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Why Beñat will be a key player for Athletic Bilbao

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Beñat Etxebarria Urkiaga, born 19 February 1987, known as Beñat, is a Spanish professional footballer who has recently signed for Athletic Bilbao.

Born in Igorre, Biscay,  Beñat came through the prolific youth ranks at Athletic Bilbao, Lezama, and played his first three years with both the third team, CD Baskonia, and the reserve side.

On 29 October 2006 he appeared in his first – and only – La Liga game, which consisted of six minutes against CA Osasuna in a 1–1 away draw after replacing another youth product, Francisco Yeste.

In the 2008–09 season Beñat played with UB Conquense in the third division, after which he was released by Athletic. In the summer he signed with Real Betis, but spent his first season with the reserves also in level three.

On 29 August 2010 Beñat made his debut for Betis’ main squad, playing the second half of the 4–1 home win against Granada CF and assisting on a Salva Sevilla goal. Three days later he scored in his first start, a 2–1 home triumph against UD Salamanca for the season’s Copa del Rey; in the league campaign he contributed with 36 matches (30 starts, 2.521 minutes of action) as the Andalusians returned to the top flight after three years, netting four times.

On 2 May 2012, Beñat scored twice (his fifth and sixth goals of the season) in a 2–1 win at Sevilla FC for the local derby. The winner came in the 90th minute.

On 24 November 2012, Beñat netted the game’s only goal in a 1–0 home success over Real Madrid. He scored with a shot from outside the 18-yard box in the 17th minute. He finished the campaign with 34 games and four goals, helping the club finish seventh and qualify to the UEFA Europa League.

In June 2013 Beñat returned to Athletic Bilbao, signing a five-year contract for a reported fee of €8 million.

Beñat played with the Spanish youth teams at the Under-17 level. He made his debut for the full side on 26 May 2012, playing 45 minutes in a 2–0 friendly win with Serbia in St. Gallen and thus becoming the first Betis player since Juanito to don the national team shirt, nearly four years later.

So what makes this 26 year old, 177cm and 72 kg central midfielder a vital key for Athletic Bilbao?

Dominantly right footed, Beñat operates as a deep lying central midfielder and normally part of a midfield duo which sits just in front of the midfield three in Real Betis’ favoured 4-2-3-1 formation.

Beñat makes around 15% of all Betis passes in each game with an average of 2.0 key passes each game (more than Xabi Alonso or Cesc Fabregas so far this season).

You might wonder, how does he provide goals and add himself in the score sheet?

His deep starting position allows him to arrive at the edge of the opponent’s penalty area late and unmarked by the opposition, giving him time to shoot and score.

He also makes his presence known with scoring goals from freekicks and/or assisting a goal through headers from long range free kicks.

He kicks it almost similar to Pirlo. He swirls the ball high and it enters through the net at the lower sides of the goal. His most notable free kick was against Sevilla in the Seville derby where he shot a set piece under the defensive wall and scored.

When you consider his role and performances for Betis, you start to appreciate and accept his importance to the club.

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Athletic Bilbao

Three things learnt from Liverpool’s pre-season win over Athletic Bilbao in Dublin

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Liverpool

It was Liverpool‘s final pre-season friendly in Dublin and the Reds saw it out in style with a 3-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao.

The Reds got off to a good start with Roberto Firmino converting from the penalty spot, but catastrophic defending allowed Inaki Williams to equalise after Dejan Lovren froze.

Ben Woodburn put his side back in front in the second half with a fine finish before Dominic Solanke added a third, as Liverpool ended the game easing to victory comfortably.

Here are three things that The Boot Room learnt from the tie…

Alberto Moreno could be the solution to Liverpool’s midfield headache

Moreno looked a completely different player against Bayern Munich last week and replicated that quality against Athletic Bilbao. The Spaniard was imperious going forwards and looked a real threat whilst remain responsible at the back, something he struggled to do in the past.

That could open the door to James Milner returning to midfield, particularly with Adam Lallana ruled out for the start of the season. Moreno could share the left-back role with Andrew Robertson, but it may be a gamble for Jurgen Klopp to make such a call even if he cannot add a midfielder to the ranks.

Dominic Solanke is a huge threat

The former Chelsea man once again stood out as a real threat. Adding his second headed goal of pre-season, he reacted perfectly to Ragnar Klavan’s surprisingly pinpoint cross to head past Kepa with a great finish.

Solanke showed that he was comfortable drifting wide and deep to help his team-mates, something that Jurgen Klopp is known to value. Such flexibility and such an impressive work rate may go some way to helping Solanke edge past the likes of Divock Origi in the pecking order.

Ben Woodburn is one to watch

Woodburn has struggled to hit the headlines as he did on his debut against Leeds when he scored a late winner, but performances like this one will do exactly that. The highlight was an exquisite finish from the edge of the box, taking a nice touch to set himself up before curling into the corner.

Playing in a deeper role behind the front three, Woodburn was a dangerman throughout and was instrumental in creating and setting up chances for his team-mates. In the absence of Philippe Coutinho, he could shine.

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Do Athletic Bilbao have the world’s best transfer policy?

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Athletic Bilbao are far from your typical football club. One of the best supported clubs in Spain, with attendances averaging at only just below that of Atletico Madrid and behind Barcelona and Real Madrid, this club is different in every way. The city of the Guggenheim museum, one of the world’s most peculiar pieces architecture, is also home to one of the most unique clubs in world football, and yet one of the most successful too.

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So, what really makes them stand out? Their transfer ideology is the simple answer. The club has a policy of only signing players from the Basque Country, which has a population of under 2.2 million people, around the same as West Yorkshire. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque region of Spain has a strong independence movement and this policy is merely a reflection of that. In a form of rebellion against the Spanish state, the club believe that they represent their ‘country’. This is also a reason why the club is one of the most passionately supported in Spain, with one of the highest number of season ticket holders, and one of the biggest fan bases, even more impressive when you consider the number of tourists attracted to the likes of Barcelona, Real and Atletico.

The policy was also used by Real Sociedad; their near neighbours in San Sebastian, until not so long ago in 1989 as they began to step down the process. First, they signed international players, starting off with Irishman John Aldridge from Liverpool, and then in 2001 began to sign players from other parts of Spain. It is worth noting here though that; bizarrely, the policy does not apply to managers. In fact, until WWII, the club had had more English managers than Spanish managers, let alone Basque, and in recent years have included Argentine Marcelo Bielsa and German Jupp Heynckes, whilst current manager Ernesto Valverde; in his second spell at the club, hails from Extremadura, a different Spanish region.

Despite the rarity of such a policy in modern football, it has proved hugely successful. On the field, Athletic Bilbao; alongside FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, are the only side never to have been relegated from the Spanish first division. Their lowest ever finish was in 2007, finishing 17th, but that is the only time in the club’s history when relegation has been a realistic possibility. Don’t start thinking that they just survive by the skin of their teeth though. The Basque club have been one of the country’s most successful sides, winning the league eight times and the cup on 24 occasions. Since their relegation scare, the club has gone from strength to strength. Currently sitting 5th in La Liga, the side won the Spanish Supercup for the first time this season, beating Barcelona over two legs, competing in the Champions League for the second time in their history last season and reaching the Europa League final in 2012.

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The policy has also been attributed as a major factor in the bringing through of several talented young players. Iker Munain and Inaki Williams are just two of the latest players to establish themselves having coming through the youth ranks, in a league where it is becoming harder and harder for young players to get a chance in the first team. Whilst La Liga gets richer, clubs the size of Bilbao; such as Sevilla and Valencia, are increasingly looking abroad for players, whilst Bilbao look to their youth ranks. Not only does this help to bring through a new generation of key players for the club, but it also has its own benefits on the financial balance sheet.

There have been numerous examples of this effect, one such argument was the signing of Ander Herrera. Bought for £5 million in 2011, he was sold to Manchester United three years later for a fee of £29 million. They could have done it again in the case of Fernando Llorente, who scored 85 goals for the first team having come through the youth ranks, before moving to Juventus on a free transfer having run down his contract. With Aymeric Laporte the latest in-demand Bilbao youth product, their finances could well be set for another boost with a reported release clause of £40 million, not that it puts off Manchester City. Another current star, 35-year-old Aritz Aduriz; who has 33 goals to his name this term, was signed for just £2 million in 2012, having been sold for £5 million in 2008 having come through the youth ranks himself. This; alongside their large fan-base, has helped to finance the building of their redeveloped stadium, known as the New San Mames, with a capacity of 53,000.

The policy does have its draw-backs however. The most common criticism is that it is often labelled as racist. Despite being formed in 1898, it was not until 2011 that right-back Jonas Ramalho became the first ever mixed race player to play for the club. Despite qualifying through his Basque mother, many traditionalist fans claimed that he should not have been allowed to play for the club due to his Angolan father. Even now, barriers are still being broken down. Exciting young winger Inaki Williams became the first black player to ever score for the club in February 2015, and is showing all signs of becoming the first player to establish himself in the first team who is non-white. Yet despite this, the critics remain strong, claiming that the fact he was born and brought up in Bilbao is relevant, even though he has a Basque name, as his parents are from Ghana and Liberia. Whilst attitudes in Spain; and particularly in Spanish football, are changing rapidly and have come a long way, this policy is one of few actions that can be labelled as racist.

Other criticisms include the controversial claim that the policy holds the club back. Some argue that with such a large fan base and a proven track record of developing players, if they invested that money in players from all over the world, they could really compete at the top of La Liga again after 32 years without a league title. The counter argument is that Bilbao only attracts such a high number of fans because the club sticks to its roots and heritage, and to abandon the strategy would see them lose revenues in terms of ticket sales. Having employed the policy since 1912, it doesn’t show any signs of being ditched now.

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The desire of the club to represent their beliefs and morals is testament to the club and its fans, and the fact that they have even achieved the results to make such a strategy sustainable is impressive; yet at the same time, it seems hard to imagine any other club in world football applying such a strategy. In a way, that makes this brave policy even more admirable.

Featured image: All rights reserved by brevers090286

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Athletic Bilbao

2015: The Death of the One-Club Man

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A incredible day in the transfer market yesterday saw two of football’s most iconic figures forfeit their status as one-club men. Bastian Schweinsteiger traded Bavarian superpower Bayern Munich for a resurgent Man United while former Real Madrid skipper Iker Casillas left the capital of Spain to join Portuguese giants Porto. The departure of two of the games most loyal stalwarts tops of a year which has perhaps proven that the one-club man truly dying breed, with no fewer than seven of their contempories also choosing to turn away from their monogamous careers:

1. Darren Fletcher

Scottish international Darren Fletcher joined Man United as an 11-year way back in 1995. During his time with the Red Devils, Fletcher lifted four Premier League titles, the UEFA Champions League and the FA Cup, making 324 appearances across all competitions along the way. Fletcher’s 20-year affiliation with the club came to an end on February 2nd when he joined fellow Premier League side West Brom on a free transfer.

2. Victor Valdes

Victor Valdes technically left Barcelona at the end of the 2013-14 season but it wasn’t until January that his status as a one club man was truly broken. Having been a free agent since his contract expired in July last year, Valdes opted to sign for Man United where he reunite with manager Louis van Gaal. Fast forward 6 months and the Spanish ‘keeper’s decision has rewarded him with just 2 appearances at Old Trafford.

3. Steven Gerrard

Captain Fantastic. Few players, if any, have been as symbolic of a club’s identity as Steven Gerrard. It comes as no surprise then that supporters of Liverpool and indeed the footballing world as a collective were left stunned when Stevie G announced that he would be joining MLS side LA Galaxy next season. Gerrard amassed an incredible 707 appearances for Liverpool, scoring 186 goals in the process and captained the Reds to iconic victories in the FA Cup and Champions League .

Gerrard (right) had a disastrous final year at Anfield although he did finish as Liverpool’s top scorer with 13 goals.

4. Xavi

What Steven Gerrard was to Liverpool, Xavi was to Barcelona. The legendary home-grown midfielder broke Catalan hearts when he confirmed that he would be leaving the club to join Qatari side Al-Sadd at the end of the season. Xavi was an instrumental figure in the most successful period in Barcelona’s hiistory, guiding the club to 8 La Liga crowns and 3 Champions League titles in his 24-year spell at the Nou Camp.

5. Sven Ulreich

At 26-years old, goalkeeper Sven Ulreich is youngest player on the list. Having joined Stuttgart in 1998, Ulreich had spent 17 years at the club and looked set to one day join the ranks of the legendary one club men. That all changed when Bayern Munich swooped in and signed him last

month to serve as back up at the club to Germany’s number 1, Manuel Neuer.

6. Andoni Iraola

Spanish international Andoni Iraola joined Athletic Bilbao in back 1999. The right back made over 500 appearances for the Basque club during that period, earning runners-up medals in the Copa Del Rey (three times) and in the Europa League. Iraola parted with ways with Athletic at the end of last season to join up with MLS newcomers New York City.

A Basque stalwart now plies his trade in the United States.

7. Itumeleng Khune

South African goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune ia perhaps the most inconspicuous name on the list but with over 200 appearances for local side Kaizer Chiefs, with whom he was captain, he has earned his spot on this list. The 28-year old spent 16 years with the Soweto giants before allowing his contract to run down at the end of last season. He is still without a club.

8. Bastian Schweinsteiger

The aforementioned Schweinsteiger finally completed his move to Manchester United yesterday after months of rumours linking him with the club. Schweinsteiger, who turns 31 next month, joined Bayern in 1998 and made exactly 500 appearances for them across all competitions. The legendary German achieved incredible success in Munich, winning the Bundesliga 8 times and the Champions League once. The World Cup winner also has 7 DFB-Pokal titles to his name.

The German Midfielder enjoyed Wimbledon before entering talks with Manchester United. The move was confirmed on Sunday 14th July.

9. Iker Casillas

Much like with Raúl before him, there was to be no fairytale ending to Iker Casillas’ career at Real Madrid. The legendary goalkeeper’s fall from Galactico grace was confirmed yesterday when the club announced that he had agreed to join Porto. It’s impossible to fully reflect on the contribution Casillas made to Real Madrid so we’ll let the stats do the talking. 25 years. 725 appearances. 5 La Liga crowns. 3 Champions League titles. 1 legend.

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