Thriving at 35 – Aritz Aduriz’s dream season

The development of a footballer is a curious thing. Many a promising career has fizzled out into something highly unremarkable and the decline can often be painfully rapid. However for every case of unfulfilled promise, there are tales of slow starters who have gradually improved their game with age and experience and peaked a bit later than their mid to late twenties, which is generally considered to be the optimum age for most outfielders. Few though can claim to have saved their best football for their mid-thirties but that is certainly the case with Athletic Bilbao’s 35 year old striker Artitz Aduriz who has already surpassed the 30 goal mark this season for the first time in his career.

The only other time he has passed 20 goals was last season when he netted 26 times and helped Athletic to the Copa del Rey final and European qualification. With 31 goals to his name so far this term and surely more to come with Athletic still battling it out on two fronts, Aduriz is almost rewriting the rulebook that states that players of his age are incapable of playing 2 games a week and certainly can no longer be relied upon to be the focal point of a team.

No side in La Liga has played more games this season than Athletic Bilbao. They started out in the Europa League way back in July and are still going strong in that competition with a Quarter Final against Sevilla coming up. They also played and won the Spanish Super Cup in August and reached the Copa del Rey Quarter Finals meaning the Basques have played 52 matches already this season with at least 10 more to come. Aduriz has started 43 of them and has come off the bench in a further 5 and is almost certain to pass 50 starts by the end of the campaign, which is some going for a 35 year old.

His season got off to an incredible start when he netted 4 goals over 2 legs in Athletic’s convincing Super Cup win over Barcelona which landed Aduriz the first silverware of his career and ended his club’s 31 year wait for a trophy. Were it not for a poor opening few games in the league, in the wake of the emotion of that landmark achievement, Athletic would be right in the hunt for Champions League football next season and could still claw their way into contention.

Aduriz started out at Athletic but left in 2008 having struggled to escape the shadow of the younger and more prolific Fernando Llorente, who ironically has seen his career fizzle out to some extent since he left San Mames. Since returning to Bilbao in 2012, Aduriz has been an integral player for the side following mixed spells at Mallorca and Valencia. To that extent we shouldn’t be stunned to see him again flourishing this season as the side’s central striker under the stewardship of Ernesto Valverde.

He netted 18 times in each of his first two campaigns back with Athletic and has only seemed to get better as he has got older. This term there hasn’t been a single period where he has struggled for goals and he’s not gone more than 4 games without a goal all season. Stand-out performances include hat-tricks at Rayo Vallecano and most recently at home to Deportivo La Coruna when he moved on to 30 goals for the season in all competitions. Barcelona and Real Madrid players aside, he is the top scorer in La Liga with 17 and he is also the top scorer in the Europa League with 8.

It is not just the volume of goals that is impressive but the importance of many of them. His cool finishing powered Athletic to the Super Cup and he has had a knack of popping with crucial goals at timely moments ever since. He scored the only goal as Athletic won 1-0 in Marseille in the last 32 in the Europa League and with his side seemingly heading out last week in Valencia, Aduriz was the man in the right place at the right time to coolly slot home and send the Basques into the Quarter-Finals on the away goals rule.

That came only a few weeks after he’d come off the bench late on at the Mestalla in the league to score the opening goal and inspire an Athletic side, that were drawing 0-0 with less than a quarter of the game remaining, to an easy 3-0 victory. His importance to the side had never been so glaringly obvious but it certainly works both ways and the way Valverde has got this team set up is certainly helping Aduriz to flourish.

It allows him to do what he is best at, which is poaching goals either on the ground or in the air, where he is very strong. 8 assists this season show he has more to his game than just that but he is clearly better as a central striker than as a left winger, where he has been employed in less successful years gone by.

Aduriz thrives on being the main man and the focal point of the attack but has been complimented very nicely by the players he has around him in this strong Athletic side. The emergence of Inaki Williams over the past 12 months has certainly played a part and the pacey youngster and his exuberant bursts down the right are the perfect foil for Aduriz’s game while Raul Garcia is another who has had a fine season playing as the attacking-most of the central midfielders.

Athletic’s attacking style also helps explain to at least a small extent why Aduriz is having the best season of his career at such a late stage. They have seemed to adopt a ‘caution to the wind’ approach throughout the season perhaps buoyed by the success they had when they dared to take the game to Barcelona back in August. Only the Catalans and Real Madrid have scored more league goals than Athletic this season.

The form of Aduriz, which had escaped the attentions of Vicente del Bosque for so long, has finally been recognised and the San Sebastian-born striker could at last earn a 2nd international cap this week having been named in the Spain squad for friendlies against Italy and Romania, 6 years on from his debut. It is almost scandalous that a player of his quality, especially given the consistency of his performances over a long period of time in the Basque Country, has just 15 minutes of international action to his name particularly at a time when Spain don’t seem to be blessed with an enormous wealth of striking options.

Whether Del Bosque is serious about taking him to the Euros or not remains to be seen and with 4 other forwards in the squad Aduriz may again get a limited chance to make an impression in the colours of the national team. However of the strikers they could take to France, Aduriz, particularly this season, stands out as the most reliable option despite his inexperience at international level.

Paco Alcacer and Alvaro Morata are both a long way off the finished article and neither have anything like as prolific a goalscoring record as the Athletic striker. Diego Costa has flattered to deceive in a Spanish national shirt and is also regarded as something of a loose cannon that in one moment of madness could derail Spain’s bid for a 3rd consecutive European crown.

If Aduriz can make an impression over the next fortnight and continue his incredible goalscoring form over the next couple of months, he will become very hard for Del Bosque to ignore. There are still a few chapters left to be penned in the 35 year old’s dream campaign and Aduriz will be eyeing Europa League glory with his club and potentially Euro 2016 as the fairytale ending.

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