Blog by: Beyond The Kop
Iker Muniaín was born in Spain’s Basque region and, at age 12, joined the youth setup at Athletic Bilbao, where he has become one of the crown jewels of a club that has a policy of only fielding Basque players in the side. Despite being just 20 years of age (he turns 21 in December), Muniaín already has a wealth of top flight experience.
He debuted with the Bilbao first team at age 16 in 2009, and already has played four seasons and over 150 matches with the La Liga club. He was selected as the La Liga breakthrough player of the season in 2010-11, and has made over 20 appearances for Spain at the U21 and U23 levels. He also has one appearance with the Spanish senior national team, which – rumor has it – is a pretty decent side.
Style of play
Muniaín is an exciting attacking player, blessed with flair, pace and the ability to take on and beat players off the dribble. He is right-footed, but usually is deployed on the left as an “inverted” winger. In that role, he has the pace to get wide or – more often – cut to the middle of the pitch on his stronger right foot. Indeed, he sometimes operates more centrally behind the striker as a central attacking midfielder or no. 10.
With his elusiveness and dribbling ability, Muniaín forces defenders to either bring him down (he suffered an ankle-numbing 120 fouls in all competitions in 2011-12) or back off, opening up attacking options and lanes for himself and his teammates that he has the vision and technical ability to exploit.
He has a bag full of tricks at his disposal, and the confidence (sometimes bordering on arrogance) to attempt any variety of moves, back heels or whatever else might spring to mind in the spur of the moment. He also from time to time sports a spectacular blond mullet, which itself is capable of creating one or two chances a game and probably should be the subject of its own, separate scouting report.
With his speed and decisiveness, Muniaín is a terror on the counterattack and he thrived under former Bilbao manager’s Marcelo Bielsa’s fast-breaking, quick counter-punching approach. But Muniaín also is strong in a more controlled short passing game – particularly when playing more centrally – and he is adept at little through balls and give-and-go plays.
He has a decent shot, particularly on his right. But he is not likely to score many goals on 35-yard screamers or free kicks, and his overall goal return last season (which I can count on two fingers) reflects that his finishing is not yet on the level of his other ball skills. Maybe it’s the mullet.
Muniaín’s game is heavily tilted toward the attacking half of the pitch, but he does not completely disregard his defensive responsibilities a la other attacking left wingers like Cristiano Ronaldo or Frank Ribéry. Bielsa’s system required Muniaín to pressure the ball and track back with urgency, which he did dutifully … at least when things were going well (more on that below).
At just 5’7” and 63 kg., Muniaín can be out-muscled and is a non-factor in the air. But he has a relatively strong lower body to withstand some of the physical stuff and a slight edge to his game. Although he will never be mistaken for Javier Mascherano in the middle of the park, Muniaín has a temper and occasionally will stick his nose into the fray … and not always at the right time, as last season’s 12 yellow cards and 1 red card will attest. That record is a reflection of Muniaín’s competitive nature. He’s small, but frisky. Like Bart Simpson. No, really, like Bart Simpson.
Muniaín carries himself as if he is a special player and, when he is at his best, he can be. He has both the confidence and ability to create something out of nothing. Those kinds of players don’t grow on trees. Not even in Spain. For a while, he seemed eventually destined for the likes of Barcelona, and his inclusion in the Spanish national side speaks to his skill and potential. But, following a stellar 2011-12 season in which Muniaín posted nine goals, created numerous chances and helped vanquish Schalke and (quite satisfyingly) Manchester United in the Europa League, his play stagnated last year.
In fairness to Muniaín, Bilbao was a bit of a mess last season. Not quite a France-at-the-2010-World-Cup kind of mess, but still not pretty. After a swashbuckling 2011-12 campaign that saw the club advance to the Europa League final, Bilbao stumbled last year to a 12th place finish in the league table and a -21 goal differential. Much of that had nothing to do with Muniaín.
The club lost its most important player (and close Muniaín friend) Javí Martinez to Bayern Munich (which worked out pretty well for him). There was a messy final season with out-of-contract striker Fernando Llorente, who frequently was benched and went from 30 goals in 2011-12 to just five last season.
And the squad generally seemed to grow tired with Bielsa’s manic approach (and that’s coming from a Bielsa fan). But Muniaín also did little to right the ship on his own. He posted only one goal and one assist in 33 league games for the season. Those are vintage 2011-12 Stewart Downing kind of numbers, not the sort of end product one would expect from a player with Muniaín’s talent.
Muniaín’s occasionally lackluster play in 2012-13 is somewhat understandable amidst the chaos of Bilbao’s lost season, but it also highlights the chief concerns with his development: consistency and maturity, both on and off the pitch. When things are going well and Muniaín is on the big stage playing against top class opponents in Europe, he can look like a world beater.
When things are not going as well, he does not appear to bring the same effort and can let lesser opponents off the hook. And he has found himself in hot water away from the game, too, being caught shirtless on a webcam with Javi Martinez and a pair of adult actresses before playing Manchester United. [Insert your own joke here.]
These may simply be the signs of immaturity that will pass. After all, Muniaín is still only 20. But, given the kind of significant transfer fee that he likely would command, any interested team is going to want to know whether they can count on him to stay focused and deliver the goods every game. Would the same player who starred on a European night in Old Traffordshow up for a rainy Saturday night league game at Stoke in January? You know, just as an example.Which brings us to the matter of the potential fee and fit on Merseyside.
Potential fee and fit on Merseyside
With Liverpool boss Brendan Rogers recently indicating that he would like to add a left-sided attacking player with pace, allowing Coutinho to play more centrally as a no. 10, Muniaín would seem to be a perfect fit at Anfield. He has not delivered the goal totals that Rodgers has suggested he would like to see from that position, but the potential is there – as his five goals during Bilbao’s run to the 2012 Europa League final suggests.
And Muniaín certainly has more to his game. With his creativity and ability to turn any possession into a scoring chance, he could be the type of game-breaking player that Liverpool simply has had too few of in recent years. And, as an added bonus, he’s already scored a goal and broken hearts at Old Trafford. You know if that sort of thing might matter to you.
Like Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, Muniaín was highly touted and showed flashes of brilliance as a very young player, only to see his development – and market value – dip. A change of scenery might prove similarly beneficial for the Spanish international. But, unlike Liverpool’s pair of January acquisitions, who were facing limited playing opportunities at Inter and Chelsea, respectively, Muniaín still has a guaranteed starting berth at Bilbao.
And although Bilbao surely would not have been satisfied with Muniaín’s efforts over the last year, their Basque-only player policy makes him uniquely valuable to the club. As such, Bilbao very well may be expected to seek a transfer fee upwards of €20 million, if they were to sell.
So, where does that leave us with respect to Muniaín?
Pace; dribbling; ball control; creativity; mullet; performance versus Man U; being photographed shirtless with adult film actresses.
Strength; tackling; aerial ability; maturity; being photographed shirtless with adult film actresses.
Yes, please. Sign him up. I’m already ordering a shirt with his name on the back right now.