Following 532 appearances, 15 seasons and a whole career with Real Sociedad, Xabi Prieto retired at the end of last season, leaving his legendary No.10 shirt free. The man chosen to wear it in the 2018/19 campaign was only three years old when Prieto joined the Basque club as a teenager, but expectations are now very high for young Mikel Oyarzabal. With the No.10 on his back, this could be the season the 21-year-old winger explodes into prominence.
The most recent Soccerex 20 U21 list released by Prime Time Sports estimated the value of the rising stars of world football who are 21 or younger and Oyarzabal was listed in 10th place, valued at €51.3m. He’s ranked so high – above the likes of Vinícius Júnior, Ryan Sessegnon, Matthijs de Ligt and Trent Alexander-Arnold – for good reason, having scored 14 goals and provided eight assists last year in a haphazard Real Sociedad side.
His overall progress has been impressive since he made his debut for the first team under David Moyes in 2015 at age 18, having risen through the youth ranks quicker than any other player since Antoine Griezmann, after the Basque winger moved to the Zubieta academy from his hometown club Eibar in 2011. Amazingly, he’d played just 10 times for the B team when he was promoted by Moyes to the senior side ahead of schedule.
Despite his tender age, he now has 110 senior appearances under his belt, in large part due to the fact that aged 19 he played in all 38 of La Real’s matches in the 2016/17 LaLiga season. Six Europa League outings from last year will have been of great benefit to his development too, and he didn’t look out of place on the big stage, scoring twice in his first three continental appearances. He also has one Spain cap to his name as well, which is quite the feat considering the gluttony of talent La Roja have at their disposal.
Looking ahead, the 2018/19 campaign is there for the taking for Oyarzabal, who should benefit more than most from the change in coach. Eusebio, whose possession game didn’t suit the winger’s strengths as much, has gone and Asier Garitano has arrived. Under the former Leganés boss, Real Sociedad are expected to be more direct and to play on the counter attack more often, something that should suit Oyarzabal’s pace, dribbling ability and good finishing.
If he was able to score 14 goals last season when playing in an imperfect system, then we should expect that total to rise in 2018/19 as he continues to grow and as his teammates get the ball to him quicker and more often, especially as this is the first season since 2011/12 that La Real won’t begin with Carlos Vela in the squad. Last season was already Oyarzabal’s best ever in terms of goals scored per 90 minutes (0.37), chances created per 90 minutes (1.45), key passes per 90 minutes (1.26) and pass completion (78%) and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he takes another stride forward – in his huge boots, a European size 47 – this campaign.
Longer term, a move away from San Sebastián could be on the cards for Oyarzabal, whose versatility is a major asset. Not only can he play on both the right and the left wing, but he has also played some matches for the Txuri-urdin as a central attacking midfielder and may do so again this season if Garitano employs the 4-2-3-1 formation he so often used at Leganés. Primarily, though, he is a winger and a strong campaign at centre-forward Willian José’s side will see his stock rise even higher than it already is.
Whatever happens in Oyarzabal’s future, it’s clear that he won’t rush into any decisions. He is intelligent and through his first few years of professional football he has combined hid day job with his studies in business administration at the University of Deusto. His current contract runs until 2022 and his release clause is set at a reasonable price of €50m – or €60m for Basque rivals Athletic Club.
The future looks very bright for Oyarzabal. But for now, the focus is on the 2018/19 LaLiga season and the push to return Real Sociedad to Europe. Expect the winger to be leading the way with his goals and assists.
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Also published on Medium.