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Griffin O’Neill writes a detailed scouting report on Mikel Oyarzabal, Real Sociedad’s intelligent winger.
Real Sociedad has a long list of impressive academy graduates with players like Xabi Alonso and Antione Griezmann both bring promoted from the academy in the last decade. The player most people believe to be the next great graduate of Sociedad’s academy is nineteen-year-old winger Mikel Oyarzabal. With a slew of impressive performances in recent months, Oyarzabal’s future looks to be very bright for both club and country.
Born in 1997, in Eibar, Spain, Oyarzabal, nicknamed bigfoot by teammates, has been in Sociedad’s Academy from a very young age. After making his debut for the B team in the Spanish Segunda Division B in 2014, Oyarzabal has been on the fast track to greatness. He scored three goals and got one assist in thirteen games for the B team and was called up to the first team in 2015, and gained his first appearance against Levante in October of that year. He was included in the match day squad for every game after that and got his first start against Real Betis that January. He got his first goal in the very next game against Espanyol, and after this, he started every game but one (a 3-0 defeat vs Atletico Madrid). In total, Oyarzabal got six goals and two assists in twenty-two appearances. His crowning moment of the season was when he scored the winner against Barcelona with a header, which is impressive not only because it was against Barcelona but also because he is 5’11. Possibly most impressive is that unlike many young players, Oyarzabal didn’t tail off towards the end of the year. In his last five games, he got two goals and two assists.
In the early stages of this season, Oyarzabal has been as good as ever. In six appearances in the league, he already has three assists and is averaging one key pass per game. This is better than Borussia Dortmund playmaker Shinji Kagawa’s 7 key passes per game. Because of these impressive performances Oyarzabal’s contract has been renewed by Sociedad until 2022. This shows just how much the Basque club trusts him. It is also a testament to his performances because not very many players can say they got a six-year contract extension after only playing for the first team half of a season.
Oyarzabal has also gotten his first Spain cap this year after playing in four games for the U-19 team. He was a second-half substitute in an international friendly vs Bosnia and Herzegovina, and with the way he has been playing so far this year more call ups seem sure to come in the future. Breaking into the Spanish national team will be a very tough challenge, though. The depth that Spain possesses in Oyarzabal’s preferred left wing position is incredibly impressive. There is a silver lining to this struggle, though. Oyarzabal can learn his trade from the likes of David Silva, Nolito, and Juan Mata.
In his preferred position on the left wing, Oyarzabal doesn’t play like a conventional winger. Since he doesn’t have the most pace, Oyarzabal uses quick interplay with other midfielders to exploit defenders. Another thing that Oyarzabal is good at is getting fouled. His footwork is top-notch, and he is also not afraid to use a whole manner of flicks and tricks to either get by a defender or get fouled. Oyarzabal isn’t a liability in defense either. He is very mature when it comes to not diving into tackles and staying on his feet while defending. He also likes to occasionally drift inside and play as a central midfielder. When he drifts inside he is very good at linking the midfield with attack. This type of movement and passing is reminiscent of players like Arda Turan and Riyad Mahrez.
Many of the best wingers of today are lightening fast. Although this may not be the case with Oyarzabal, there are other areas of his game where he is far superior to quicker wingers. The most evident of these improvements is in decision making. Oyarzabal is incredibly good at choosing when to make a pass and when to take on a defender. He makes an average of thirty-four passes per game, which is also more than Shinji Kagawa or Atletico Madrid’s Yannick Carrasco. The propensity for passing play is shown by the number of assists he has gotten. So far this season he is averaging 0.5 assists per game, which is more than Mesut Ozil or David Silva.
Another place where Oyarzabal excels is shooting. He possesses a vicious long-range strike and is able to place his shots very well. He does well to shoot across his body when playing on the left, or hit a curler when playing on the right. Though the most impressive thing about Oyarzabal is his durability and consistency. He played ninety minutes ten times last season and has already gone the full ninety four times in six games this year. This is even more impressive when you see that Olympique Lyon’s hot prospect Maxwell Cornet never completed a full game in thirty-one league games last year.
This shooting ability and composure were on show for Oyarzabal’s first professional goal against Espanyol in 2016. He picked the ball off on the left and dribbled towards the penalty box. He then dribbled around two defenders and instead of taking a shot from a tough angle, played it off to a teammate. Oyarzabal then continued his run and quickly received the ball back. When he received the ball for the second time, he preceded to take a touch away from the defender who followed him and into the box, and then, instead of rushing his shot, he let the ball bounce one more time so that he could open up his body and place the shot straight into the top corner. This sequence puts both his ability to know when to pass the ball and when to take a shot into the limelight and shows that his maturity is very high for a player his age.
Although Oyarzabal may be extremely good at making passes and connecting play, his crossing often lets him down. This is the case with a lot of wingers nowadays, but most of the wingers who can’t cross well are usually able to cut inside and shoot, but since Oyarzabal is left-footed and plays on the left this isn’t an option for him. This may not seem like too bad of a problem with the modern game’s movement towards smaller and quicker strikers, but because both of Real Sociedad’s strikers’ styles of play revolve around their aerial ability, it could soon turn into one. This is something that is easily worked on, though, and Oyarzabal recognizes that crossing isn’t his strong point and only attempts 0.1 crosses per game.
Another thing hampering Oyarzabal’s development is his physicality. At only 5’11 and 78kgs, he isn’t exactly a physical specimen. This poses a serious problem because when playing against bigger opponents he tends to get bullied. This also isn’t good because he doesn’t have the strength necessary to hold up play well. Another place where his lack of physicality is a problem is when he loses the ball he has problems winning it back effectively.
The most obvious thing that Oyarzabal lacks is pace. He just isn’t that fast. Although he does make up for this in many other areas, this isn’t a problem to be overlooked. Because of this he tends to struggle against faster fullbacks and isn’t able to assert himself on the game as much as he would like to. Oyarzabal tends to counter this problem by drifting inside to receive passes, but this also tends to make him disappear when the midfield becomes crowded.
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