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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Talent Spotter: The Basque Wayne Rooney

By Declan Olley (@DecTHFC)

Just over two years ago a 16 year old from Pamplona made Spanish football history. He became the youngest goalscorer in both La Liga and Athletic Bilbao’s history.

Go back another seven years and a teenager from Liverpool introduced himself to English football in a similar vein. His goal against Arsenal for Everton saw him, at that moment in time, become the youngest goal scorer in the history of the Premier League (James Vaughan now holds the record).

The two players however, have chosen different routes since there goals.

 Iker Muniain, in stereotypical Basque fashion, has stayed loyal to Athletic Bilbao. Wayne Rooney on the other hand left Merseyside for Manchester two years after his stunning goal.

But how long will it be before Muniain really becomes “The Basque Wayne Rooney”?
Judging from his form from last season and his form at the moment, it won’t be too long. There’s already talk of Real Madrid placing the 18 year-old on their wanted list and their interest comes of no great surprise.

Muniain was pivotal in both Bilbao’s sixth place finish in La Liga last season and Spain’s European Under-21 Championship victory where he played in four games, including the final against Switzerland.

Meanwhile, praise for Muniain has come from all corners of the San Memes. Former coach Joaquin Capparos said the attacker had “a built-in GPS and eight gears”, while Bilbao legend Joseba Etxeberria said: “Football only has one language, and Iker has mastered it. Muniain will certainly be a quality player, not just for this team.”

Muniain, for an attacking player, does have a sketchy goal scoring record though. In the last two and a quarter seasons the Spaniard has hit 14 goals in all competitions - but you would be a fool to judge the Basque man on his goals.

Instead, the most telling fact about the 18 year-old is that in a league that houses the world’s best two players, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Muniain is La Liga’s most fouled player.And that is not because he dives. Defenders actually find it hard to knock him off of the ball, and as a result of his bullish nature commit rash challenges on the teenager.

There is also the defensive side of Muniain. He is prepared to track back, slow down opposition attacks and even ‘take one for the team’. He racked up six yellows last season and committed 34 fouls, but unlike Rooney, is yet to be sent off.

This season, under Marcelo Bielsa, the young Spaniard has played ‘in the hole’ behind the not so diminutive Fernando Llorente. The move has seen Muniain become the creative hub for Bilbao where he can influence attacks from all manner of positions.

Bilbao have reaped the rewards from the positional switch, particularly in the Europa League where they have already qualified, sitting top of Group F above big-spending Paris St. Germain. Muniain himself bagged a goal and an assist away at Slovan Bratislava on the opening match day.

With Europe now feeling the full force of Muniain, Los Leones will be delighted they have the number 19 tied down on a long-term contract that expires in 2015. But come 2015, will Muniain have followed in the footsteps of Rooney and find himself out of Bilbao at one of Europe’s elite clubs?

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