Andoni Ayarza “Lezama Is A Privilege”
More so than ever before, Lezama is absolutely vital to the future of Athletic. The recent health crisis has shown first hand just how strong the club’s unique model is and the academy directors have been hard at work preparing for next season. Andoni Ayarza, Assistant Sporting Director who also oversees player recruitment and scouting, recently sat down with Iñaki Ugalde of Mundo Deportivo to discuss the state of Lezama and plans for the years ahead.
With youth football canceled for the rest of the season Ayarza explained that the club has already been in contact with families who have kids at the academy. “Once it was officially announced that the leagues were declared finished, we started to speak personally with the families and players to communicate our plans for the coming season,” he said. “The groups, through video calls, will remain active until June.”
Naturally, informing young players that they will not continue at Lezama is difficult. Every individual at the academy dreams of reaching the first team, but only a select few make it all the way.
“The most unpleasant part of this work is when you tell a kid that his dream of being an Athletic player ends. Instead of face-to-face meetings at Lezama, which are prohibited, this time we have made personal meetings with families through video calls. About 99 percent of families accept and understand this as a part of that training process as well. It must be understand that many times it’s not an end point either.”
Several players will be leaving Lezama at the end of the season, which happens every year, but many others will be joining the club. Just because leaves Athletic doesn’t mean they can’t return one day.
“Last year, for instance, we made 58 additions and this year, for 2020-2021, there will be between 45 and 50 additions. We understand the structuring of Lezama teams more effectively every year. Last year we only had two teams from 2009 to then move on to one team of 11 football. Next year we will only have one second-year Alevín team and the only team that will be doubled this time is the first-year Alevín because there are two teams of 7 football.”
Sometimes youth players have to spend the season away on loan, but it’s something the club doesn’t like to do. In fact, Ayarza explained that there have been fewer of these cases since he and Alkorta took over.
“The way we see it is that all the players we have at Lezama are football projects to be at Athletic, not to be loaned out. Yes, there were some contract players who didn’t enter our plans and Athletic will always fulfill contracts. Yes, it can happen that after the preseason if a player doesn’t fit you can look for a transfer. Loans have been greatly reduced. We have a very clear plan and project and we are going to carry it out, although there are commitments that are scrupulously respected.”
One of the reasons for Lezama’s success is the fact that teams often compete against older age groups. The club makes it a point to challenge the young players at the academy, but are cautious in how they do so.
“Our teams, from the moment they enter at the Alevín level, are always competing against opponents who are a year older. We see it as a good practice because improvement is always made in difficulty and, as long as that difficulty is balanced, it’s an important step.”
When asked if Lezama is still an attractive option for young players Ayarza answered emphatically. Throughout the Basque Country, the large majority of players who given the chance to join Lezama accept the offer.
“Definitely. There are always exception, but almost 100% of the players who are offered to come to Athletic say yes. All from Bizkaia and a very high percent of Basque players from other areas. This is a super attractive project. We are a genuine and different club from the rest. At Athletic we have players born or trained in the Basque Country, something that doesn’t happen at any other club in the world.”
In light of the current health crisis there have been questions about how Lezama will look next season. Ayarza assured that the academy will continue to operate properly and stressed the importance of communication.
“You have to adept to the new times. We know that a very, very close relationship must be maintained between the club and families, especially when the players are minors. After then the players have another link at the agent or advisor level.”
Developing young players for the first team has always been the ultimate goal for Lezama, though Ayarza and Alkorta believe that creating a winning mentality is also vital for young players. For Ayarza, both have to work together.
“There has been a lot of talk about what is more important, training or winning. I see Athletic as feeling and competing, as tradition and ambition, as training and winning. They aren’t contradictory things, it’s the other way around. They can go perfectly hand in hand. We want to train in an integral way so that the players reach the first team, but on that path of course we also want to win. And the word win isn’t scary to say, we believe our teams should have that winning DNA. Train and win.”
Both of Athletic’s Juvenil and Cadete teams had tremendous seasons and won their respective championships. Ayarza shared that with so much success this year there isn’t a need to make any big changes at the moment.
“We’re very happy with the sports and global performance of all the teams and the standings are a sign that things haven’t been done badly. Bilbao Athletic and Basconia are in promotional playoffs and the two Juvenil teams and the first two Cadetes finish the season as champions. It’s a sign that things are on the right track and if things are going well, there’s not usually many changes.”
There could be an important addition to Lezama next season with Javi González recently announcing that he will be leaving Alavés. González, a former Athletic player, is widely regarded as one of the best youth coaches in the Basque Country. Athletic have tried to convince him to return to the club in the past, but Ayarza wouldn’t give any hints as to what could happen.
“When this season’s contracts end, we’ll see what the coaching structure is for 2020/2021. It’s not just about the movements that there may be, but also out of respect for those who are in our club until 30 June.”
While discussing the specific areas of training at Lezama, Ayarza explained the type of football that the club wants youth teams to play. Pressing and organization stand out as key factors at every age.
“We want very organized, tactically intelligent, and very strong football with little distance between the lines and a rational distribution of spaces along with pressure that is intense and collective. In our case, high blood pressure, seeking to recover balls near the opposing goal, but dominating at times when the opponent surpasses us with pressure.”
Even in the youngest teams Athletic want to make opponents uncomfortable. Along with a high press, it’s important to teach players how to transition from defending to attacking quickly.
“The goal is to form teams with very high rhythms of play, always pushing the opponent to the maximum physical demand. We want rhythm quick passes, few touches, anticipation in attack, and vertical football with rapid transitions from defense to attack. Those on the wings should have overflows, depth, and exploitation of the wide areas with good crosses and chances created for the strikers and midfielders.”
Coaches at Lezama aren’t required to use a specific system, but playing with a back line of four defenders is preferred.
“We like the younger teams to develop their football from a line of four in defense. There are alternatives that can be interesting, exploited, or varied. The back four is good for developing specific midfielders and wingers. From there you can alternate a 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 4-4-2, and other formations.”
Each player at Lezama is on a different path. Ultimately, everyone dreams of debuting with the first team and Ayarza defending his opinion that those who eventually choose to leave the club are few and far between.
“The objective of the players at Lezama is to get to Field 1 and play at San Mamés. Their goal, from many conversations we’ve had with them and their families, isn’t to progress only to leave. Yes, there are some exceptional cases, but not many. The development of Aduriz, for example, is very different from that of Muniain who at 17 was already in the first team. The ways to get to play and be an idol have more curves than there may seem.”
Ayarza is very happy with the state of Lezama at the moment, but admits that the club is always looking for areas that can be improved. A new first team building is now under construction and once it’s finished the current building will be converted into a residence for youth players.
“Lezama is a privilege, but the club is always attentive to any possible expansion or improvements to the facilities. There are more and more teams and having more fields would be good for everyone. As soon as the first team goes to their new building a comprehensive renovation of the main building will take place and the construction of a youth residence will be a reality. These are decisive advances for the future of Athletic.”
Much has been made of the fact that Ayarza and Alkorta are serving in their roles for the first time in their respective careers. Still, Ayarza is confident that the pair are doing well and points out that they have both been in football for several decades.
“As managers of Lezama, logically, this is our first experience in office, but we have been in football for 40 years. We were born in Lezama and we’re very clear about the project. The evaluation isn’t so much about the curriculum, but the results. When our journey at Athletic ends, it will be time to assess whether it’s been a job well executed or not. We’re very happy with how everything has gone so far.”
Along with winning a number of youth titles this season, Lezama has also signed several top youth players that will join the academy next year. Andoni Ayarza personally oversees scouting and player recruitment and is determined to bring the very best starlets to Athletic each and every year.