In 1912, Athletic Bilbao penned an unwritten rule which stated that the club will only sign players who were born in the Basque country or who learned their football skills at a Basque club. More than a century later this club has proved that the reliance on the local talent has indeed made them stronger. The Basques side are in the top three clubs in Spanish football.
Marcelo Bielsa changed the traditional robust style of football of the club in 2011 when Athletic appointed him. The Argentinian coach changed the playing style of the club with his peculiar brand of high tempo and attacking football. He set a trend of breaking opposition’s defensive line through vertical passes which gravitated the entire European football.
Unai Núñez, the 21-year-old centre-back, is in many ways a symbolic Bilbao player. He is one of the brightest young talents to graduate from the Athletic Bilbao academy. He belongs to the same generation of Athletic footballers as Kepa Arrizabalaga, Unai Simón, Yeray, and Iñigo Córdoba, who will be a part of Spain set up in the near future.
Núñez was born in the prominent port city of Portugalete. From a young age, he was an Athletic fan and dreamed of playing at the San Mames. At the age of 10, he was enrolled at Lezama. He stood out among his peers and showed traits of leadership and hard work that still characterise him today.
Cuco Ziganda handed the central defender his senior debut last season, who also managed him while in the youth side. He went on to make 36 appearances over the course of the season. Albert Celades called him up to the Spain Under-21 side. Last summer he was a part of the squad and ended up playing more minutes in La Liga than anyone else at Athletic Club.
Style of play
Núñez certainly fulfils the term ‘hit the ground running’. He made his debut at the start of the last season in a goalless draw against Getafe. He made 14 appearances in La Liga this season.
With a built of over 6ft., Núñez can easily deal with physical battles from opposition strikers. Not only is he strong and jagged, but also has the technical and tactical abilities to draw in the game. He can hold his own position when isolated against a forward or when stepping forward in possession of the ball.
One of the most challenging situations for defenders in a game is when a pass is played over their heads and they are forced to turn and run back towards their own goal. This simple change in dynamic increases the chances that the defender could make a mistake that could cost a game.
In the following example, Núñez can be seen defending against a striker moving forward in the space to attack the ball. He, however, has the physical traits to make up space without being completely outdone by quick wide players. He also has the positional sense to ensure that he is not caught in such type of quick transitions. Here as the ball is played forward, Núñez was able to move across comfortably to win the ball before stepping out and starting an attacking transition for his side.
Núñez is a perfect example of a classic rough and ready centre-back who is willing to put his body on the line for the team at all costs. His consistency has been excellent and his fearlessness in games is crystal clear. He may not have quite the same surety with the ball at his feet as Yeray, but he knows how to use his size to his advantage. And that can really disrupt things for opponents.
In the following example, Núñez can be seen playing as the right-sided central defender although this time the defensive line is noticeably deeper in their positioning. As the attacking player looks to attack the corner of the penalty area in an attempt to penetrate into the box, Núñez can be seen to move across to face him.
Núñez is particularly adept at blocking shots. He is a good passer and rarely makes decisive mistakes. Due to his height, he is a threat from corners and crosses. His body direction and positioning are vital as he drives the opponent to attack down the outside. This compels the opponent to draw away from the goal. The youngster also has the ability to find wingers from deep inside his own box. This makes it difficult for them to bypass him.
The success of talent identification and player development in Basque is credited mostly to the club’s youth academy, ‘Cantera’. The training and learning process at the academy have yielded many gems like Manchester City’s Aymeric Laporte and Chelsea’s Kepa, who have in return accounted for huge selling profit.
Nuñez is Laporte’s replacement at Athletic Bilbao after he was signed at Etihad in 2018 reportedly for £57.2 million. The 21-year-old has filled the void in the defensive line for Bilbao and has been a regular in the starting line-up ever since Laporte left. The Basques were quick to renew his contract, setting the release clause at £26.9 million.
Núñez has a very similar playing style to Laporte. His physical presence in combination with the range of passing allows for a quick turnaround with the midfielders. The offensive side is forced to react with an interception or challenge. As seen in the picture below, he can harness the space created by an attacking player. He uses his strength to get in between the player and the ball to win back the possession.
Before joining Athletic’s B-side, Núñez made 28 appearances for Basconia and 33 appearances for the Segunda Division B-side. He made his senior team debut in August 2017 and has made 10 appearances for the Spain under-21 squad. He is also expected to play alongside Mario Hermoso of Espanyol for Spain as both of them share similar passing abilities. These two youngsters together make a promising defensive pair as a future replacement of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique.
The long passing accuracy of Núñez accounts for almost 55.9% while pass completion adds up to 92%. These figures are vital when considered for Spain’s line up and he has proved his place in the team. The centre-back has won 47.6% of duels last season which had 14.3% of accurate crosses. If these numbers drop, then it might cost him a place in Luis Enrique’s squad in the near future.
Núñez is a traditional centre-back who is tall, strong, and good in the air. He is rarely beaten on crosses and can be a wall that opponents just can’t get around. The 21-year-old has shown the ability to make great tackles and does so with confidence.
He needs to keep doing what he is doing. The defender needs to remain consistent while continuing to put in those accurate and defensively brilliant tackles. He needs to fight to keep his starting spot away from the more experienced heads of Etxeita and Boveda. With the potential of becoming one of the great players at the San Mamés, Athletic Bilbao has produced another fine defensive prodigy from their plethora of Basque talent.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the June issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.