7 Athletic Club Bilbao Youth Stars That You Should Be Aware Of
There may not be any youth system in the world quite like that of Athletic Club Bilbao’s Lezama.
Due to Athletic’s Basque-only policy, youth development is vital for the club. Throughout the years, Lezama has produced legends of the game and continues to turn out top talents today.
In fact, there are only two players in the current squad that did not spend at least some time at the club’s youth level: Ander Herrera and Gaizka Toquero. This is unheard of in today’s game.
One would think that Athletic’s Basque-only policy would severely hinder them. Losing a star player would force the club to take a big step backward. However, Athletic are one of only three Spanish clubs to have never been relegated, the other two being Barcelona and Real Madrid.
As of last week, Athletic sealed the fourth-place spot in the La Liga table to earn a spot in next year's Champions League—the first time they have done so in 16 years.
This is largely due to their focus on youth development in that they are steadily producing first-team ready players, and they are always on the lookout for other young stars in the Basque Country that could join the club.
The likes of Andoni Goikoetxea, Josu Urrutia, Asier del Horno, Fernando Llorente and Andoni Iraola are all legends of the Athletic youth system, while Iker Muniain and Aymeric Laporte are just the latest stars to come out of Lezama.
But they won’t be the last by any means.
In this article, we will take a look at the top Athletic Club youth stars that you should be aware of while also discussing just how good they can really be for Los Leones.
For this list, youth stars must meet two criteria: They must be under 21 years old and cannot be a member of the first team. Thus, the likes of Laporte and Inigo Ruiz de Galarreta are ruled out.
With a well-rounded defensive arsenal and the ability to get involved in buildup play, 18-year-old Markel Etxeberria is an exciting young right-back. At this point, it looks as though he could one day take over for Iraola, but he will face tough competition from Unai Bustinza (22) who will likely move to the first team this summer.
Imanol Corral and Urtzi Iriondo
Athletic are lucky enough to possess two very promising left-backs currently playing for their feeder club CD Basconia, fighting for their place in the lineup. Urtzi Iriondo (19) is short, but he has tremendous speed going forward while Imanol Corral (20) is taller and more of a pure defender. Their futures look bright, and with the recent drop off from Jon Aurtenetxe, one could be given a chance fairly soon.
Yeray and Xiker Ozerinjauregi
It seems as though Athletic's defensive depth is limitless. Yeray (19) is a very promising centre-back who has both pace and muscle, making him an ideal defender. He could likely form a partnership one day with Laporte, but Xiker, who just turned 17, could be even better. Xiker has already featured for Spain's youth side and is considered one of the brightest centre-backs in the country in his age group.
Ander Dulce and Jon Sillero
Ander Dulce, 16, and Jon Sillero, 15, have already featured for Spain's U-16 side three times and are making a statement. The Basque duo are really good friends, and it always shows on the pitch. Sillero is a very accomplished centre-back who can pass the ball well, while Dulce is a midfielder who is seen as a leader on the pitch. They both excel in reading the game, and Dulce has been likened to Xabi Alonso at times.
At 17 years old, Jurgi Oteo still has a ways to go in his development. The winger has already become a regular face in Spain's U-19 side and has proven himself to be a capable scorer. He is able to put the ball in the back of the net in every way imaginable, and his great work ethic shows that he is definitely going to get even better. He is extremely quick and can dribble past most defenders. The sky is truly the limit on his potential.
As seen in the video above, Mikel Zaton can do it all. The 18-year-old is one of most well-rounded forwards I have ever seen at his age, and his adaptability makes him a dangerous weapon. Zaton is best when playing as a second striker, but he is also very good up front and on the wings. He will likely join the first team one day, but the real question is how soon will that happen.
There are several others that could be mentioned but now on to the seven Athletic Club youth stars you definitely need to be aware of.
Ager Aketxe is currently one of the pillars of Bilbao Athletic, the club's reserve side, and he is a major contributor to Cuco Ziganda's lineup.
The 20-year-old central midfielder has already seen time with Spain's U-20 team and may soon work his way into Ernesto Valverde's permanent squad. In all likelihood, Aketxe could join the first team next year.
Like Fabregas, Aketxe is a very attack-minded midfielder who is always looking to go forward. He links up play beautifully in the middle of the pitch, but he can also prove to be a scoring threat of his own in and around the box.
The left-footed midfielder is very mature for his young age. Aketxe is always the person building up movements and tying things together, while he also plays with a calmness looking to find space.
In 37 matches this season with Bilbao Athletic, Aketxe has managed to score six goals and give 10 assists.
In the video above, Aketxe scores the first and the fourth goals for Bilbao Athletic while he also stands out in the middle of the pitch, helping create the other two goals. Just look for the No. 10 shirt.
Kepa Arrizabalaga is an absolute stud of a keeper. The tall 19-year-old from Ondarroa has been a promising prospect throughout his entire youth career with the Basque giants and continues to impress despite his young age.
The Basque keeper has already featured for Spain's U-19 side as a regular starter and has even been capped by the U-21 team. He is seen as one of the great future keepers of La Roja and deservedly so.
As seen in the video above, Arrizabalaga is a solid keeper all around.
He is a terrific shot-blocker who excels in putting himself in the right positions. He is not afraid to leave his line or challenge for a ball in the air, and he has already showed his excellence at stopping penalty kicks.
In the end, Kepa is known for one thing above all else: being an absolutely stunning shot-stopper. It takes a lot of effort to beat this young keeper, and he will always make you work for any goal.
It was recently reported by AS.com (h/t InsideSpanishFootball.com) that the young keeper had signed a contract extension with the club. Though he had received interest from the likes of Real Madrid, Kepa chose to stay close to home and continue his development.
Arrizabalaga is very close to joining the first team. He is already playing at such a high level for Bilbao Athletic, it is only a matter a time before he is fighting to be a starter at the San Mames.
Inaki Williams has soared through the youth ranks at Lezama and is already being touted as one of the most promising young strikers at Athletic.
The 19-year-old is of Ghanaian decent, though he was born in Bilbao and has spent his entire childhood in the city.
Hailed as the next Mario Balotelli by Athletic fans, Inaki is known for his pace and has the ability to score goals in several ways, as well as create chances for others. Unlike Balotelli, he is mild-mannered and doesn't cause drama.
Last season, the striker scored 31 goals in the same amount of matches, a club record for his specific youth category. Inaki then received a promotion to Athletic's feeder club CD Basconia at the beginning of this season.
Inaki managed to score seven goals in 17 appearances for Basconia, and he was soon promoted again to Bilbao Athletic where he has achieved even more success.
As of Friday, the young striker has netted eight times in 14 appearances for the reserve side and continues to impress Valverde.
In the video above, Inaki scores a hat-trick and sets up two beautiful chances, including an assist. He is truly showcasing his skills this season despite his age, and he will likely train with the first team this summer, seeking to earn a place in Valverde's squad next season.
Oscar Gil brings something very unique to the table at his tender age of 18. He is already a promising defensive midfielder who is known for reading the game well and playing very smart football, but he has recently added more to his game.
After being promoted to Bilbao Athletic last summer, he has spent nearly the entire season featuring as a centre-back under Ziganda.
Gil has taken his brilliant ability to anticipate movement and put himself in the right position, transforming himself into a solid defender who rarely puts a foot wrong.
In 18 matches this season, he has established himself among Ziganda's favorites. Lezama loves training kids how to play more than one position, and that is exactly how Gil has been able to make a name for himself.
Though he is not known for being a scorer, Gil has netted twice in his five caps with Spain's U-19 side. He is receiving regular call-ups now and could make his debut very soon.
Gil is often the smartest player on the pitch, evidenced by the fact that he rarely makes a mistake, and he could be very valuable for Athletic in the coming years.
Seen as one of the two great hopes of Lezama at the striker position, the other coming up a bit later, Asier Villalibre has earned the reputation for being an absolute monster of a forward.
After Inaki was promoted to Bilbao Athletic, 16-year-old Villalibre was promoted to fill the hole at CD Basconia. The Basque striker had scored 15 goals in 25 games in the Juvenile Division, but he was ready to showcase his skills on the professional level.
Though he is the youngest player in the squad, he is a regular in the starting lineup and is quickly becoming more comfortable with every match. Since his promotion, Villalibre has scored six goals in 10 matches and is getting better every day.
As far as strikers go, he can do it all. He can shoot with either foot, has a strong header and is really quick.
What sets Villalibre apart from other strikers his age is his ability to dazzle with the ball at his feet. It is very hard to take the ball off of him, and he normally dribbles around multiple defenders with ease.
With Llorente now gone and Aritz Aduriz not getting any younger, Villalibre may get his chance soon. He has the talent to one day become a regular starter in the first team, and Valverde really likes him.
He has already made several caps for Spanish youth teams, and he is a regular starter in the U-17 squad. Watch in the video above as Villalibre bends his left-footed shot into the top corner.
Unai Lopez turned 18 back in late October, but you wouldn't know it from watching him on the pitch. The Basque midfielder is definitely a bright prospect to keep and eye on and already has Valverde enamored.
Lopez normally features as a central midfielder, though he can play anywhere in the middle of the pitch. He isn't necessarily a scoring threat, but he does excel in linking up play and creating chances for his teammates.
Comparing Lopez to a current, well-known player is tough, but it isn't impossible. His style of play resembles that of Andres Iniesta because of his incredible footwork and ability to create space, but there are some big differences.
Lopez is a work horse. He is constantly running and never gives up on a play. He plays with the type of energy that opponents hate, while his speed makes him a valuable weapon.
Even though Lopez is often full throttle, he also has a calmness to the way he plays. He is able to change gears in a second and go from a full sprint to playing a soft pass to a teammate.
Unlike most attacking midfielders, Lopez loves tracking back to defend. Some could classify him as a box-to-box midfielder, and he is certainly capable of filling that role.
What makes him such a great player is his ability to move in and out of space while creating, and sometimes finishing, chances that come out of nowhere. Like Iniesta, Lopez is short and great on the ball. However, he is also a great facilitator who can link everything up nicely in the middle of the field.
He normally partners with Aketxe in midfield for Bilbao Athletic, and the duo has become quite a force. Valverde has already called up Lopez several times this season to train with the first team and absolutely loves what he sees.
In the video above, you can see that Lopez is all over the field. He plays so fast and is always looking to be on the ball. Look for the No. 8 shirt.
You can also watch a video of his play from two years ago with the Basque U-18 team here, in which Lopez dominates the game despite having just turned 16 two months earlier. Looks for the No. 10 shirt.
Inigo Vicente is the second great hope for Athletic at the striker position, with Villalibre being the first. He may have just turned 16 a few months ago, but this Basque jewel is already catching headlines.
According to InsideSpanishFootball.com, Vicente turned down offers from both Real Madrid and Barcelona to stay at Athletic, and it is easy to see why they were interested in him.
Vicente has scored a total of 43 goals this season, surpassing Isma Lopez's previous youth record of 38 goals, and he is getting even better playing under youth-team coach, and Athletic legend, Joseba Etxeberria.
He is a pure goalscorer and a very passionate footballer. He thrives on competition and is always looking to improve his game.
Vicente has a powerful shot, decent pace and is able to hold up play. Though he is always looking to go on goal, he also has a great eye for setting up teammates. For a strong forward, Vicente also possesses a knack for dribbles around defenders.
In the video above, Vicente scores a few goals and also makes some dangerous passes. As you can see, he likes to track back to pick up the ball and isn't afraid to take on defenders.
Vicente is a passionate and feisty player, but he is actually a really humble and quiet kid overall. He definitely has a very bright future in football, and Athletic have a lot of hope that he will one day be leading the attack.
Lezama is full of talented young players that could one day be headlining at the San Mames. These are just a few names that you should keep an eye on, so feel free to get involved in the discussion below!