Basque football expert Will Unwin profiles Athletic prodigy Iker Muniain in a piece exclusive to ITV Sport.
Diminutive Spanish forwards have become all the rage across Europe in recent years, and the next one looking to make an impact on the international scene is Athletic Bilbao’s Iker Muniain.
For those within Spain it has come as no surprise how well-respected the youngster from Pamplona has become in the game, largely thanks to his performances against the likes of Manchester United in this season's Europa League, which shows he can compete with the best. Speculation was rife last summer in Muniain’s homeland that he was top of Pep Guardiola’s wish-list at Barcelona, with the now ex-Barca head coach viewing him as the missing piece in his striking jigsaw.
Muniain operates on the left-hand side of Athletic’s forward three, with licence to cut in and cause havoc amongst opposition defences - which he does and then some. Aided by the freedom Bilbao manager Marelo Bielsa offers him, he has become a pivotal player for Athletic in their run to the Europa League Final. Previously, Athletic were viewed as a direct and physical team, which didn’t make the best out of the 19-year-old's talents. But thanks to Bielsa’s new high-tempo, quick passing approach, Muniain has come to the fore, and gained many admirers along the way. He has the ability to beat a man with both pace and ingenuity, but he might weigh in with more goals - Athletic are heavily reliant on their main striker Fernando Llorente, and Muniain will need to improve his scoring ratio of one in every nine games if he is to attract the very best sides in Europe.
Last summer he was part of the Spain Under-21 squad which won the European Championships in Denmark. This competition alerted overseas clubs to his talents, with Alex Ferguson known to be a keen admirer of one of Athletic’s prized assets. Since this victory at youth level, Muniain has progressed to the national team, earning his first full-cap against Venezuela earlier this year. He was in with outside chance of making Spain’s Euro 2012 squad, but just missed out to Pedro.
Staying in Bilbao?
This is Muniain’s fourth season in the first team at the San Mames, having made his debut as a 16-year-old in 2009. He originally signed for the club as a 12-year-old, and has grown up in the club’s famous Lezama academy. His progression has been spectacular, and in this young Athletic side which features the likes of Llorente, Javi Martinez, and Oscar De Marcos, getting many of the club’s supporters excited that this side could end their 28-year trophy drought. Through the tutelage of Bielsa, Athletic swept aside the champions elect of the Premier League, Manchester United, in the Europa League, proving that the Basques can compete with anyone on the continent, with Muniain netting the third goal at Old Trafford.
Many question whether Athletic can hold onto Muniain in the next off-season, as other clubs can offer the forward superior wages, and a more realistic chance of silverware. Despite the Basques great individual performances dotted across the season, the side are mid-table in La Liga, with Champions League qualification off the table. The squad is also seen to be extremely thin, with Bielsa only having faith in 14 of his players, which has caused fatigue over an extensive campaign. Due to the club’s Basque-only policy, Athletic simply can't recruit the quality of reinforcement that they requires to push on to the next level, meaning the likes of Muniain may need to move to pastures new.
Whatever Muniain's next move, he will surely become a phenomenal player, with all the attributes to make it to the top of the game. Athletic fans will hope that he stays loyal to the club which nurtured him, but his ambitions could quickly outgrow his surroundings at the San Mames.**