Athletic Bilbao have improved immensely game by game under the new leadership of former Argentina and Chile boss Marcelo Bielsa. One of the key players for the Basque side is Iker Muniain, a 19 year old who can play on both wings, up front or as an attacking midfielder. He has great ball control, dribbling ability, pace and creativity which have resulted in him being dubbed as the “Spanish Messi”. He is also nicknamed Bart Simpson for his similarity in appearance to the cartoon character and has a drawing of Bart on his shin pads.
The Spain under-21 international made his debut for Athletic Bilbao against Young Boys Bern in a Europa League qualifying match, in which he became the youngest player ever to represent the Basque side at 16 years, 7 months and 11 days. In the return game against Young Boys, he scored and broke another record as he became the club’s youngest ever scorer. The 2009-2010 season was the breakthrough season for the youngster, in which he played 26 games, got 4 goals in La Liga and signed his first professional contract with the side. That season Muniain flourished after coming through the youth ranks in Bilbao; he demonstrated the first flash of his extreme potential on 4th October 2009 in a 2-2 draw at Real Valladolid when he became the youngest goal scorer in the history of La Liga; at that time he was only 16 years and 289 days old. The 2010-2011 season saw him rubber stamp his place within the Los Leones side as he starred as a left winger under Joaquin Caparros and got 35 games and 5 goals in his first season as an undisputed starter.
In addition to being dubbed the “Spanish Messi”, he has also drawn comparisons with Rooney for his work rate and enthusiasm to track back and win the ball back. This mentality has put him in good stead with Bielsa and the 19 year old has been exemplary as Bilbao attack and defend as an organized unit: pressing the opposition fiercely after losing possession and attacking at pace when they win the ball back. Not blessed with the most imposing physique – he stands 5’6” tall – Muniain is deceptively stocky, possesses a blistering turn of pace and exceptional technical ability. His tiny size is a blessing to him as it allows him to be incredibly hard to mark due to his low center of gravity. He is light and can accelerate as well as change direction at such speed that it makes him unreachable for defenders. His running style is very intense and he takes a lot of tiny steps when sprinting. Running at high speeds obviously requires him to have a good ball control and that is something which he has developed to near perfection over the years.
On 8 February 2011, at the age of only 18, Muniain made his debut with the Under-21 in a match against Denmark, replacing Adrian Lopez. Subsequently, he was selected by manager Luis Villa to the squad that appeared in the 2011 Under-21 European Championship, appearing in all the games as the national team won its third title in the category and qualified to the 2012 Olympics.
It takes rare talent to break into a Spain side that is reining European and World Champion but at just 19 years of age, Muniain’s massive development at Bilbao has not gone unnoticed and he received his first cap for Vicente Del Bosque’s side in February when Spain faced Venezuela on 24 February 2012. Five days later, he came on for Cesc Fabregas in the 74th minute of the 5–0 win in Malaga.
The current season has been good so far for Muniain. He has got 2 goals and 3 assists from 29 matches in La Liga and has also been impressive on the European stage in the Europa League for Bilbao where he has helped them to reach the Finals with 5 goals and 2 assists. Though he has scored only two goals in La Liga this season for a club that is pushing for Champions League qualification and have a Copa del Rey final against Barcelona to look forward to, Muniain has also collected three assists and enjoys his role as the key component in the attack which has been flawless this year, lead by none other than his Spanish compatriot Fernando Llorente.
Under scrupulous and obsessive Argentinean coach Marcelo Bielsa, his evolution has continued swiftly. This season he has played on the left and in the center of the pitch, providing much-needed speed and creativity to his team. He is arguably Bilbao’s most vigorous attacking midfielder. Muniain’s best attribute is his discipline on the pitch; he has rarely lost his temper and remains calm and composed under pressure, which is a great quality for a player who is so young. Having said that, he is only 19 years of age and has a long way to go and a lot to improve on. However, if he remains focused on his play and stays disciplined then he certainly looks sure to become one of the best players of his generation.
Linked with plenty of top European clubs in the past 12 months, Muniain could thrive on the stage provided to him at Old Trafford. After impressive performances against Manchester United in both home and away legs in the Europa League, he has ensured that he is one of the most sought after players in Europe. Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool are just a few of the clubs reportedly monitoring him and he will have plenty of clubs lining up for him should he decide to leave the Basque club.
Though he has already played as a left winger, supporting striker, center forward and an attacking midfielder for Bilbao, Muniain is far from fully developed. He is undoubtedly a player of huge potential and it may be best for him to stay at Bilbao for at least two more seasons and continue developing there before making a move to a bigger club.
Published with permission from Foot and Ball.