The preseason is a time for preparation, but also for trying new things. Through three friendlies Cuco Ziganda has tested several different lineups and pairings as he looks to find the strongest combinations for the new season. Almost every combination of defensive line and attacking unit has featured together in some form or fashion, but there are two players who have only seen the pitch while playing beside each other. In all three games, Beñat and Mikel Vesga have started as the holding midfielders and it now seems like the perfect time to analyze this partnership.
Going into the new season everyone assumed that Mikel San Jose would continue as Beñat’s midfield partner. That very well may be the case, but the duo has yet to line up together this summer. Instead, San Jose has featured purely as a center-back with Yeray, Enric Saborit, Aymeric Laporte, and Inigo Lekue all missing time. Ziganda could simply be in a position where he has to use San Jose in defense, or perhaps he wants to get a good look at Vesga alongside Beñat. Maybe he is truly considering this partnership going forward. Whatever the case may be, it is interesting and warrants an analysis.
Beñat is accustomed to acting as a deep-lying playmaker while his partner does the job of covering for him defensively and protecting the back line. Mikel San Jose and Ander Iturraspe are both very defense-minded midfielders, while Vesga is more well-rounded in his game. Vesga can be physical, but his defensive efforts come more in the form of stealing the ball and making interceptions instead of pure strength. His positional awareness and ability to read the game has helped him tremendously and still allows him to play as a defensive midfielder so Beñat can focus on creativity further up the pitch. This would be an added nuance to the midfield unit, but it may also bring more control to a team that likes to dominate possession as much as possible.
Unlike his counterparts, Vesga also possesses a very strong passing game. While playing with Sporting Gijon on loan last year he showed a knack for setting up chances from deep in his own half, as well as the calmness to retain possession and be a major part of the build up play for the offense. This is something that San Jose and Iturraspe rarely play a major role in, electing to let Benat handle all of the creativity. This new pairing could provide Athletic with much more creativity behind the forwards, but it is also understandable to be worried about the defensive aspect as well.
Ziganda has been seen many times this summer speaking directly to the defensive players. He has chosen to prioritize strong defending above all else and it has shown during the friendly matches. Other than surrendering three goals to Basel while being down one man, the Lions have gone the last two matches without giving up a single goal. In fact, their defense has looked so strong that they have barely allowed any real chances on goal. It is certainly something to be excited about and opens up possibilities for a partnership like that of Beñat and Mikel Vesga.
Only time will tell what plans Ziganda has for the team and whether or not this duo will see major minutes together. Still, Vesga’s rise to prominence last season has given Athletic another capable option in the midfield and a new dynamic to add wrinkles to the system. It will certainly be interesting to see what the rest of the summer holds for Beñat and Mikel Vesga, but fans have a lot of reason for excitement. Hopefully Mikel San Jose can rediscover his best form this season, but if he can’t Vesga will be waiting for the opportunity to show that he is ready and capable of greatness at the San Mames.
Who do you believe is the best pairing for Athletic Club? Is Mikel Vesga really challenging for a starting role? Will Mikel San Jose rediscover his best form? Have you say in the comment section below!