Three years ago, Iker Muniain found himself being lauded as a major part of a talented Athletic Bilbao side who wowed worldwide audiences as they ripped through Manchester United on the way to the Europa League final.
Playing as part of a front three alongside Fernando Llorente and Markel Susaeta, Muniain flourished and was heralded as one of the best young players in the world. Although Bilbao were defeated in the Europa League final by Atletico Madrid, Muniain’s stock went through the roof. Soon links with the world’s biggest clubs were being made, hyperinflated valuations were being placed on his head and in 2011 he followed in the footsteps of Sergio Busquets and Pedro to be awarded the La Liga breakthrough player of the year award.
Muniain became the first name on the team sheet going forward and was instrumental in helping Los Leones qualify for the Champions League under Ernesto Valverde during the 2013-14 season.
The summer of 2014 saw Muniain reportedly subject to interest from Liverpool, however the reds balked at the thought of Munian’s £36million release clause.
However this campaign has seen Muniain struggle to replicate the form that made him so vital to the Navarre. Muniain has scored just once in the league since August as part of an Athletic side currently languishing in 13th place in La Liga, 20 points from the position they finished in last term.
Statistically, Muniain’s contribution makes for grim reading. By this point last season he had three times as many goals, and had assisted in five goals in all competitions, compared to just one assist – for Aritz Aduriz in a 2-1 away defeat to BATE Borisov in the Champions league – this campaign.
His discipline has also suffered. Muniain has already been yellow carded five times this season, enough to earn him a one match ban. However, during January’s defeat at Elche, Muniain was caught swearing at an official and was handed a two game ban for dissent.
Several theories have been put forward as to why Muniain’s form has deserted him so rapidly. Some have criticised Valverde’s decision to play Muniain further back in midfield in a Bilbao side struggling to score goals – despite the players’ insistence that he agreed with the move. Others have argued that the sale of Ander Herrera has hampered Los Leones creativity, although in a midfield also boasting Ander Iturraspe and Beñat, that seems a poor excuse.
Muniain himself has remained honest on his recent form. As Athletic prepare to host Barcelona at San Mames this weekend – a fixture in which Muniain scored the winner in a 1-0 victory last season – Muniain talked about his recent performances:
“I started the season quite well, then I had a dip in form that I’ve been able to overcome. I feel good and that gives me confidence ahead of the second half of the season, I face it with a lot of desire.”
At 21 years old, it would be a massive jump to say that Munian’s career is already on the decline. He has all the attributes to be a top player in years to come, although now he faces a crossroads in his career. Whether Athletic will continue to be the best place for him remains to be seen, however the second half of this season could be the defining period of his career.