There are many misconceptions about Spanish football, one of which is that the strikers in La Liga are small, technical players who are more likely to produce a brilliant piece of skill rather than a “bullet header”. They are thought of as less physical than those who ply their trade in England. There are many exceptions to this supposed rule, such as Jonathas, Imanol Agirretxe and Borja Bastón, but perhaps the best example other than Luis Suárez and Karim Benzema is Athletic Bilbao’s Aritz Aduriz.
Aduriz’ career has been an unusual one. Not making a first team appearance for Athletic until the age of 21 in 2002, it was not until his third spell at the Basque club in 2012 that he moved up a level and became a truly top class striker. In the ten years between he grew as a footballer, gradually improving his ability in all aspects and moving up through Spanish football’s ranks.
Between 2005, his first return to his home club, and 2012, his second homecoming, he established himself as a reliable top flight striker. At Athletic, Mallorca and Valencia, his performances were always adequate, but at the first and last of those three clubs he found it difficult to start ahead of Fernando Llorente and Roberto Soldado respectively. In 2012-13, he displaced Llorente as the first choice striker in the side, and since then he has not looked back.
It would be easy enough only to talk about his goal scoring record since 2012 (87 goals in 161 games). It would be easy enough only to talk about his incredible current season, during which he has already scored 25 goals and has been Athletic’s talisman. But there is more to football and more to being a striker than mere goal statistics.
Aduriz has all the attributes to make a great centre-forward. He is not particularly fast, but he more than makes up for this with his perfect positioning. The moment Athletic start an attack, if he is not needed to create it he will move into the right position immediately, always finding the most difficult position for the defenders to deal with. He is very composed in front of goal; his fifteen out of eighteen penalties since 2012 is testament to this. He never gives up on a chance under any circumstances, which has helped him add to his goals tally on a number of occasions, and is intelligent, ingenious and more than willing to put his body on the line.
A great example of those latter three attributes is the first goal he scored against Getafe in La Liga this season. From a corner, he started goal side of the goalkeeper, which would have been offside had he not been standing over the goal line when the cross came in—a creative bit of brilliance. He then bustled ahead of the goalkeeper and hurled himself at the ball, jumping across a few players in the process, and managed to get enough contact on the ball to score. This is why he has so many goals to his name—he will do anything to score and can score in any way imaginable.
What makes Aduriz an “artisan” is that he is the master of a craft which is both dying out in football and not associated with La Liga—that of heading. It is unlikely that you’ll find a better header of the ball in football. He is six feet tall, shorter than most goalkeepers and not particularly tall for a lone striker, but his incredible jump means that he is very difficult to beat in the air.
His heading ability has lead Athletic to build some of their play around him. They attempt a staggering 28 crosses per game, the most in La Liga. The team’s wingers have a huge advantage in that Aduriz can generate huge power from his headers. This means that they can “float” their crosses into the box, since he doesn’t need as much power to head the ball with pace behind, making their balls in more accurate. Not “drilling” crosses hugely increases the chances of some contact being made with the ball, and due to the power of the headers, the chances of a goal being scored are not decreased.
Perhaps the most incredible thing of all about him is that he is having by far his best season to date despite the fact that he will turn 35 next month. In today’s age, footballers tend to go out of fashion once they go past the age of 30, but Aduriz has done the exact opposite. It was inevitable that his career would be able to go on for a long time as he is more reliant on intelligence than pace to score goals, but no-one could have expected that his peak would be this late.
What remains to be seen is for how long he can keep up this level. He is certainly not a “one-season wonder”—he’s been Athletic’s talisman for at least two years now, but considering his age he may not be able to reach these heights again. There will come a point when his legs give in and he’s unable to compete at the top level, but the way he’s currently playing he could be a crucial part of this team for a few more years.
There is one more area for him to conquer: international football. He has made one appearance for Spain, where he played thirteen minutes in a friendly in 2010. The national team manager, Vicente del Bosque, has hinted at calling him up before, and he has certainly been the best of the Spanish strikers this season, so a call-up is not off the cards. If he can keep up this incredible level all season, he would be very deserving of a place in the squad for the European Championship in the summer. Should he go to France, there is a serious chance that he could set the tournament alight, and his rise to the top level would be complete. A most romantic story indeed.