Aritz Aduriz: The best striker you're not talking about
Some things in football are engraved in stone, destined to happen every year: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo engaging in a goalscoring Cold War, Arsenal being beset by injuries, Newcastle being rubbish.
Then there's the unpredictable, those events that simply defy any sort of pre-season reasoning. This term we've had Leicester top of the Premier League, Celta Vigo flying in La Liga and PSG not winning every Ligue 1 game...
Perhaps the biggest is the form of a 34-year-old plying his trade at Athletic Bilbao. It's Aritz Aduriz's third spell at the club, his time there having been punctuated by moves away at Valladolid, Mallorca and Valencia. This season he’s netted 20 times: 10 in the league, six in the Europa League and four in the Spanish Super Cup destruction of Barcelona. That's more goals than Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar or Luis Suarez.
Football is generally an ageist structure, with players often considered to be past their best when they hit their 30s. Attackers, in particular, are quick to be replaced by younger, faster models, but Aduriz’s stats suggest that he’s becoming more effective with age, not less. Last season he managed a career-best 26 goals, while the previous two before that produced 18 apiece, all for Athletic. Before that came his two years at Valencia, which yielded a total of 27 goals. We're only about a third of the way through the current campaign and, while it's unlikely that he's going to triple his total to 60, Aduriz is well on course for his best-ever tally in a single season – and he turns 35 in February.
We have to hope that Barcelona don't sign Aduriz because he represents the culmination of the way we play. He is a treasure for us
He's playing so well, in fact, that his manager Ernesto Valverde has begun to crack jokes about bigger teams swooping in January.
"We have to hope that Barcelona don't sign Aduriz because he represents the culmination of the way we play," Valverde noted after the striker's hat-trick against Rayo Vallecano at the weekend. "We are very fortunate to have him in the team – for every year that passes, he gets better and better. He has great belief in his ability, provides a fantastic outlet and is a treasure for us."
No national treasure
A treasure for Athletic, perhaps, but he's yet to get a look in with Vicente del Bosque's Spain squad, despite the former Real Madrid boss’s preferred trio of striking options having yet to combine for 20 goals so far this term: Paco Alcacer’s hit six, Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa just four each.
"When there is a new call-up, Aduriz will either come in or not. In the meantime everything is speculation," Del Bosque huffed earlier in the week. "In March there will be a new call-up but in January or December we cannot call up anyone. I'll have to wait."
Aduriz's age is one factor that works against him. Bringing a 34-year-old into a group still looking to move on from the horrors of the 2014 World Cup does not exactly demonstrate a forward-thinking mindset.
Then there's his reputation, which up until recent years has been primarily sculpted by time spent in the shadows rather than under the spotlight. During his second spell at Athletic, from 2005 to 2008, Aduriz's playing time was severely limited due to the presence of Fernando Llorente, with the Basques’ lone-striker formation ruling out a combination.
Given the chance to spearhead Athletic's attack and buoyed by his boss's trust, the veteran has demonstrated an ability that others have simply missed all along
With Llorente in the starting line-up when fit, most of Aduriz's time was spent warming the bench, and he duly managed just 23 goals in three seasons. It was a similar story at Valencia, where he was again forced to sit on the sidelines and watch Roberto Soldado lead the line. Twenty-seven goals in two seasons as a substitute was impressive, but not impressive enough to turn the heads of those in the national team setup.
His single cap for Spain came in the 3-1 victory against Lithuania in 2010, when he fittingly replaced Llorente with 13 minutes left on the clock. Hardly the stuff of dreams.
History informs the present, certainly, but in Aduriz's case it hasn't defined it. Given the chance to spearhead Athletic's attack – and buoyed by the trust his manager clearly has in him ("he represents the culmination of the way we play") – the veteran has demonstrated an ability that others have simply missed all along. Regardless of the past, Aduriz is without question outshining Llorente and Soldado now.
The perfect system
A key reason for his success is Athletic's readiness to play to his strengths. Knowing that he is a monster in the air – Aduriz has netted more goals from headers than anyone else in La Liga this season – his team-mates on the flanks are more than happy to swing deliveries into the box. Indeed, Valverde's side average 25 crosses per game; only Rayo Vallecano (27), Real Madrid (26) and Real Sociedad (26) attempt more. Conversely, Athletic attempt an average of just one through ball per 90 minutes.
The crossing data matches up with the areas of the pitch from which Aduriz tends to take shots from.
The 6ft frontman is difficult to stop when he's got the right kind of service played into him. Interestingly, Llorente and Soldado also enjoy being supplied in a similar manner, something that prevented Aduriz from being considered a viable Plan B when acting as their understudy.
His skill set doesn't really correspond with the kind of football that Del Bosque promotes. Spain don't choose to get the ball into the box as quickly as possible, preferring instead for their forwards to link up with their intricate and talented midfielders in a slow-tempo, possession-based approach. It's the primary reason why Chelsea’s Costa has struggled ever since switching allegiances from Brazil to la Roja.
Aduriz is capable of linking the play, but not in the way that Spain desire: connecting with knock-downs and headers from direct passes is more his thing, quickly getting the ball into the feet of those around him before turning and heading straight for the box.
It's this rather unfashionable approach to the game – combined with his age and prior reputation as a bench-warmer – that has kept Aduriz from catching his country’s eye. He might be the best striker in Europe that no one is talking about right now, but the 34-year-old relies on his club manager building the entire team around him in order to make the most of his talents. Sometimes an old dog doesn't need to learn new tricks, but merely identify and strengthen those that he has already mastered. Aduriz has finally found the perfect fit in Bilbao – and long may that fruitful relationship continue.