Ernesto Valverde is back at Athletic Bilbao. / EFE

The market heats up

Transfers are still being made despite the Big Two

Rob Palmer
ROB PALMER

While transfer activity has reached an impasse at the "Big Two", there's been a flow of movement elsewhere in La Liga.

Athletic Bilbao have welcomed Ernesto Valverde back for a third spell in charge. It was a choice between two popular former coaches: the exciting and unpredictable Marcelo Bielsa, who was a running mate for one of the potential club presidents; or the likeable and reliable Valverde who has been enjoying life away from the game since his spell at Barcelona.

The incredible job he managed at the Camp Nou is only becoming evident now. He kept a lid on the internal troubles to clinch the double in 2018, win La Liga in 2019, and leave the club at the top of the table when he was dismissed.

There was an apparent communication with Manchester United about an interim position, but he's been happy working on his photography exhibitions until the right role came along.

Valverde and Athletic are made for each other. Previously, he's taken them into the Champions League, reached the final of the Copa del Rey and guided them to their first major trophy in 31 years by winning the Spanish Super Cup in 2015.

It's good to see another man synonymous with one club committing himself to another year. Joaquín Sánchez has played for four major clubs but enjoys legendary status at Real Betis, where he is the record appearance holder. He celebrated his 41st birthday a couple of weeks early by signing a new contract. It's not an emotional decision but one based on his contributions last season. He appeared 36 times and was prominent in the run to the cup final.

Another of Spain's veteran entertainers is changing clubs though. José Luis Morales has done more than any player to keep Levante in the top-flight and when they were relegated bring them back up. Like Joaquín, he'll go down in folklore as a club great. Without his goals, Levante wouldn't have kept their La Liga status since 2017. He gave them a chance of survival last season with 13 goals and seven assists.

Just before his 35th birthday, he's making the short journey to Villarreal. This offers him a chance to play in a team at the top end of La Liga and showcase his skills in a European competition.

There is a current trend for clubs to invest in experienced talent. Joselu, now 32, is vastly experienced and was on the wishlist of several clubs. He's chosen Espanyol for the next three seasons.

Axel Witsel, aged 33, is a low-profile but wise signing for Atlético Madrid. This is a sixth league in a 16-year career which has earned him 124 Belgium caps. He'll bring wisdom to a midfield that looked in need of leadership last season.

Real Madrid conducted their business early; Barcelona unveiled free agents Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen and are still playing poker with Manchester United over the Frenkie de Jong sale which means they can't afford to bring in the top target Robert Lewandowski.