Mendilibar at Mendizorrotza – Can the former Eibar boss guide Alavés to safety?

Alaves stadium
Mendizorrotza via Miguelazo84, CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s all change at Alavés, again. Following the sacking of Javier Calleja, José Luis Mendilibar has become the ninth different man to hold the top job at Mendizorrotza since the Basque club’s return to the top flight in 2016. He began his reign with a 1-1 draw against local rivals Real Sociedad at the weekend.

Mendilibar’s mission statement doesn’t really differ from that of any of his predecessors. Keeping Alavés up is the only objective between now and the end of the season and perhaps wisely given the trigger happy nature of this board, the two parties have only agreed a contract until the end of the current campaign.

Chopping & changing but staying alive

Alavés have been a club that hasn’t found any real stability on the coaching front since the glory years of top half finishes and even a European Final under Mané around the turn of the century. Since his departure in 2003, the Vitoria club has hired and fired at a staggering rate with 2018, when Abelardo was in charge, the only calendar year since then to not feature an Alavés coaching change.

That’s an astonishing record even by the standards of modern football and even successful coaches have not been spared the chop. José Bordalás guided the club to promotion to the top flight for the first time in a decade in 2015/16, as Segunda champions no less, but was still dismissed that summer with Mauricio Pellegrino the first of a long line of coaches to have since taken charge of Alavés in LaLiga.

Alavés coaches since winning promotion in 2016

Mauricio Pellegrino2016-2017
Luis Zubeldía2017
Gianni De Biasi2017
Abelardo Fernández2017-2019
Asier Garitano2019-2020
Muñiz (Interim)2020
Pablo Machin2020-2021
Abelardo Fernández2021
Javier Calleja2021
José Luis Mendilibar2022-

At times there hasn’t felt like there has been any real logic to the appointments and there has certainly been no sense of long-term planning or efforts to build a clear on pitch identity. Coaches with very different footballing philosophies have come and gone with the latest change likely to bring another big shift in styles given José Luis Mendilibar’s approach is certainly very different to the kind of football Javier Calleja would have liked to have played, if given more time to recruit the right kind of players.

Time isn’t something you get at Mendizorrotza but despite the instability, president Alfonso Fernandez de Troconiz can, with plenty of justification, point to the ends justifying the means. Despite a few poor appointments that simply haven’t worked and a policy that involves making changes if in any doubt, Alavés are currently in their sixth straight season in LaLiga Santander, the longest top flight run in the club’s history.

While the period may not be remembered as fondly as their five year stay between 1998 and 2003, they have always found a way to stay afloat although there have been some close shaves with relegation in the last two years and Alavés haven’t hit the 40 point mark since an 11th place finish in 2018/19.

What to expect from Mendilibar’s Alavés

You might think, given Alavés’ short-term way of doing things, that they’d opt for pragmatists rather than coaches with very clear ideas on how they want to play football. However their latest appointment José Luis Mendilibar falls more into the latter category and anyone who followed his Eibar team over the previous six seasons will have a good idea of what to expect.

We can expect Alavés to press high and attack in a relatively direct fashion down the flanks. Even before the arrival of the new coach, Alavés’ most important attacking player was Joselu, one of the most dominant players in LaLiga in the air. We can expect him to continue to be the target for lots of crosses into the box, another distinctive feature of Mendilibar’s Eibar.

Overall, this feels like a better fit for Alavés than that of his predecessor Javi Calleja who did well to steer the Basque side to safety last season, but never really managed to oversee a transition to the kind of passing-based football you might associate from a coach schooled in Villarreal. He didn’t really have the tools to do that in truth and this squad feels better suited to Mendilibar’s way of doing things, although he will still be keen to bring in some fresh blood this window. The club have already started to do that with former Eibar midfielder Gonzalo Escalante arriving on loan from Lazio while Jason has come in from Valencia.

We got the first taster of what Alavés may be like under Mendilibar at the weekend and it did already feel like a genuine shift in approach. Alavés were the team with the lowest passing accuracy in LaLiga on matchday 19 at 60%, a drop from their season average of 74%. However they were also the team to have the most attempts on goal with 19 against La Real, almost double their season average of 10.1 per game.

Those are two shifts we would expect to see from a Mendilibar team and it was striking that even during their relegation season of 2020/21, his Eibar were still the side to have the 5th most attempts on goal in LaLiga.

Can this be more than another quick fix?

Right now, José Luis Mendilibar is only a short-term appointment on a contract until the end of the season. Judging by Alavés’ recent history, it’s far from certain that he will even see that out, let alone end up staying beyond the summer and become something more than another quick fix.

However, on the surface this appointment does feel like one that could have some legs. Mendilibar is an experienced Basque coach who gets the region better than just about anyone having also held the top job at Athletic Club and Osasuna, as well as his recent six year spell at Eibar.

Despite relegation in 2021, Mendilibar left Ipurua with his stock still high given his ability to keep possibly the smallest club to ever grace the Spanish top flight in it for so long. If he can guide Alavés to survival this year, he would most likely be offered the chance to stay on and it’d be interesting to see what he could do with slightly greater tools than he was used to working with in his previous job.


Featured Image of Mendizorrotza via Miguelazo84, CC BY-SA 4.0

Spanish football writer
About Mark Sochon 1538 Articles
Mark is a freelance writer based in Madrid. He has also lived in Seville and Barcelona and has written extensively about Spanish football. His work has been published by the likes of Guardian Sport & World Soccer.

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