Cantera profile: Athletic Bilbao’s pack of lion cubs prowling Lezama

Recent figures have shown that in Spain three cantera’s lead the way in terms of products coming through their football base, and turning out for the first team. Barcelona’s La Masia, one of the most famous in the world, and the lesser known but equally as essential Zubieta ran by Real Sociedad. Not so far away from the latter is Lezama, home to the young lions of Athletic Bilbao. It has been a source of much discussion recently, much due to Marcelo Bielsa’s insistence on the further investment in the complex, but also the fact the board decided a decent chunk of the €40m generated by Javi Martínez’s sale will be used to develop facilities further. Here are five players looking to graduate from one the most famous footballing schools in Spain.

Name: Aitor Seguín
DOB: Eibar, 27/04/1995
Position: CAM/RAM/LAM

‘The pearl’ of the cantera as they say in Spain. Lezama is currently blessed with several exciting young players but few are creating a buzz like Aitor Seguín.

He’s like no other that has come through the system at Athletic, given his mesmerising South American play maker style; if he could be compared to anyone then it’s Pablo Aimar. Seguín is a slight, left-footed, creative talent that harnesses a fine change of direction and pace, with a smattering of skills thrown in. The 17 year old moves moves carefully across the front-line and can drop deep to initiate attacks too. He angles and curves his body to evade opponents, while showing an excellent level of technique, before looking to find end product. Although often situated in a wide left role, he often slips into central areas and it’s expected as he matures his developed game will lie in this area – the same can be said for a certain Iker Muniain.

At the moment though a common issue withing young players is letting him down, as he can all too often choose the wrong decision by keeping hold of the ball for too long. The confidence he has in his own ability is apparent, but sometimes he tries to do too much and take every opponent on. It strikes similar to Gerard Deulofeu at Juvenil level with Barcelona, who all too often frustrated and ventured into the ball greedy category. Deulofeu’s learned to get his head up now though, something which Seguín will hopefully learn from.

Being part of the Next Generation series is allowing Seguín to face a wide variety of opponents, and as with other youngsters taking part in the competition it will only serve as a benefit to his progression as a player.

Name: Iker Undabarrena
DOB: Gorliz, 18/05/1995
Position: DMC/CM

Athletic might still go to Real Betis for the one that got away, Beñat,  but they’ll know within their own youth ranks they have another promising central midfielder.

Iker Undabarrena has for the last year or so progressed rapidly at Lezama, so much so he received calls to the first team in both pre and regular season.. Undabarrena sits in midfield and uses his fine vision to control the game, showing versatility in his passing range from keeping it simple to pinging angled passes into wide players and switching play effortlessly.

He times his runs well too, showing the anticipation to join the attack in areas they require support, something he perhaps picked up during a his time as a striker.

His attributes make him a real prospect in the area of a traditional number ‘5’, and his natural ability to control could bring serious calm to a notoriously chaotic Athletic system. He continues to impress and again this season with Basconia has shown how he can impose upon games.

Name: Iñigo Ruiz de Galarreta
DOB: San Sebastián, 06/08/1993
Position: CM

The most well known name on this list, though despite featuring on several occasions for Marcelo Bielsa’s team in La Liga and Europa League, he is still yet to feature regularly.

If anyone is going to be the next player to break out from Lezama into a key squad player soon, then it’s Ruiz de Galarreta. He played in the Juvenil Division de Honor at just 15 years old and acquired an army of admirers from within the club – and those overseas as Liverpool made an early inquiry.

Joaquín Caparrós let Ruiz de Galarreta dip his toes in the big pond of Athletic’s first team with several training sessions, but injuries eventually got in his way and that has often been his main problem. However, over the last year he’s played more regularly within the Lezama system and the confidence is returning in his game.

Ruiz de Galarreta is a composed figure in midfield, often playing off the holding man looking to create the first actions within an attack. First and foremost he does the basics well, with little give and go’s, sharp runs forward, and a fantastic desire to be on the ball. His first touch is smart, and is one of those players that takes great pride in the neatness of his passing.

Bielsa’s clearly a fan and has worked closely one-on-one with the player so knows his strengths and weaknesses. ‘El Compás’ as some have taken to call him, The Compass, is heading in the right direction.

Name: Aymeric Laporte
DOB: Agen (France), 27/05/1994
Position: DC

Born on French soil may be, but Athletic Bilbao have made Aymeric Laporte soon feel like one of their very own. It was through Athletic’s heavy network of scouts in the region that they snapped up the player, of whom at the time was mulling over offers from Marseille and Toulouse. However, the desire shown by the Basque outfit to land the then 15 year old was key, and the player took the massive step of leaving his parents for education within the walls of Lezama. Antoine Griezmann had a similar decision to make several years ago before crossing the border into Basque territory, and Laporte obviously saw it as only inspiration.

A cruciate ligament injury almost immediately upon arrival wasn’t the ideal start, but Athletic insisted on sticking with the player such is the level of talent he has. When fit again he showed his class with Juvenil B before eventual promotion to Juvenil A, soon clubs from Italy and England came calling but he remained loyal to the club that had shown him the same. Laporte, to be fair, is hard to miss.

He is a physical but technically sound defender, built in the modern mould of centre-backs like Gerard Piqué and converted players such as Javi Martínez. “Training here is perfect for me. We of course focus on defensive aspects but we work hugely on the technical side of things”. Does he regret moving so early, not in the slightest; “In France the focus is on the physical side of the game, it doesn’t have the culture of Spain. There is little build-up from the back at home, then here at Lezama it’s almost forbidden to swing the boot in defence. We must construct”.

Laporte’s performances have continued to improve, and now with Bilbao Athletic after a strong season at CD Basconia he’s on the cusp of the first team. In-game he is composed, and uses the ball expertly looking to bring the deep lying midfielders into the game. He’s a commander too, barking orders from across the field and regularly gesturing to his players in-game.

Being 1.90m he provides an imposing presence, but must improve on the use of his frame and be smarter against quicker attacking threats. Not just Athletic work with the player though, as Laporte represents France at U-19 level as their captain. Laporte might just turn out to be the player they once hoped Mikel San-José would be.

Name: Markel Etxeberria
DOB: Erandio, 15/02/1995
Position: DR, RWB

“Markel? He’s some player that kid. So much determination and is very quick. Since I first saw him with the Cadet’s I’ve been impressed and I hope he can become an asset for us”. Andoni Iraola there, on a player who might be taking his place in a few years.

Etxeberria is a powerful name around San Mamés, and although of no relation to Joseba, Markel Etxeberria is out to carve out his own reputation.

At 17 years old Etxeberria has already had pre-season with the first team, made his debut against Lyon and trains regularly with Marcelo Bielsa’s group. Not to mention, he’s gained the respect of the elder players such as Iraola.

The first thing noticeable watching Etxeberria play is his confidence on the field and Deia, the local Basque media outlet, called him “A full-back with the cheek of [Iker] Muniain”. It’s clear why too, as the youngster shows all the skill, fearlessness and aggression of Muniain – except channeling those strengths into defensive work. Etxeberria moves out of defence with a swagger, looking to play the ball through the first transition and charging up the line himself.

Although still very raw there is much in his game to be excited about. A few years ago a young Jon Aurtenetxe stepped in during an injury crisis at left-back and has held the position since – the self assurance he has is prevalent in Etxeberria’s game too. There is no reason why he can’t provide the same impact.