Lezama remains the most important pillar of Athletic Club. As things stand, this will be the second consecutive summer without signing a new player and the Lions will continue to trust in their academy and the development of youth players. This preseason has seen several starlets get their chance to show what they are capable of and the results have been impressive to say the very least. New manager Kuko Ziganda has a heart of youth development and wants to utilize Lezama as much as possible and that faith is already paying off in an exciting way.
Most fans were coming into the summer with high hopes for Mikel Vesga and Ager Aketxe. The two midfielders played at a very high level while out on loan last year and it looked like a foregone conclusion that they would have a place in Ziganda’s squad. Vesga actually spent the entire preseason lining up beside Beñat and the duo showed the ability to be creative and control the middle of the pitch. They even started together in Thursday’s Europa League qualifier against Dinamo and played at a very high level. From the looks of it, that partnership may continue as the season progresses because Ziganda loves what Vesga adds to the midfield unit.
Aketxe, who became a household name with his free-kick highlights last season at Cadiz, returned from loan this summer with the goal of playing a major role in the team. So far he has occupied the role of Raul Garcia’s backup and has looked splendid. His creativity, passing, vision, and shooting wizardry has stood out in a big way. In Athletic’s 3-0 win over Reus on Saturday the 23-year-old provided the assist to open up the scoring but also doubled the lead in the second half thanks to a penalty. He was able to pull the strings in such a way that made things extremely difficult for the Catalan team.
Meanwhile, Inigo Cordoba and Unai Nunez have joined from Bilbao Athletic and have looked capable and comfortable in the first team. Cordoba’s dribbling and pace has given the team a spark and the argument can be made that he has been the most influential player on the pitch in every game that he has featured in. He may have only scored one goal so far this summer, but he has constantly caused problems for defenders who have had trouble dealing with his elusiveness. All signs point to the 20-year-old staying in the first team which will give Ziganda depth on the wing and another dynamic attacking option.
Nunez, on the other hand, has had to showcase his skills with many different partners and in a position where it is difficult to stand out. So far the 20-year-old has lined up beside Aymeric Laporte, Mikel San Jose, Eneko Boveda, and Xabi Etxeita. Other than one failed clearance which led to a goal, he hasn’t put a foot wrong. In fact, he has been one of the strongest defenders in the team and his aerial ability has proved extremely useful on numerous occasions. According to sources he won’t be leaving on loan, but may go back down to Bilbao Athletic when he isn’t needed in the first team. For now, it looks like he will have a place in the team at least until Yeray returns in mid-September.
If these youngsters were not enough to get excited about, Ziganda has also called up four Bilbao Athletic stars this summer and every one of them has played minutes. Peru Nolaskoain and Andoni Lopez featured in one friendly and looked pretty sharp, even though it was only for a few minutes. Jon Sillero and Aitor Seguin also played in that same game, but got a second run out on Saturday against Reus. All four are key players for Bilbao Athletic and could one day be regulars at the San Mames so it is good to see them getting chances in the preseason.
If there is one person who understands, values, and will utilize Lezama to the fullest it is Kuko Ziganda. The fact that he knows the youth system and players so well is a very big deal and those close to the coach say that he has every intention of giving young players the chance to make it in the first team. Every player mentioned above was coached by Ziganda at Bilbao Athletic and that isn’t even considering other youngsters like Asier Villalibre, Alex Remiro, and Unai Simon who have spent the summer training with the first team. Add in the fact that players like Kepa Arrizabalaga, Iñaki Williams, Yeray, Inigo Lekue, Sabin Merino, Enric Saborit, and others were coached by Kuko at the youth level and things look even more promising.
After he was unveiled as the new Athletic manager, Ziganda said that he is still a Lezama coach and will be involved in the youth system and developmental process. Fans can already see that playing out this summer and have every reason to be excited for the future at Athletic Club. Since the beginning, Lezama has been the biggest pillar of Athletic Club and the lifeblood of the first team. It is encouraging for fans to know and see that it is still alive and well and that Kuko Ziganda wants to make sure that it stays that way and is utilized properly.