Since breaking into the first team back in 2015 Iñigo Lekue’s role in the squad has been mainly that of a utility player. The 25-year-old is capable of playing on either side of the defense and on both wings which gives the team great versatility, but has also kept him from fully developing in any one position. At times he has shown flashes of brilliance in one place or another, but at other times he has also looked susceptible to mistakes. The fact of the matter is throughout his young career Lekue has been a good player for Athletic, but has never been great. Well, during Saturday’s 2-0 win over Real Betis Lekue was undeniably great and that deserves attention.
With Oscar De Marcos and Mikel Balenziaga both unavailable, manager Kuko Ziganda elected to use three center-backs against Real Betis with two wing-backs. The idea was to utilize the three best defenders on the team (Yeray, Unai Nuñez, and Iñigo Martinez) to provide stability while allowing the wing-backs to stretch the field. In theory the midfielders would have more freedom to move around to create for the forwards and that is exactly what happened. Lekue featured as the right wing-back and had his best game of the entire season, perhaps even his best as a first team player.
Playing as a wing-back definitely took advantage of Lekue’s strengths – work rate, versatility, and crossing – while mitigating the weaknesses he has shown as a pure defender or winger. The Lezama product looked much more relaxed knowing that he wasn’t the last line of defense, but also didn’t have the pressure of being a focal point in the attack like he has had when playing on the wing. He showed visible confidence throughout the entire game and played with the freedom to use his engine and put himself in important positions.
Looking at the statistics can even lead to the conclusion that he was the man of the match for Athletic. Lekue had 65 touches, more than any of his teammates, and created three scoring chances when he pushed forward in attack. He assisted Iker Muniain’s goal that opened the scoring and was a constant headache for Durmisi who had to mark him in the final third. Even without the ball Lekue was absolutely solid. He constantly created width on the right side of the pitch and pulled the defense out of position which allowed Iñaki Williams the space to attack.
Lekue really used his work rate well by constantly tracking back in defense. Twice he was able to step into passing lanes to cut out counter attacks and wasn’t afraid to challenge with a tackle either. He was responsible for two key clearances, an important interception, and won all of his aerial duels. It was a very well-rounded game from the 25-year-old who did all the right things to allow his teammates the space and time to have a major impact on the match.
After the game Kuko Ziganda made it clear that the formation was something that he would consider in the future. The win over Betis was one of the best performances of the year and there is reason to believe that the manager may elect to use the same scheme in the final two games of the season. If that does happen it will be interesting to see if Lekue gets minutes in the same role because one game is an extremely small sample size to try to draw conclusions. Still, Saturday’s game gave fans reason to be encouraged about the qualities that Lekue possesses and the role that he could play in the team moving forward.