11. Mikel Oyarzabal
Economically, the Basques are well known for their history as a mining region in the north of Spain. The abundance of minerals that come from País Vasco have been distributed around Europe and the entire world ever since the arrival of the Romans in 96 B.C.. Their infinite abundance is constantly tapped into, which has led to economic prosperity in the region. Seemingly stretching to all walks of life, Basque footballers are a shining image of this success. The next golden footballer out of Basque Country is Mikel Oyarzabal, a mesmerizing winger with all the glamour of a precious gem.
The 20-year old was born in Eibar, a city situated almost directly in between the two Basque footballing powerhouses, Athletic Club and Real Sociedad. Both have enjoyed unparalleled success in the region, being the two clear favorites for any youngster to succeed at. Real Sociedad jumped at the chance to sign him, and they have been constantly rewarded for doing so.
The tricky attacker has the unique attribute of being able to play anywhere up top. Watching Real Sociedad matches, you will often find Oyarzabal drifting from the left to the right, looking for the space to punish opposing defenders. From a positional sense, he mainly lines up as a left-winger for the majority of matches, but to better break down opponents, he will drift to the right, and even find himself centrally at times. His play involves a lot of deception and intelligent movement, and Oyarzabal has the tactical nous to find his way between the space left by defenders.
Intelligence is an attribute that doesn’t pop up in stats, but is nonetheless vital for a player’s success on the pitch. Too often we see a player with magical talent, but let that talent go to waste because of the flaws in their head. Mikel Oyarzabal has the combination of technical ability and decision making that makes scouts and coaches alike drool while watching him.
He made his debut for Real Sociedad all the way back in October 2015, when he was just 18, a clear sign of the promise that the coaches in San Sebastián saw in him. In February, he scored his first three goals in the span of a couple of games: he opened his account at Espanyol and in the next match, netted a brace against Granada. Six goals and two assists in 22 appearances is nothing to turn your head at for a teenager, and he became a mainstay in the first team during the 2015/2016 season and has not returned to the youth team setup ever since.
After the appointment of Eusebio Sacristán as manager, Oyarzabal’s role and status within the first team increased dramatically. His performances were so strong in fact, that he was called up to the Spanish senior squad for two friendlies before the Euros. He replaced Nolito at the hour mark of a 3-1 win against Switzerland. In the 2016/2017 campaign, Oyarzabal managed to secure a starting spot for the Txuri-urdinak. He played in all 38 league matches for Real Sociedad and started 30 of them, an incredible statistic for a player of his age. In those 38 games, he only scored twice, but don’t let that number take away from what he contributed to the attack. He supplied seven assists to his fellow attackers, and it is clear that assists are the most prominent stat in his game.
The name Oyarzabal comes to us from the Basque region, a region steeped in history and nobility. The name translates from Euskadi into, “of the open forest,” referring to the majestic wilderness surrounding the Basque country. Oyarzabal is an archer in the forests; he prowls around on the attack like a silent killer with deadly accuracy. Unlike most wingers, he doesn’t have blistering pace, but he compensates for his lack of speed in his brilliant technical ability. His vision and passing ability means he can create chances at will, catching the defenders off guard like a seasoned archer silently snuffing out a white-tailed buck. His mix of intelligence, composure, and technical ability is what will drive him to further success. With archery, success does not come with striking the target once, but by consistently striking the bull’s-eye, arrow after arrow.
There’s an old Japanese proverb that goes, “A single arrow is easily broken, but a quiver of ten is not.” Oyarzabal’s consistency is something that has propelled him forward in his career, and the coaching staff at Real Sociedad trust him to perform every time he steps onto the pitch. This season, Mikel Oyarzabal started his first two games before succumbing to injury, scoring once in a 3-2 win against Celta Vigo. His incredibly instinctive strike came after an errant pass from Sergio Álvarez, and he launched it first time past the sprawling goalkeeper.
Mikel Oyarzabal has an incredibly bright future ahead of him at La Real and beyond. Despite being just 20, he already has an international cap under his belt, as well as a starting spot for the Erreala. This is his season to really break out into the lips of the casual fan. He will have opportunities in the Europa League to show the world what he is made of, as well as the possibility of sneaking into the Spanish squad for the World Cup next year. With any young star, the aura of unpredictability surrounds them. These young stars certainly have the talent, but so often we see these players falter and let talent go to waste due to a poor mentality, injuries, or a plethora of external forces.
Looking at Oyarzabal though, those worries become quickly diminished. His consistent appearances for the first team is a testament to his durability and constant self-belief. His intelligence is one of his biggest strengths, and his composure is contagious. As the La Liga season matures, look out for Oyarzabal to continue his rapid rise to stardom. The Basques have produced another diamond, ready to be sharpened and put on display.
By: Christian Candler/@_candler