Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Just a few years ago Mikel San José was a fan favorite at the San Mamés. He had scored a Golazo against Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup, was playing a key role in Ernesto Valverde’s team, and carried himself in a humble and quiet manner. There was even a fan group that would bring large cardboard cutouts of San José’s face to games. To cap it all off he was called up to the Spain National Team and even attracted interest from clubs like Manchester United. Seriously speaking, the midfielder has been one of the most important players in the team over the last four years, but all of that has changed.
This season the 28-year-old has been at the center of fan criticism with many calling for him to be offloaded in the summer and some going as far to say that he has no place in the Primera. Naturally, manager Kuko Ziganda has carried the most blame of anyone for this season’s poor results, but San José is the player that has been called out the most. He had a very disappointing start to the campaign, mainly due to minor injures, and seemed to start finding his best form around February but it didn’t last long.
San José has struggled to win possession, pass with accuracy, and has consistently given the ball away in dangerous areas. At times he has looked like the biggest liability on the field and fans have accused him of not giving enough effort in matches. To cap it off, he’s also been extremely unlucky like in the Basque Derby against Real Sociedad where he scored two own goals. For a player who was once so loved at the San Mamés, this turn of events must be extremely difficult to navigate through. In an interview earlier in the season he admitted that fans must understand that players are people too and seemed frustrated at the negativity so fervently aimed at him.
It is clear that changes will be coming to Athletic Club this summer. For starters, Kuko Ziganda will no longer serve as manager when the season comes to an end and will reportedly be replaced by Eduardo Berizzo. Ander Capa, Cristian Ganea, and Dani Garcia will all be joining the team, as could others like Mikel Merino, which means that some current players will be making their exits. After such a disappointing season full of constant fan criticism, San José could very well be one of those players on the way out, but that is yet to be determined.
The Lezama product proved under Ernesto Valverde that he can play at an extremely high level, so why has this year been so drastically different? Perhaps injuries are to blame. It was clear at the beginning of the campaign that San José was playing hurt, but that alone cannot be the entire story. Maybe the all around poor performances of the team has brought out the worse in the midfielder who has always thrived in a role that played off of other’s strengths. Or, maybe San José just doesn’t have it anymore.
When determining what to make of San José’s season it is important to realize that Kuko Ziganda asked him to play a role in a system that just doesn’t fit his strengths. Under Valverde the midfielder was asked to sit in front of the defense and provide coverage while Beñat was free to move around and create behind the forwards. When Ziganda was promoted over the summer he admitted that he wanted his midfield to function differently. His goal was for both players in the double pivot to move forward in attack and cover each other as needed, which forced San José to operate in a more offensive manner than he has ever been used to. The statistics show a drop in production.
This season San José is completing fewer passes, tackles, and interceptions than in recent seasons, while also committing more errors. It is easy to see why fans have been so frustrated with his performances because such a significant drop in quality just doesn’t make sense. Could it be that playing in Ziganda’s system just doesn’t fit San José’s strengths and that, along with the mental aspect of struggling to perform, is to blame for his fall from grace? Honestly, there just isn’t any way to actually know. For four years he was one of the most important players in the team and the next season he has been a complete liability.
The question has to be asked. Can Eduardo Berizzo save Mikel San José’s Athletic Club career? The Argentine is set to become the new manager this summer and has been discussing squad plans with the club. He is already preparing for the preseason, during which he will have the ability to access players like San José and determine if they will play a role in his team moving forward. The potentially good news is that Berizzo uses a system in which a player like San José can thrive, similar to the one incorporated by Ernesto Valverde.
Berizzo is known for playing a style of football based around intense pressing, controlling possession, and taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. During his time at Celta Vigo he often used a defensive midfielder as a safety net behind his pressing attackers that usually focused on intercepting passes and winning back possession. That player was normally Nemanja Radoja who has a very similar skillset to that of San José. If Berizzo asks the 28-year-old to go back to functioning as a pure defensive midfielder it could bring out his best once again, but only time will prove that to be true or false.
Before he can worry about finding his best form in the lineup again, San José must first convince Berizzo that he still deserves his place in the squad. With Dani Garcia joining the team this summer, and the possible arrival of Mikel Merino, there aren’t going to be a lot of minutes to go around, especially with the Basque giants not competing in Europe. It will be up to the Lezama product to prove his worth during the preseason if he wants to stay at the San Mamés. If he is able to do that, perhaps Berizzo will be able to bring out the best in Mikel San José once again.