[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of only three teams to never be relegated from the Spanish top flight, Athletic Bilbao have a rich history and are a club steeped in tradition.
Although the San Mamés outfit’s Basque-only recruitment drive catches most of the attention from outsiders when considering the club as different to most, a recent trend in strikers that could well be set to change is also worth noting.
Going back to the famous Telmo Zarra, who recently relinquished La Liga’s all-time top goalscorer moniker to an unstoppable Lionel Messi, Bilbao have boasted top-notch centre forwards.
The recent figureheads of the Los Leones attack have continued in a vein of the targetman ilk; burly, powerful, masters in hold-up play and a handful for defenders.
Ismael Urzaiz typified this stereotype for 11 years in the Bilbao attack from 1996 to 2007, with the club possessing a striker with the physical attributes to offset the technical rhythm of Spanish football.
The long-serving attacker’s replacement at San Mamés was one Fernando Llorente, who developed through the club’s youth ranks in Urzaiz’s mould.
Although not solely targetmen as such, both of these strikers’ presence as Bilbao’s lone centre forward dictated a specific style of play, which continues today.
Aritz Aduriz return to his boyhood club in 2012 and has been a real threat in the Basque side’s forward line since.
Like Urzaiz and Llorente before him, labelling the ex-Valencia attacker as just a targetman would be doing him an injustice, but Aduriz is more comfortable than most La Liga centre forwards in dealing with the physical aspects of the game and holding the ball up.
Looking forward, with the current striking incumbent 34 years old and a replacement being necessary more than likely in the next 18 months, the major pretender to follow in the Bilbao striking tradition looks set to break the mould.
Of the potential options available to Ernesto Valverde, young prodigy Iñaki Williams looks the most likely to be handed the metaphorical number nine jersey.
His presence in the first-team squad this season has delighted the San Mamés faithful given his tremendous talent, while being in line to become the club’s next central striker could indicate a switch in style.
For this proudly Basque club that only accepts players with the region’s cornerstones running through their blood, the 20-year-old’s heritage does not necessarily fit in with the great Bilbao players of yesteryear.
Son to a Ghanaian father and Liberian mother, Williams does not embody the Basque stereotype, but is worthy of his chance at first-team football at San Mamés and continues the regional association of the club’s players due to the fact that he was born in Bilbao.
Regardless of skin colour, ethic background or heritage, more importantly the Spain under-21 star looks set to rejuvenate the way Los Leones play and will break the tradition of the burly frontman.
Although by no means a physical pushover, Williams’ technical attributes make him a dangerous opponent, as La Liga and Europa League defences have found out this term.
Full of pace, trickery and purpose, the 20-year-old has a direct approach to the game but combines this with superb ability on the ball, offering Bilbao a threat through the middle never present with Urzaiz or Llorente leading the line.
Although his first-team outings have been limited as he finds his feet at the top level, bit-part cameos have turned into starts over the last month, with Williams in the XI at the first whistle for Bilbao’s last four La Liga games.
The youngster has the versatility to play amongst the supporting cast, allowing Aduriz to continue to be the team’s focal point, but in time it appears that it will be Williams who is the centre of attention and the attack.
In a multicultural world and with football constantly evolving, Williams epitomises a positive change at Bilbao, with both perceptions off the pitch and the team’s attack on it set to benefit.
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