The Cubs Becoming Lions: Europe’s Most Vital Academy Introduces a Golden Class
For the last century (and more), Athletic Club have ploughed a lone furrow within Europe’s most prominent top-flight leagues. While most clubs shape their seasons around the transfer market and its external ins and internal outs, Athletic do almost everything internally. In Bilbao, deadline day is just another day.
That’s because the Leones are bound by a club philosophy which states that they can only field players who have come through either their own academy, the academies of other clubs in the Basque Country, or who were born in the territories that constitute the Basque Country.
By this measure, Lezama is the most important academy in European football.
With such a narrow pool of players to recruit from, sourcing players from the region in the youth categories and developing them internally are the means by which Athletic sustain their position. And against all the odds, they have never been relegated from the top-flight in their entire existence. When you’ve been doing it for so long, you tend to become pretty good at it.
Here in 2022, that is looking to be as true as ever. Although they have not all necessarily debuted this term, the club’s most recent promotions from the youth categories are making an impact in numbers that haven’t been seen for a while in Bilbao. While youngsters from within the club have always had a place in the first team squad, this current class is already permeating the starting XI in major ways.
Here we detail the four under-23 players that look set to mark the next era of Athletic’s illustrious production…
The youngest hat-trick scorer in Europe’s big five leagues this season, 21-year-old Oihan Sancet is the cream of Athletic’s emerging crop. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that the youngster is not just a star within the current group of stars. He might be one of the most promising talents they’ve ever pushed through.
Sancet currently plays as one of the front two in Athletic’s classic 4-4-2 system. It’s a setup that Marcelino has rarely veered from over the last decade in La Liga, and in the beginning, it looked like it might not be optimal for Sancet’s individual fit. As the weeks turned into months, however, Athletic have since been able to develop different faces to their attack through him – maintaining their direct style that is based on quick, forward passing and also being able to craft more play between the lines through the 21-year-old. Anyone who tuned into the Harry Kane show at the Etihad recently would have also enjoyed Sancet’s cameo in the Basque derby the following day.
Along with a physically capable stature at 6-foot-2, he combines traditional forward play with real intelligence as a link between the midfield and attack. Where Marcelino’s 4-4-2 has been susceptible to predictable play in its worst moments, the emergence of Athletic’s number eight has added a different dimension to the way in which they orchestrate their attacks. And even in the early part of his career, he is already one of the best that La Liga has to offer as a striker who influences the game beyond goalscoring.
In terms of goal production, Sancet ranks fourth in La Liga this season for non-penalty goals and assists per 90 (0.89), among those with 900 minutes played. By comparison, Karim Benzema is the only player posting above one. But while he may have some way to go to develop the Frenchman’s scoring prowess, the man born in the millennium is already looking like he’s cut from the same cloth of multifunctional strike play.
The younger sibling of Athletic’s striker Iñaki, Nico Williams has burst into San Mamés with much the same enthusiasm that his brother did back in 2014. While Iñaki has gone on to make over 300 appearances for the club since then, Nico’s start to life in the first team looks set to bring a whole lot more from the Williams name.
The cool part of it all is that the siblings can easily co-exist in Athletic’s XI. Iñaki has become a full-time striker after alternating between the front line and the wing in previous seasons, and Nico is a natural wide player who already offers a unique profile within the team’s squad. While his older brother impacts the game more with his off-ball speed, running the channels and making darts in behind the defence, Nico is an electric winger who combines his pace with tighter dribbling technique.
Williams has featured in the first team 27 times across all competitions this season, although is still very much in the introduction phase with only nine of those being starts. He does already have a signature moment to his name though, following his winning goal against Atlético Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup semi-final last month. This was one of several impressive cameos he has logged for Marcelino’s side so far, which have been typified by his fearless approach to wide play.
In his 842 league minutes to date, the 19-year-old has stood out for his high-volume dribbling and ability to generate shots through that ball carrying. Among players with at least 500 minutes played, Williams ranks third in La Liga for carries featuring a take-on per 90 (4.5), and seventh in the competition for carries that end in a shot or chance created per 90 (1.7).
Williams has played on his natural right side for Athletic so far and has a particular skill in attacking full backs with diagonal runs that force them back into the penalty area. In time, he will no doubt get some run on the opposite side to experiment with cutting inside defenders with his dribbles. No matter where he does it, Nico looks primed to be disturbing full backs for a long time to come.
‘Vencedor’ in Spanish translates as ‘winner’, and it’s a particularly apt name for Athletic’s young midfielder. Featuring at the heart of the team’s central midfield pair, Vencedor has already shot to the top of the club’s hierarchy in his role. In their ideal XI, he shares the centre of the field with Dani García – the veteran and a more defensive-minded presence – while the 21-year-old offsets him with his more elaborate passing range and energy in pressing higher onto opponents.
Though Vencedor is likely to profile as the longer-term successor to Dani García, his game is becoming increasingly well-rounded with the passing of time. The Bilbao native – who is already an international with Spain’s U21s – is being primed to figure as a more balanced midfielder, whose impact is not necessarily weighted in either defence or attack.
Vencedor is Athletic’s most productive central midfielder in possession, leading their core of options across nearly all distribution responsibilities. This standing is only set to increase as he gathers more experience and comfort in the team. Despite currently being sidelined with a hamstring injury, he has already made as many starts this season as he did in the whole of last season (19).
As well as taking on the main steer of Athletic’s passing from central midfield, the 21-year-old also fulfils the defensive responsibilities that their collective intensity demands. His per 90 average of 6.3 ball recoveries is the highest of the team’s defensive/central midfielders in La Liga this season (with 500+ minutes played). And in the team’s aggressive pursuit of opponents, Vencedor is always the more advanced of the two midfielders in pressing the opponent’s initial passing options.
The role of the central midfielder who is impactful on both sides of the ball has been one that has alluded Athletic over the years. In fact, since Ander Herrera left for Manchester United back in 2014, it has been a vacancy that they have struggled to fill like-for-like.
Vencedor isn’t there yet – and isn’t quite the mirror of what Herrera was – but he represents the best bet that the Leones have had in many years.
In an era of football where young central defenders are increasingly climbing the ladder through what they can do with the ball at their feet as much as what they do without it, Dani Vivian is somewhat of a throwback in his approach to the game. The 22-year-old already cuts the figure of a seasoned veteran – tough, competitive, and physically imposing. And the most important ingredient: he just loves to defend.
This isn’t to say that the youngster is uncomfortable with the ball. As he showed on loan at Mirandés last season – one of the more progressive sides in Spain’s second tier – Vivian was plenty active in possession and featured regularly in a team that built their attacks from the back.
At Athletic, his responsibilities are a little different. Marcelino’s side run an aggressive and direct 4-4-2 system, where the ball goes from back to front quicker. Athletic want to squeeze up the pitch and suffocate teams with their pressure, especially when playing at San Mamés. This means defenders often have to contend with space in behind them. But whether far from goal or on the goalkeeper’s doorstep, Vivian has formed one half of a centre back duo that has been ultra-competitive in defending across all scenarios.
Comparing a team’s record with or without a player in an 11-game sport can hardly be considered an exact science, but to those who have seen Vivian’s performances for Athletic, it will come as no surprise to see how formidable they have been since he was paired with Iñigo Martínez.
In his 13 starts alongside Iñigo Martínez for the club across all competitions, Athletic have posted a 69% win rate and are yet to lose a game. They have kept eight clean sheets in those 13 fixtures, conceding just six times in total. For a team whose win rate on the season is 42%, their success with this particular centre-back pair on the pitch has been transformative.
For a central defender so far removed from his peak years, Vivian’s level of competence at this stage of his career offers huge promise for the future. The 22-year-old is already an emblem of Athletic’s physical approach to the game. In time, Vivian looks set to mount a case for the ownership of a more visible emblem: club captain.
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