[dropcap]A[/dropcap]thletic Bilbao can boast the fact that they are only one of three clubs to never be relegated from the Spanish top flight, with their longevity amongst the elite directly accountable to a potent youth system.
The proudly Basque outfit only field players that originate from the region, which means their transfer business is severely limited and academy graduates make up the bulk of the senior squad.
The San Mamés outfit have developed Spanish internationals aplenty over the years, with the most promising players to come out of the team’s youth ranks over the last generation including Fernando Llorente and Javi Martínez.
Despite the presence of a number of young stars such as the sublimely talented Iker Muniain in the current crop, 20-year-old centre-half Aymeric Laporte is the crown jewel of Bilbao’s crown.
Despite Ernesto Valverde’s side underachieving in La Liga this season, Laporte has been a consistently dominant presence in the team’s rearguard.
The youthful defender is following in prestigious shoes, as Laporte is only the second French player to ever play for Bilbao after Bixente Lizarazu.
Having broken into the San Mamés first-team as a teenager in 2012, the centre-half thrived in 2013-14 and was announced as one of only five La Liga players on the shortlist for the prestigious Golden Boy award last year.
This term Laporte has evolved into an ever-present in Bilbao’s starting XI, with Valverde alternating his partners but always playing the 20-year-old when available.
The Agen-born defender has pace to burn and shown maturity beyond his young years to become a focal point in the Bilbao defence this term.
Barcelona are said to be keeping a close eye on the youngster’s progress in their search for a centre-half to bolster their defensive ranks in the longer term, while Manchester United have consistently been linked with Laporte also.
Given that the Old Trafford outfit signed Ander Herrera from Bilbao in the summer and have an increasing number of Spanish players in their ranks, a move to Manchester seems like an excellent choice for the in-demand defender.
On Sunday, Laporte and his Bilbao side faced an in-form Barcelona side in La Liga and were soundly beaten 5-2.
Despite the one-sided scoreline and the home team’s rearguard struggling all evening to contain a side spearheaded by a revitalised Lionel Messi, Laporte stood out as Bilbao’s undisputed best defender.
In the first half, Neymar was bearing down on goal and threatening to compound Bilbao’s misery, only for Laporte to show incredible athleticism and reading of the game to make a perfect last-ditch challenge on the Brazilian.
This pace and commitment to deny opponents a golden shooting opportunity has become something of a trademark for the defender, as the San Mamés outfit’s blushes have been saved on a number of occasions this term by Laporte’s eleventh-hour intervention.
There is no doubting that the young Frenchman still has a lot of developing to do and will improve as he builds up his experience at the highest level.
Taking up a commanding position at one of the world’s biggest clubs may still be a step too far for the 20-year-old, but there is no doubting that Laporte has all the raw attributes to become a future world-beater.
However, with Bilbao’s strict transfer policy and their reluctance to part company with youth products, a substantial release clause will more than likely have to be activated if Laporte is to make the next step in his promising short career.
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