Real Sociedad’s Martín Zubimendi: ‘Xabi Alonso is an idol, a role model’ | Real Sociedad

Martín Zubimendi isn’t tired of the constant comparisons to Xabi Alonso but he reckons Xabi Alonso might be. “He’s an idol, a role model, so I’m delighted that he says nice things about me,” the Real Sociedad midfielder says, smiling not blushing, the attempt to embarrass him with eulogies from his hero, the footballer he most admires, having failed. The words are welcome, on one side at least. “Thing is, I think it’s the other way round,” he says. “I get asked about him so much he must get bored of hearing me talk about him. He’ll be tired of me going on about how good he is.”

If the responses are inevitable, the questions are too. “Martín has the mark of Zubieta,” Alonso once said, and he knows. Zubieta is the Real Sociedad academy Zubimendi joined at 12, as Alonso had done 12 years earlier. Before that he played at the local club Antiguoko, where Alonso had also started. He watched his idol as a kid – he was five when Alonso arrived at Anfield, 10 when he joined Madrid – and plays in the same position, their style shared. He talks about the “values” and “personality” of the former Liverpool player, a discreet “leadership that was not for show”, and listening to him explain the central midfielder’s craft, there is something of Alonso too: in the tone, clarity , analysis, quiet authority. They even have the same agent.

They’re even playing Manchester United two and a half weeks apart: Zubimendi on Thursday in the Europa League at Old Trafford; Alonso on September 24 against their Legends team.

Oh, and Alonso was also his coach at Real Sociedad B, guiding him to the first team where he made his debut in 2020. A little more than his coach, in fact, which is why he might be wrong on this one. Alonso, bored? No. Instead there’s real affection. If anyone thinks the 22-year-old tracked by Barcelona and Madrid is a bit special, it is the former Liverpool player. Alonso saw something in Zubimendi, maybe even something of himself, insisting he had the talent “inside him”. He took it upon himself to help bring that out.

Even after Zubimendi made it to the first team, coached by Imanol Alguacil, a former player who had progressed through Zubieta himself, the connection continued. “We would see each other a lot at the training ground in the dining room or the corridors, he would always stop me and talk,” Zubimendi says. Alonso will watch as Zubimendi heads out at United.

“Martín’s a player all coaches would want,” Alonso says. “He’s generous, he always thinks more about his teammates than himself. He has that ability to generate play, to make those around him better, always offering solutions; to improve the move. He understands what the next step is before the ball gets to him. He has that ability to organize, the axis. I loved working with him.”

Xabi Alonso holds off Milan's Clarence Seedorf during Liverpool's 2005 Champions League final win.
Xabi Alonso holds off Milan’s Clarence Seedorf during Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League final win. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“I wasn’t even with him a full season because of the pandemic but those were lovely months,” Zubimendi says. “It was when he came that I started playing more; with Xabi, I got a run of games. I could feel the affection he had for me, which maybe comes from having the same position. He made a point of trying to show me things, teaching me.

“With him, I learned to recognize and differentiate [types of] presses, overcoming them. Before then, I played the way that more or less came naturally. With him I started to truly understand concepts for bringing the ball out, building play. He insisted a lot on the analysis. We would walk it through, inflatables positioned where the opposition would be.”

Zubimendi says he doesn’t commit as many fouls or get as many cards as Alguacil would probably like, discusses the ear-bashing from centre-backs when he joins moves further up the pitch, and laughs when asked when he’ll start producing those Alonso long balls. “Those diagonals were his thing,” he says, the smile giving way to something more serious, analysis and ambition. “He understood when to seek the final line or the next line. He had that short, inside pass but could look further, to the forwards. I still play inside, inside, inside: I have to learn to see that deeper ball.”

Martín Zubimendi plays a pass while winning his first and so far only Spain cap against Lithuania in June 2021.
Martín Zubimendi plays a pass while winning his first and so far only Spain cap against Lithuania in June 2021. Photograph: Europa Press Sports/Europa Press/Getty Images

Although his development has been swift, his performances are outstanding. An undisputed starter now, the axis of the Real Sociedad midfield, Zubimendi also has a Spain cap. And if that came in special circumstances – he was at a camp site in France when he was called back to join a parallel Euros squad in case of a Covid outbreak, making his debut as the Under-21s became the senior team for one night in Leganés – a “normal” call-up should not be far off, the World Cup a possibility. Long term, the Spain coach has identified him as a successor to Sergio Busquets.

The parallels are there too, Zubimendi citing Busquets as the other midfielder from whom he took inspiration, the man who changed the role. “Busquets is unique, so good at feints, cutting back, very sharp, very clever pressing on the front foot, although it’s harder when he’s forced to go backwards,” he says. “Us pivots have the bad luck that maybe we don’t get recognized but if you understand football you know Busquets’ value. We’ve normalized him playing well so much we don’t always appreciate him. He’s set the bar so high that pivots are asked to do things we weren’t before. But that’s nice: you have to aspire to that.”

And so to Old Trafford, where he will meet again Casemiro, another of the world’s outstanding deep midfielders. This summer Zubimendi added the Premier League to his TV package – “what stands out are the challenges, the strength, the directness, the shooting from outside the area and the openness: in Spain we’re more focused on keeping the ball” – and has watched every United game since the draw, impressed by what he has seen.

“They look solid with the new centre-back pair: [Lisandro] Martínez and [Raphaël] Varane seems to be fitting very well. And in attack, whether it’s through combinations inside with [Bruno] Fernandes and [Christian] Eriksen or pace further up, they can get at you. Fernandes’ passes into space are very dangerous and we have to work out how to stop that.

“He’s a different type of ‘No.10’ to David Silva. Because David was in the Premier League, I didn’t watch as much and I don’t think I rated him enough before, because since he came here …”

Martín Zubimendi (right) celebrates after scoring for Real Sociedad against Deportivo Alavés in March.
Martín Zubimendi (right) celebrates after scoring for Real Sociedad against Deportivo Alavés in March. Photograph: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

There’s a shake of the head. “He’s right up there with the best, with Xavi and [Andrés] Iniesta. Every day with him, wow. He blows me away. The way he protects the ball. I suffer that in training: it’s impossible to get it off him. He was an international, I knew he had been big there, he has a statue at City, but I didn’t realize just how good he is, how different to the rest. Going back will be special for him, even if he’s so calm you hardly notice.”

While Silva returns to Manchester, one player missing is Alexander Isak, whose departure for Newcastle surprised his teammates. “Training had finished and I was in the treatment room having a massage and a physio came in with his phone, showing us the news,” Zubimendi recalls. “The physio’s room is glass, so you can see the gym from there and he’s still there. We were like: ‘But he’s there and he hasn’t said anything.’ We went through and asked was this right. He said yes.

“It was a bomb it but he deserves it. His level will match the amount they spent. I felt it would happen sooner or later, because he’s a player for the Premier League: he’s fast, he has enormous potential. It’s a pity he’s gone, but football is like that: it goes on, we have to replace him. The signings are good, they’re adapting very well, and there’s a real excitement this season, in La Liga and in Europe.”

That starts in Manchester. The first time Real Sociedad went there, in October 2013, when Zubimendi was 14, his dad brought him back a scarf. The last time, he played in a 0-0 draw, but that was without fans. Now it’s for real: “This is different,” he says, “a historic club, Old Trafford full; it’s going to be special.”

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