PETE JENSON: Sociedad's Martin Zubimendi aiming to emulate Xabi Alonso as he bids to down Man United
He was Xabi Alonso’s star pupil coming through Real Sociedad’s youth team, now Martin Zubimendi is set to play in the old master’s position at Old Trafford on Thursday night.
He is as eloquent about the art of being a tenacious midfielder as he is on the ball, and even has the same talent for not being sent off as his opponent Casemiro, who he says is the ‘perfect’ player for Real Madrid.
And Zubimendi is positive about Real Sociedad’s future, even after they sold Alexander Isak to Newcastle for £63m, a player he believes will certainly prove to be worth the money.
Martin Zubimendi was Xabi Alonso’s star pupil coming through Real Sociedad’s youth team – now he’s ready to play in the old master’s position at Old Trafford on Thursday
The defensive midfielder has risen through the ranks to play a key role for the LaLiga outfit
He said: ‘I couldn’t really appreciate him [Alonso] when he signed with Liverpool because I was only five years old.
“But by the time he got to Real Madrid, I fully understood what kind of player he was. Then I heard what he had done at Liverpool and I was able to watch videos of his matches.
“When Xabi took over (as coach of Real Sociedad youth team in 2020), I started playing regularly.
“I’ve learned to appreciate the different ways teams press on you (when you bring the ball out from behind) and how to adjust the way you come out with the ball accordingly.
“He put a lot of emphasis on analyzing the opponents, putting mannequins from the training ground on the pitch in the positions where he expected the next rival to try to pressure us.
“I could feel the affection he had for me, which maybe it’s because I’m from the same place and also share a position. He made it a special point to teach me things.’
Former Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder Alonso, who took over as Sociedad’s youth coach in 2020, helped guide the development of young protégé Zubimendi, who plays in the same position.
Alonso left Real Sociedad’s B-team coach in May after their second-level relegation
Under-21 international Zubimendi, who has one cap for the senior team, has been tipped to one day take over Sergio Busquets from the Spanish team, but shuns direct comparisons.
Busquets is unique as a tenacious midfielder. He is very good at what he does: the feints, the interceptions and he is very smart in the way he pushes forward after the ball is lost.
“I think he finds it more difficult when the ball is lost and he has to run back. I can be different there: running back after the ball is lost, covering a lot of ground.’
On Thursday there will be another fine exponent of his midfield prowess on the pitch and the admiration for Casemiro is clear.
“He was the perfect ‘pivot’ (the Spanish term for holding a midfielder) for Real Madrid,” added Zubimendi.
“Madrid can hurt you with a short game or with direct football and when the football is more direct the team can get quite tense and you need a player who can defend against quick transitions and keep the team together.”
Zubimendi will play against Manchester United in the opening match of the Europa League group stage on Thursday
He shares a common trait with Casemiro: the Brazilian has never seen a direct red in La Liga in nine years and Zubimendi has yet to be sent off.
“I don’t know how he did it,” he says. ‘To leave without an immediate red. That’s a gift he has.
“I think I have fewer yellow cards than the manager would like. I think he would like me to be tougher in the way I end attacks at the source sometimes.”
Casemiro’s move to United was the second biggest surprise of the La Liga transfer window. Zubimendi witnessed the most surprising first hand as team-mate Isak left for Newcastle.
“I found out it was the same as everyone else,” he says. “The training was over and I was in the treatment room for a massage and a physiotherapist came in with his phone and showed us the news.
‘From the physio’s room, it has glass’ [walls] you can see the gym and you can still see him (Isak) there. And we were like, ‘But he hasn’t said anything to anyone!’.
The 23-year-old praised Casemiro (third from left), who joined United this summer from Real Madrid
“He deserves it too. And I’m sure he’s going to play a level of football that means the money they paid is well worth it. He’s a Premier League player with that speed he has. It’s a shame he’s gone, but it had to happen sooner or later.”
Will Zubimendi ever follow suit?
“There’s always that unknown, wondering if I could play the same there. But right now I’m at La Real and that’s all I think about. We’ll see in the future.’
Real Sociedad is now a good place to be. The club broke their transfer record when Isak’s replacement, Nigerian striker Umar Sadiq, scored on Saturday’s debut.
They have also signed 18-year-old winger Mohamed-Ali ‘Momo’ Cho, who spent time at Everton academy and played for the England Under-16s before moving to France.
“We saw the potential from day one,” he says of the winger, who has impressed enough to be first-choice already.
And Zubimendi admitted Sociedad is wary of new manager Erik ten Hag’s ‘very solid’ outfit
“Sometimes he insists on getting the ball under his feet when it’s his credit to get it into space, but he has the speed and the power and he also has the composure to make the right last pass. There is a special excitement about the club and the signings are good.”
The goal is to keep moving forward. Two seasons ago, Real Sociedad had a draw at Old Trafford, but they had already lost the first leg 4-0. Zubimendi has watched Man United’s last three games as he tries to find the way to get a better result this time around.
He continues: “I feel they are very solid defensively with Martinez and Varane. And on offense, be it pace or pass combinations inside with Bruno and Eriksen, they have a good variety. They can attack you in different ways.’
Xabi will be delighted when his child prodigy performs well on a stage he knows so well.
“Last year we saw each other a lot on the training ground because he led the B-team,” says Zubimendi about Alonso. “Now that he’s not on a team, I don’t see him that often, I’d love to see him and have a chat.
“I’m so often asked about him that he must be bored hearing what I say about him, hearing all those good things, but I can’t say anything else. He was an idol for me, a role model for me to follow.’