Iker Muniain is one of the faces of Athletic Club. Last year he came back from a traumatic ACL tear to have one of the best season’s of his career. Right now he is in Switzerland with the rest of the Athletic squad preparing for the upcoming season and he took the time to give an exclusive interview with DEIA. The 24-year-old opened up on several different topics, but began by discussing the preseason training and his team’s performances in their first two friendlies of the summer.
“There is a lot of intensity, but that is the case every year when the season starts. You have to tighten up and get your legs back into place. We don’t have much time to train, but we will be prepared. I’m feeling pretty good and feel that I’ve played well in matches too. Against Basel, despite the loss, I think the team was good, strong, and played with enthusiasm and a clear understanding of the strategy. Against Sion the team looked even better. These types of trips come in handy. I like them because it serves to isolate you for a while.”
Muniain went on to say that he is getting to know Cuco Ziganda better each day. He wasn’t directly trained by the manager at youth level, but he knew him well just from being at the Athletic facilities.
“Yes, we are getting to know each other little by little. The initial feelings with the new coach and strategy are fantastic. The Mister has clear ideas and is transmitting all his wisdom and strength to us. In addition, he is surrounded by a great staff who are doing things well. I see the team with a lot of desire to start the season strong and I think everyone is prepared. That is important. I was never trained by Kuko in the past, but like everyone else we coincided every day at Lezama. The coaches have watched a lot of games so they know us all very well.”
Despite not training under Ziganda, Muniain was coached by Bingin Ansotegi, who is now the assistant coach in the first team, during his time with the Juvenil team at Lezama. He has fond memories of those days.
“Bingen trained me at the Juvenil level in the 2008-2009 season. I didn’t spend much time with him, but he’s a great coach with very clear ideas. It benefited me a lot at that level. He has had an upward trajectory and has become Kuko’s right hand. He is doing wonderfully in this role. I have affection for him, but also for every coach I’ve ever had. They are people who have helped you improve, achieve your goals, and become who you are. I am grateful to him like every other coach.”
The reporter asked about Ziganda’s vocal and demanding personality, which is much different to Ernesto Valverde. Muniain said that Cuco is a demanding coach but it is pulling out the best in every player.
“He is a demanding person, yes. He tries to squeeze the most out of every player and that is pulling all of the best out of us. The players are thankful for him helping us to improve. Every coach is different and has his own methods. It’s true that things have changed, but now we are working more on the physical aspect of things. It is possible that we are giving more importance to it. Kuko is more expressive than Valverde, which is neither good or bad, everyone has his own style. We have come from a long period with Ernesto so maybe it is a plus for Kuko to be firm with us and push us.”
The Lezama product has been very vocal about being excited with Cuco Ziganda’s vision for the first team. He once again voiced those feelings, saying that he thinks the team can improve a lot this season.
“Kuko’s vision definitely caught my attention and I really liked how clear and direct it was. Some are guided by feelings and some aren’t. I think what the future holds is excited and the fans should be excited too. Together we can have a great year. I know that some fans were nervous because when you have a change there is fear that something bad can happen. I believe we will continue to improve. Kuko is trying to reinforce the good that we already had. We are a team that makes things hard for our opponent and we never give up. Everything can be improved. We want to be a daring team that plays with the ball and creates many chances. Above all, when we lose the ball we want to press high and recover it as soon as possible. I see that he is focuses more on the defensive line in training. In the end, defense starts from the front and putting good pressure on opponents to win back possession. We want to steal the ball as close as possible to the opponent’s box and we will look to do that.”
On a personal note, Muniain said that he is happy to play wherever the coach puts him. He has featured as a left-winger and central midfielder so far this season and is very pleased with how the team how played as a whole.
“Against Basel I played on the left, but with freedom to get inside to the areas where I can do damage. Against Sion, I acted centrally. I will play wherever the Mister tells me to play. For it to be the first game, just a week into training, I was happy with what I saw against Basel. It was complicated for us to play with ten, but the team showed fight at all times. We even got ahead, but then we slowed down a bit and they came back. The match against Sion was more complete. The team was very good, got a victory, and put us all in a good mood.”
When asked about the club’s goals for the upcoming season, Muniain said that they are the same as the previous years. Athletic wants to continue qualifying for European play and make a deep run in the Copa del Rey. Finishing as high as possible in the league table is vital, and there is a hope that maybe the Lions can challenge for the Champions League.
“The goals are the usual ones we pursued in recent years – qualify for Europe. We also want to fight to advance as far in the league and Copa del Rey as we can. The first goal is to make it to the Europa League group stage. People think it is easy, but it’s not. You have to play strong teams like Dinamo Bucurest who will not make things easy for us. Of course we would love to get the Champions League, but we have to take things slowly. The target must be Europe then, if the year goes well and we get a lot of points, we won’t rule out Champions League. It is something that motivates us a lot.”
Muniain was also asked whether or not he thought last season was his best as an Athletic Club player. He admitted that he thinks that is the case and that he values football much more after suffering the torn ACL two years ago.
“I think so. I felt great. I value it more because of what I went through. Having to overcome a serious injury gives more importance than the seasons before. Last season I was very excited about the future and it gave me a lot of confidence to start hard this year and hopefully I can improve. Everyone wants to keep getting better and the requires hard work. I want to give more assists, score more, and just be more influential during games. My knew is doing very good. I am happy with how it has healed and how I am feeling. I hope it stays this way.”
In closing, Muniain stated that he believes the young players will make the team stronger, but he will also be excited if a transfer happens. He praised Inigo Cordoba and revealed that he hopes to see relations with Osasuna improved at some point.
“Sometimes the best signings are those that come from below and last year proves that. If there are signings we will be delighted because they will make the team better, but the guys that come from Bilbao Athletic are players with great quality and they are excited about competing for a position. They give us a lot too. Cordoba is direct competition for me? Yes, he plays mainly left-wing. I like him very much and he has very good qualities. He is a young boy who is growing by leaps and bounds. Hopefully he can be a player who is here for a long time. Osasuna? We do not want to have a bad relationship with anyone, especially if we can help it. I think Athletic made a signing by paying a clause, as has happened many other times, and it was not received well. If there is a problem I hope it will be resolved soon.”
Athletic Club’s season will officially begin on 27 July when they will travel to Romania to take on Dinamo Bucuresti in the first leg of their Europa League qualifier. The Lions have less than two weeks to finish preparations so every single day is vital. On Tuesday Athletic will return home from Switzerland and will play in two more friendlies before making the trip to Romania next week.