander Herrera, Chelsea took Kepa and Bayern brought Javi Martinez to the Allianz. In all four cases, the Basque club could not stop them leaving, whether they wished to or not, because the buying clubs deposited fees with the Spanish football authorities that automatically released the players from their deals – the clauses in their contracts made that route possible.

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Man City paid a club record £57m for Laporte in January 2018

Without the presence of those clauses, some of the transfers would have been far more expensive. Some may never have happened at all, with big consequences: Martinez for example was key in Bayern’s treble under Jupp Heynckes. Laporte will be vital if Manchester City are finally going to succeed in sealing a Champions League title. You get the idea.

That’s in the past and the past cannot be changed, but the future can be. If the three recent contract renewals are the sign of a broader change in strategy from Athletic, the knock-on effect will be to the detriment of bigger sides. Comments from Balenziaga upon his renewal suggest others may be considering following the lead: “Iker (Munian) has opened up a positive path for the club and for the players. Considering Athletic’s philosophy, it could be a good way forward in the future”.

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Iker Muniain extended his contract in November and eliminated the buyout option when doing so

The real test will be if younger, more appetising players in the market decide to follow the lead of Balenziaga, De Marcos and Muniain. If someone like 24-year-old forward Iñaki Williams were to sign a new buyout clause-free deal, then it would really be time to sit up and pay attention. His most recent extension from January 2018 included a record €80m release clause, showing what Athletic think he is worth.

Another development the European powerhouses will be keeping an eye on is the upcoming presidential elections at Athletic. The three recent extensions were signed under Josu Urrutia, who leaves his job this month and will not stand for re-election. Will his successor continue down the same road?

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Williams extended his contract in January, but it includes a record €80m release clause

One of the two men competing to take his place, Alberto Uribe-Echevarria, has suggested he would follow Urrutia’s change of direction, noting that contracts without buyout clauses are “a huge advantage” and mean that “de facto, it’s practically impossible for an exodus of players to happen”.

“It’s a very interesting route that should be developed,” he added.

The irony is that even if Athletic do move towards eliminating the buyout option from the deals they sign their players to, they will be hoping other clubs in La Liga don’t follow suit. The Basque giants are in solid financial condition, and pay excellent salaries to their best players that are closer to the level of teams who make regular European appearances like Valencia or Sevilla, than the other mid-table teams they generally compete with.

That makes the San Mamés a very attractive option for players who fit the Basque-only conditions and are looking for a move up the pay ladder. Such was the case with Iñigo Martínez, who Athletic brought in from arch rivals Real Sociedad to replace Laporte last January. How did they make it happen? By paying his buyout clause, of course.

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