The story goes that a 17-year old Iker Muniain waltzed his way past a long queue and straight in front of the bouncer at a night club and asked to be let in. ”Don’t you know who I am?” ”I know who you are, you’re Iker and you’re 17-years old. Now fuck off home.”
There was a time when Iker Muniain was hailed as the golden boy of Spanish football – hell, InBedWithMaradona labelled him “the future of world football” not 2 years back but since then many talents have come and passed and Muniain, nicknamed “Bart” by the Spanish media after the Simpsons character, is yet to find his true place in the game.
Thiago dazzled at Barcelona and is now fulfilling his promise in Munich; Isco rose to prominence with some style from the obscurity of Valencia’s ‘B’ team; Alvaro Morata is attracting admiring looks from Arsenal; Koke has become a mainstay in Diego Simeone’s remarkable Atletico unit while Gerard Deulofeu continues to build on his raw potential. Iker Muniain, once the brightest of the above lot, seems to have pulled on the handbrake while the others have kept on flying.
It feels like he’s been around since a long time but he’s just 21 years old and has already played more than 150 games for Athletic Club de Bilbao. He was part of the highly rated Spanish Under-21 sides that won the UEFA Under-21 Championship in 2011 and 2013 and won the La Liga Breakthrough Player of the Year award in 2011.
There was a time when this young boy from Pamplona was dazzling his way up to the top of the world, most notably in the Europa League (in the 2011/12 season) when he was part of the Athletic side that dismantled Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United home and away. And even though Athletic were beaten in the final, Muniain had risen from the shadows and his stock was promptly driven beyond the borders of Spanish football into the global game.
He is the ultimate mischief maker in that Athletic side and carries around the ‘bad boy’ image with immaculate ease. He possesses the self-confidence found in every emerging player in the excellent Spanish Canteras without it threatening to spill over into arrogance. He is a well-grounded person but ever since that stellar season under Marcelo Bielsa, he has often felt the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Muniain was given his Athletic debut by the much maligned Joaquín Caparrós and his fire was well and truly stoked by Caparrós’ successor, Marcelo Bielsa. Muniain, along with Oscar de Marcos, were a key part of Bielsa’s pressing philosophy. The talent that Caparrós unleashed was moulded by the hand of Bielsa.
No matter the size of the opponent, Muniain’s desire to take him on was a joy to watch. The image of Muniain chasing, harrying and hunting down Atsuto Uchida (during the Schalke v Athletic Europa League match in 2011/12) at the Veltins Arena is indelibly etched in the minds of Athletic fans. He humiliated Uchida on the night, and no matter how much the Japanese right-back tried to get near him, Muniain cheekily kept slipping away.
He has been compared to Bojan Krkic (of Barcelona fame) in terms of his personality. While Ander Herrera is known for his iron will, Muniain has been described as an overly sensitive character, who deals with loss by blaming himself and sulking around for days over a thing as simple as a missed opportunity. This spills over into training the following week and messes with his schedule.
Bielsa, in his own unique style, describes Muniain thus:
“This is a player extremely impulsive, and his actions on the field are usually generated by his emotions.”
You will never find him running his mouth at another player or a coach; instead, he’ll find a fault in his own game, berate himself over it and keep playing it in his head a thousand times making it impossible for anyone to console him. This does paint him in an image starkly contrasting with the fearless winger we have grown to admire.
Bielsa moved him from the left-wing into a more central position but Iker doesn’t possess the qualities of a true No. 10. His goal-scoring ability has always been his weak point and while his ball control has improved massively since his emergence, he just hasn’t settled into a position.
As David Cartlidge so eloquently put, Muniain’s battle seems to be more of a mental one rather than a positional one. He doesn’t seem to believe in himself as much, with simple decisions not
coming easily to him anymore.
During that memorable 2011/12 season, Muniain averaged 1.3 key passes per game in La Liga. Last season that figure went down 1/game and has dipped to just 0.7/game this season. He averaged 41 passes per game during that season but that figure has come down to 33.3/game this term.
There has been a sort of revival under Ernesto Valverde this season but not enough to justify the swashbuckling potential with which he once illuminated Old Trafford. One hopes he can throw off the handbrakes, take off his seat belt and press down on the accelerator once again as he so wonderfully did in 2011/12.
Se lo quite, Iker (take it away, Iker).