Oscar De Marcos was today reported to be under the watchful eye of Manchester United scout Martin Ferguson who could finally suck it up and pay the £25m that Athletic Bilbao demanded last summer.
There’s a video out there somewhere on YouTube of a junior game between Las Arenas Getxo and Alaves (the side from Vitoria, who came so close to humbling Liverpool in the UEFA Cup all those years ago). A Las Arenas (themselves a major force in Spain long long ago) attack breaks down and an Alaves youngster collects the ball, hares off down the length of the pitch and scores. a magnificent goal: his name is Oscar de Marcos.
Fast forward to 2009 and Athletic Club Bilbao, whose them coach Joaquin Caparros always paid close attention to the lower leagues, splashed out the sum of €300,000 Euros to sign the 20-year-old to play in their B-team. He made just one B-team appearance before he announced his presence with a goal in the final of the Spanish Supercup against FC Barcelona.
Quick and apparently unfazed by big name rivals, De Marcos played as a second striker behind Fernando Llorente, where his pace and mobility made him a handful for rival teams. However, midway through the season his star began to fade, thanks partly to the performances of Athletic’s bald cult-hero Gaizka Toquero.
Last campaign he made just 13 appearances and it looked as if he could be on the way out, maybe on a loan deal to gain some experience. However, his most significant appearance came not in attack, but at right back as he covered from the suspended Andoni Iriola.
It was all change for Athletic Club (not Atletico and certainly never Bilbao by the way) at the start of last season after elections for a new President brought in Josu Urrutia and with him the eccentric, but meticulous visionary Marcelo Bielsa. Out went Caparros and Bielsa started work on his revolution. And fortune favoured De Marcos: Bielsa clearly didn’t like left back Koikili (not good enough on the ball), Xavi Castillo got injured and so did youngster Ion Autenetxe… De Marcos got the nod and began the season at left back, producing strong runs from defence, while learning defensive discipline. He moved to the right when Iriola struggled in early season and again didn’t disappoint.
Another injury, this time to Carlos Gurpegui, opened up a gap in the middle and De Marcos pushed forward, cementing his place when Igor Gabilondo was shown to lack the stamina and speed for Bielsa’s high-pressure game.
With Ander Iturraspe (Athletics Xavi Hernandez – another player who has grown in stature throughout the season) in the holding role, De Marcos had freedom of movement and if there is one thing he can do, that is move, the 22 year-old (23 on April 14) produced a series of displays that made him a fixture in the Athletic side.
De Marcos keeps going for 90 minutes, covering in defence and providing surging runs on the overlap. While not a prolific goalscorer, those runs put him in the right place at the right time, making him hard to mark, as he finds the gaps in rival defences. It helps that he is surrounded by players who are also quick: Ander Herrera, Markel Susaeta and Iker Munian are also fast, smart and able to provide a killer pass, while on the right Iriola’s forward runs often give Athletic a man over the overlap.
His goals have been vital: against Manchester United at home and away and the third goal away to Schalke, all examples of arriving in the right place at the right time, while his energy is the keynote of Bielsa’s side and a counterpoint to Iturraspe, who keeps the ball moving, while making it look easy.
The good news for Athletic is that De Marcos signed a new deal midway through the season and is going to get better: he still needs to work on his first touch and that Speedy Gonzalez style means that he sometimes puts his head down and runs, losing the ball, when experience will teach him to put a foot on it and look for the easy option.
Athletic’s magnificent season has already got the vultures circling from clubs, who’d rather invest in big money signings that work like the Basques do. De Marcos, Ander Herrera, Muniain, Javi Martinez, Llorente and Susaeta are all well known now and tempting transfer targets, but they are not too worried in Bilbao: the great thing about this club is the union between fans and team and among the members of the team itself. There is a feeling they can still improve and lot further, both as individuals and as a team and the best way to do that is to stick together.