There was a time in which he was hailed as the golden boy of Spanish football, but since then many names have passed him by.
Isco arose from the shadows of Valencia’s ‘B’ team to make his way to the heights of Real Madrid, Thiago dazzled at Barcelona and outgrew his status as bit-part player there while a new batch of youngsters including Gerard Deulofeu will threaten to surpass him in a year or so. Closer to home meanwhile, Antoine Griezmann has emerged from the raw promise to become a leader in San Sebastián. Iker Muniain meanwhile is at a crossroads in his career - despite its formative years.
It seems like Muniain has been on the scene forever, but remains only 21-years-old. This season he’ll hit 200 games with Athletic Bilbao, an extraordinary total still this early in his career. The boy from Pamplona however, is still no closer to discovering and determining what sort of player he will become.
A story exists in Pamplona that Muniain, then 17-years-old, walked up to a bouncer and demanded to be let in a night club. ”Don’t you know who I am?” Muniain queried. ”I know who you are, you’re Iker Muniain and you’re 17-years-old. Now fuck off home.”
The truth is despite the length of time on the footballing scene, we still don’t truly know Muniain. There was a point when this fearless, precocious teenager looked like the most exciting young player on the planet. His development has been something of a mystery however, and up until now perhaps the first year under Marcelo Bielsa was when we saw the best of Muniain, who doesn’t turn 22 until mid-December.
Muniain – The talent
There we saw the fire Joaquín Caparrós lit up inside him again; the ability to beat his marker no matter the size or experience, the desire to antagonise opponents with his cocky demeanour. El Pais labelled him the jewel in the crown at Lezama, and the new Julen Guerrero. The player that would give Athletic belief again.
I believed it for myself especially so after recalling him take apart my team Sporting Gijón at San Mames. He was eventually taken off late on due to the danger of him being decapitated on the field but not before being handed an ovation, this in response to the master class he’d shown in front of far more experienced opponents.
Our centre-back Alberto Botía must have scythed Muniain down 5 or 6 times, unable to nullify the threat. Muniain got back up every time, teased Botía, and attempted to do it all again. There was a cheek and childish delight to what he was doing. He was the kid you tried to kick on the 5-a-side field but could get nowhere near, the kid you hated for his cockiness but deep inside wanted to be. This is the Muniain I remember most fondly, but the development in that first year under Bielsa was what captured the imagination more.
We saw Muniain become more tactically aware, choose his runs better, save his energy for the right moments and be aggressive with defensive duties. Muniain was a key cog in the works for Bielsa’s notoriously tenacious pressing. Muniain, along with Oscar De Marcos, was arguably the best runner on the team in terms of quickness, stamina and ability to attack key areas.
The key area was off the ball and Muniain learned superbly – his game always had the characteristics of a hustle player and Bielsa identified this. The image of Muniain hunting down the deer in the headlights figure of Rafael Da Silva at Old Trafford was a fantastic sight. The Brazilian, himself a battling character that retains a grip on youthful zest, was outwitted by the tenacity of Muniain.
A player and career drifting..
What has happened since the dramatic losses Athletic experienced at the end of that season, has mostly been speculation without any real clarity. Those close to the dressing room at Athletic see Muniain as a fragile character, overly self-critical and someone that takes losses personally. Bojan Krkic was another who was of the same ilk. If he had missed a chance even in a Barcelona win, the player would be cut up for days after and thus hamper himself in training and fail to make an impression to start the following week.
When things were going good, he seemed to be on top of the world, but a small defeat can turn into a full scale crisis. “This is a player extremely impulsive, and his actions on the feel are usually generated by his emotions” said Bielsa of Muniain.
De Marcos was equally insightful when discussing Muniain, declaring him first to be critical in defeat, but also angry and self-punishing over something such as being taken off early. Muniain has never had quarrel with another player, or coach, instead his anger is vented within himself. The picture of Munain strewn across the turf after both finals, engulfed in tears with Javi Martínez and others propping him up was perhaps the most public sign of this vulnerable figure.
The others could deal with such failure in their own way. Martínez went to Bayern Munich, Llorente had his contract running down and was set to leave while Ander Herrera’s strong personality is common knowledge. It’s somewhat ironic that this is the situation given the first impression of Muniain was of a player that lacked fear, instead using the thought of it to his advantage. “You’re bigger than me, but it’ll only mean you’ll fall harder”.
Muniain – an early career crossroads?
Weeks go by and stories emerge of Muniain changing positions, taken off the left hand side and moved centrally while most recent suggestions of a berth as a number 9 might suit. Muniain has never been a goalscorer however – even in his pomp lacking a clinical touch in the penalty area.
Outside it meanwhile, he doesn’t influence anywhere near enough to justify his talent. It’s why the question remains, who is exactly is Muniain and what player will he develop into. A 9? Highly unlikely. Winger? He doesn’t possess the crossing ability. A link-man in the final third looks most likely, maintaining the flow of moves and if possible providing a key pass or run.
Ernesto Valverde was unequivocal when it came to moving players out of their traditional comfort zones at Valencia, so if Muniain is uprooted at this point in wouldn’t be a great surprise. The worry is though the battle is mental as opposed to positional. Goals recently for the Spain Under-21 have brought back the awkward smile, and he seems to be handling the duty as one of the leaders well.
Juan Mata, Javi Martínez, Thiago, David De Gea and his team mate Ander have had the role in the past and have gone on to bigger and better things after. Ander is relevant most perhaps given he’s a current teammate, and even more so because of the rollicking the midfielder handed Muniain on a weekly basis last season. Ander would query the thinking behind Muniain’s decision to make yet another run into a dead end, or pass that simply wasn’t on.
The simple things don’t come so easy for Muniain anymore and it increases the feeling that the dip in form or even stagnation owes to what goes on inside the head. Until he navigates those issues we might not see that tenacious figure return or better still, an improved version.
Many young players fall by the way side in Spain, but Muniain not fulfilling his promise would be the saddest tale of them all.