The Cuco Ziganda era has officially begun at Athletic Club, but there won’t be that many changes on the pitch. Ziganda has a very similar style of play to that of former coach Ernesto Valverde, so the system will be quite familiar. The midfield will still look to dominate possession, push the ball out to the wings, and attack by swinging in crosses and working outside to inside. That being said, a few wrinkles will be worked into the team to change things up. The most interesting alteration won’t be systematic, but will come in the form of a left-footed blistering shot from Ager Aketxe.
While playing with Bilbao Athletic in the Segunda last season, Aketxe turned a corner in his development as a professional footballer. Well, to be honest he did more than just turn a corner; he sprinted around it. Despite being a player with great vision and football IQ, there was something holding Aketxe back. He always had a quiet and humble personality and many began to question if that was actually holding him back. He wasn’t really vocal on the pitch and his confidence seemed to be inconsistent. But that all changed last season.
Almost as if someone turned on a switch that had been off for a while, Aketxe changed when he was sent back down to Bilbao Athletic in January. He immediately took on the role as the leader of the team, both on and off the field, and his confidence began to soar. Soon he was dictating play and really putting his stamp on every game, becoming the most important player on the pitch. Even still, it was his ability to score from outside the box that helped him stand out the most.
The Lezama product scored his first wonder-goal in late January in a 2-1 loss to Girona. He took a free kick from a few yards outside the box and beat the keeper who never even saw the ball. Five weeks later he netted three goals past Ponferradina in a thrilling 4-2 win, with two of those coming from outside the box. One struck the post to beat the keeper and the other was a fantastic shot from a free kick. He then went on a seven-game terror, scoring four goals and providing two assists; and yes, three of those goals came from well outside the box.
At this point Aketxe looked like a lock to return to the first team, but then tragedy struck when he suffered a torn ACL. The injury put him out of action for eight months and meant that he would once again have to prove himself, which is exactly what he did. The 23-year-old joined Cadiz on loan at the end of January and has been an integral part in helping the club reach the promotional playoffs of the Segunda. The midfielder has scored five goals while on loan, and all but one came from distance. In fact, two of them were scored from a ridiculous range and sent the internet into a frenzy.
That fifth goal of the season came during Thursday’s 1-0 win over Tenerife in the promotional playoff and was scored from over 40 yards out. In fact, of Aketxe’s 13 goals in the Segunda, 10 have come from outside the box. Athletic fans have been dreaming since January about Ager Aketxe returning this summer and for good reason, but Thursday’s goal seems to have sealed the deal for most doubters. Barring some unforeseen circumstance, Aketxe will be in Ziganda’s squad next season and may even play regular minutes as Raul Garcia’s backup.
Aketxe’s return will give Athletic depth in midfield as well as the left wing, that is for sure. But, it is ability to score from long distances that will bring a new dimension to the system that has been missing from the San Mames.
There is no denying that Athletic has a squad full of quality. From attack to defense there are a lot of talented players and they all understand their role within the system. That being said, the attack has looked stale and one dimensional at times. If sending in crosses didn’t lead to chances, the team would then try to play through the middle but it rarely led to anything. Opponents knew that if they could force Athletic away from the wings then they would find it very difficult to score. Aketxe’s presence could aid that weakness.
The biggest way to stifle wing play is the spread the midfield wider, thus opening up space in the middle of the park. At times Benat and Raul Garcia have been able to take advantage of this with a screamer, but those have been few and far between. When Aketxe is on the field, opponents will have to respect his ability to test the keeper, which could prevent opponents from stretching out wide. This would once again open up the wings to create chances from the flanks and send in dangerous crosses.
Apart from his deadly shooting, Aketxe is a well-rounded midfielder who can create chances with his vision and passing. He could provide a great link-up partner with the other attackers and the fact that he is left footed could also provide problems for defenders. Simply put, Aketxe will provide traits that just aren’t present in the Athletic team right now.
While Aketxe has been greatly praised and hyped for a big return, it is also wise to remember that he is still developing and growing as a footballer. He isn’t going to walk into the starting lineup or take La Liga by storm, but he can add special qualities to a team that is in need of more weapons and options. It will be important for fans to not put too much pressure on the 23-year-old and just allow him to assimilate back into the first team and play his game when given the chance. Aketxe has shown flashes of being something unique, but Athletic will continue to be patient with him. The club has never believed in putting too much on the shoulders of young players and it is this key factor that could help develop Aketxe into something great. He has been given the time and freedom to grow and that is has allowed him to shine bright.