They combined to put Athletic Club on the verge of another Copa del Rey Final appearance and, with Euro 2020 on the horizon, Iker Muniain and Iñaki Williams have every right to be on Luis Enrique’s drawing board as he sits down to pick his final squad.
Despite the many apparent flaws of the Euro 2020 structure, The Basque Country and Bilbao will prove to be a wonderful host. Traditionally an industrial city, Bilbao has in recent decades reinvented itself as a modern hub of art, architecture and gastronomy while staying true to its Basque roots. A famously football-mad city home to one of the most unique sporting entities in the world, it remains to be seen how warmly the Spanish national team will be received in Bilbao. The last time La Roja played in San Mamés was in 1967 against Turkey.
Iñigo Martínez looks a certainty to be in Luis Enrique’s final squad and he may not be the only Bilbao-based defender to make the final cut. However, the inclusion of Iker Muniain and Iñaki Williams could be a crucial factor to enganchar, hooking, the Basque public come June.
Having said that, this selection would not be some sort of Euskera pride generating exercise. It would, rather, be the natural spin-off effect of two fully deserved call-ups.
Having watched Athletic Club battle their way through two penalty shootouts and past Barcelona on the way to the latter stages of the Copa del Rey, it could be argued that there wouldn’t be much sense selecting one without the other, such is their connection on and off the field. And giving the form of both, it would be incredibly difficult to side with one; Williams perhaps the more likely beneficiary of Spain’s uncertainty in the forward positions.
Spain are hardly stuck for options in the attacking midfield position with the likes of Dani Ceballos, Isco, and Mikel Oyarzabal but, given his form in recent months, Athletic club captain Muniain undoubtedly deserves to be in the conversation for his ability to link midfield and attack while he continues to show increasing maturity and intelligence in the final third.
In the attacking department, meanwhile, Luis Enrique does have huge problems and four months out from Euro 2020 we are none the wiser as to who will be leading the attack. Gerard Moreno, Rodrigo Moreno, and Álvaro Morata will be there or thereabouts but all three have struggled with form and fitness throughout the season.
In the recent Basque derby defeat at the Reale Arena, Williams featured in his 142nd consecutive La Liga game and, when it comes to tournament football durability, is a valuable asset. Being the lone striker at Athletic Club is not easy; they are a team with a very distinct style and set of strengths – traits that don’t exactly fit Iñaki’s style of getting in behind opposition defences. But he continues to mature and evolve and looks likely to reach 15-20 goals this season for Los Leones.
It’s not as if Spain need a boisterous Bilbao crowd to get through the group stages; they should naturally be far too strong for the likes of Sweden and Poland but convincing home wins with the full backing of the Basque public could provide the energy and springboard to enjoying a successful European Championships.
There are better players than the Athletic Club duo in Spain but it’s not always that the best individuals win major football tournaments and the intangibles such as spirit and dressing room morale often make the difference in short sprints.
A facet all too often overlooked when it comes to major tournaments, where players often become sick of the sight of each other after weeks of training camp, is the presence – or lack thereof – of egos. Williams and Muniain come from an environment where the team comes first and this tends to lead to more selfless individuals. For a national team that has been famous for its cliques over the last 15 years, the presence of a few no-nonsense Basques in the Spain camp might be no harm.
Are players who have already won everything in the game at Real Madrid and Barcelona the types you want to go to war with? Maybe so.
We have seen the impact of peripheral players like Jesús Navas and Pedro in the Spanish national team at major competitions before and perhaps Iker or Iñaki (or both!) could be the ace up Luis Enrique’s sleeve. It’s hard to believe that the Basque duo have just three senior caps between them: Muniain with two (one in 2012 v Venezuela, the other last year v Malta) and Iñaki one (v Bosnia in 2016).
Of course, nobody would question Luis Enrique if the likes of Isco and Dani Ceballos are chosen to report for training in Madrid in June but there could be a reward to be gained from leaning towards a collective unit.
We are all aware of the Basque Country’s complicated past within Spain, a country which has historically struggled with its own identity. But times have changed, and it feels like Bilbao is ready to showcase to Europe what a brilliantly unique city is: a proud Basque, multi-cultural city.
Bilbao will be an incredible experience for any football fan making the trip in June but for the locals to really buy into the event the inclusion of Muniain and Williams could be the spark the tournament needs on a local level – and they would be there fully on merit.