From Xabi Alonso to Xabi Prieto, from Sergio Canales to David Silva, Real Sociedad have been blessed with countless technically gifted, creative central midfielders who can set the tempo of the game, switch the play and pick out teammates with inch-perfect through balls. The latest midfielder to make a name for himself at Anoeta is 25-year-old Martin Zubimendi.
Despite the retirement of David Silva, La Real have enjoyed a formidable start to the campaign under Imanol Alguacil, with the Basque side currently alive in three competitions, having drawn 0-0 to Mallorca in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals (the second leg is on February 27 at Anoeta), whilst they currently find themselves seventh in the league table. Moreover, they have excelled in their first Champions League campaign in a decade, and after topping their group, they will face PSG in the Round of 16.
La Real boast an impressive mix of attacking talents such as Umar Sadiq, Takefusa Kubo, Mikel Oyarzabal, Carlos Fernandez, Andre Silva and Ander Barrenetexea as well as a midfield trio of Brais Mendez, Mikel Merino and Zubimendi, and they are more than capable of continuing their deep run in Europe’s premier competition. Whilst they don’t exactly enter the match in red-hot form, having failed to score in their last four matches, La Real will be liking their chances of sending PSG packing from the Round of 16 for the third straight year, and they’ll be counting on Zubimendi as they look to impose their game on the French champions.
Born in San Sebastian, Spain, Zubimendi joined Zubieta — Real Sociedad’s academy — in 2011, working his way up the youth ranks and making his La Liga debut shortly after turning 19. He honed his trade under Xabi Alonso at Real Sociedad B, who could not help but contain his admiration for the burgeoning Spanish midfielder:
“Martin has the mark of Zubieta. He is a player all coaches would want. He’s generous, he always thinks more about his teammates than himself. He has that ability to generate play, to make those around him better, always offering solutions; to improve the move. He understands what the next step is before the ball gets to him. He has that ability to organise, the axis. I loved working with him.”
Having made just one La Liga appearance in 2018/19, Zubimendi racked up nine in Alguacil’s first full campaign in charge before emerging as a fully fledged first-team member in 2020/21, registering 31 La Liga appearances as well as 36 in each of the following two campaigns. His impressive performances peaked the interest of FC Barcelona, who eyed him as a potential successor to the departing Sergio Busquets. Instead, Zubimendi chose to stay put, stating in an interview, “I’m more keen on picking up Illaramendi’s ‘4’ jersey than Busquets’ ‘5’.
After a summer that saw two club legends in Silva and Illarramendi depart Anoeta, Zubimendi has led by example in the center of the pitch, picking up back-to-back MOTM awards against Red Bull Salzburg and Inter in the UEFA Champions League group stage. A deep-lying playmaker, Zubimendi is tidy on the ball and works hard to win the ball back, holding his own in ground duels and aerial duels and pushing possession into the final third with his composed passing ability. He knows when to get tight to his man, when to drop back and lend a hand to his defense, and he’s more than capable of wriggling out of pressure and advancing play into dangerous goal-scoring areas.
“You have to have a sufficient humility to devote yourself to the team,” Zubimendi said in an interview with Mundo Deportivo. “The first thing is the collective – not being individualistic. [It’s] about being constantly helping, whether it’s for the defensive line or your team-mates higher up.”
Photo: Opta Analyst
Zubimendi has stepped up in the final third this season with 4 goals and 1 assist, skilled at making runs in and around the box, taking advantage of his elite passing range and launching counters with inch-perfect through balls, and he’s also proven adept at running into open space and protecting his backline, keeping the ball under pressure and wriggling out of tight areas whilst also holding his own off the ball, with the Spaniard ranking well in terms of making clearances from inside the box and blocking shots.
He is also capable of making line-breaking passes, sitting deep and allowing the likes of Merino and Mendez to push forward, an all-action midfielder who can combine with Kubo and Oyarzabal in attack and dictate the tempo with his calm and composed passing, and who compensates for his slight 5’11” frame with an impressive jumping ability. Whilst Zubimendi has flourished in La Real’s possession-heavy system, he also doesn’t slack off when tasked with defending: in fact, no Real Sociedad player is averaging more interceptions per 90 in La Liga this season than Zubimendi (1.2).
At 25 years of age, Zubimendi looks set to play a pivotal role not just for Real Sociedad’s midfield, but Spain as well. Having made four appearances for La Roja so far — three of those coming in 2023 — Zubimendi will be looking to continue his impressive performances at club level as he looks to convince Luis de la Fuente to include him in the Euros squad. Whilst Zubimendi may not be so keen on replacing Sergio Busquets at Barcelona, he certainly has the attributes to emerge as Busquets’ long-term successor for the Spanish national team.
By: Ogunniyi Abayomi / @Cerebralcardo
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Quality Sport Images / Getty Images