Iker Muniain: The birthday boy at San Mamés

Looking down from the highest echelons of the San Mamés, a speck of player made his way onto the field. ‘Iker Muniain’ the stadium announcer declared.

16 years young.

His first contribution was like something emerging from a TV commercial. Picking up the ball just inside the opposition half he evaded two challenges, before laying the ball off to another team mate. It was in this move how we’d all recognise him for the next three years, and the sort of player you want to see for another thirty three.

Since making his debut against the aptly named Young Boys, Muniain’s development has been nothing but engrossing. The belief, desire, strength, skill and most of off all, bravery, have been prevalent over these last few years. From impact player to regular, all under the watchful eye of Joaquín Caparrós. Now, under Marcelo Bielsa, he’s not just a regular, but a key player. His star has ascended to such a degree he’s one of the leaders of this South American fusion in Bilbao.

The arrival of the Argentinean coach might be the most significant event in Muniain’s career, for now another a dimension is added to his game – one that will last him a lifetime. Caparrós (successfully) deployed Muniain from first an advanced left position, before dropping him deeper to start attacking phases of the game. Why keep him out of the game when he offered so much? He would pick up the ball on the halfway line, drop the shoulder, and contort his body, deceiving those who tried to take him out. Sometimes he would hold onto the ball too long, and get dispossessed or make the wrong decision. He’d get kicked too, but that chin was never tucked into his chest. Head up, try again.

One week Alberto Botía lunged into him, he got up. Another week Patxi Puñal clattered into him, he got up. The next week Pedro Munitis tripped him after receiving a cheeky caño, and guess what, he got up again.

Muniain subsequently drifted in and out the team as he went upon a steep learning curve. Sometimes he’d play four straight but look forlorn on occasions. He’d then miss another four and come back as an impact player. In Caparrós’ final season at the club, Muniain came to the fore. Something changed, mentally and physically, quite considerably too. The desire to roam from the flank became apparent, and he was turning up all over the field – even offering support for the full back. In attacking phases though, he was becoming wiser. The decision making improved and the awareness of his team mates became second nature. He began to free himself from the touchline, showing vibrant moving off the ball as well as on it, this would be essential once Bielsa arrived. First, there was the Under-21 tournament, in which Spain triumphed, and alongside the likes of Juan Mata, Thiago and Javi Martínez, he complimented the Spanish style superbly.

This brings us to the present day, the new era at Athletic. Caparrós has gone, although Muniain will be forever thankful for the guidance shown. If the player does move on to a more prestigious European club, be it Manchester, Madrid or anywhere else, the lessons learned on the rainy Monday mornings at Lezama will never fade from memory. Bielsa’s start to life in Bilbao was difficult, and met with concern in some quarters, there still remains caution too. A win was difficult to encounter in the early days, but amongst the doubts, one player shone brightest. Muniain was deployed in a central role, given license to roam between the lines like never before. The idea perhaps stemming from Bielsa’s desire to push the full backs on harder through the overlap. In the middle, Muniain could see the game better and essentially, began to read passages of play – be it exchanging intricate passes with team mates or making a darting run on the angle. You could see the eyes scan the field, left, right, central…

Still only 18, Muniain began to look far beyond his tender years. At times, it was if Andrés Iniesta had donned the red and white stripes, exchanging Catalan blood for Basque, such was the grace of the teenager’s movement. The brash, had well and truly been mixed with the beauty. He has become Bielsa’s foot solider on the field: the aggression, the intensity and the will to win a all costs.

Fear, that’s just a four letter word, nothing more.

Whether ‘El Loco’ can bring Champions League, or silverware, to the adoring masses in La Catedral, is debatable. However, they can be sure a piece of gold moves amongst them.

19 years young, today. Feliz cumpleaños, crack.

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