Real Sociedad's Martin Zubimendi is looking to emulate Xabi Alonso

PETE JENSON: Real Sociedad midfielder Martin Zubimendi is looking to emulate his ‘special’ mentor Xabi Alonso as he bids to down Man United in the Europa League – and admits his side are wary of Erik ten Hag’s ‘very solid’ outfit

  • Martin Zubimendi was Xabi Alonso’s star pupil coming through at Real Sociedad 
  • Now the midfielder is ready to play in the old master’s position on Thursday night
  • Sociedad travel to Old Trafford to face Manchester United in the Europa League
  • Zubimendi admits his side are ‘wary’ of new boss Erik ten Hag’s ‘very solid’ outfit 

He was Xabi Alonso’s star pupil coming through the youth team at Real Sociedad, now Martin Zubimendi is ready to play in the old master’s position on Thursday night at Old Trafford.

He is as articulate on the art of the being a holding midfielder as he is composed on the ball, and even has the same knack for not getting sent off as tonight’s opponent Casemiro, who he says was 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 definitely turn out to be worth the money.

Martin Zubimendi was Xabi Alonso’s star pupil coming through the youth team at Real Sociedad – now he is ready to play in the old master’s position on Thursday at Old Trafford

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] at the time he signed for Liverpool because I was only five years old. 

‘But by the time he was at Real Madrid I fully understood what a player he was. Then I learned what he had done at Liverpool and I could watch videos of his games.

‘When Xabi took over (as Real Sociedad youth team coach in 2020) that is when I started playing regularly.

‘I learned to appreciate the different ways teams press you (when you are bringing the ball out from the back) and how to tailor the way you come out with the ball accordingly.

‘He put a lot of emphasis on analysing the opposition, putting training ground mannequins out on the pitch in the positions he anticipated the next rival would try to press us.

‘I could feel the affection he had for me, which maybe comes from being from the same place and sharing a position too. He made special a point of teaching me things.’

Former Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder Alonso, who took over as Sociedad youth coach in 2020, helped guide the progress of young protege Zubimendi, who plays the same position

Alonso left as Real Sociedad’s B team coach in May after their relegation from the second tier

Under-21 international Zubimendi, who has one cap for the senior team, has been tipped to take over from Sergio Busquets in the Spain team one day but shies away from direct comparisons.

‘Busquets is unique as a holding midfielder. He is very good at what he does: the feints, the interceptions and he is very clever in the way he presses in a forward direction after the ball is lost.

‘I think he finds it harder when the ball is lost and he has to run back. That’s where I can be different: running back after the ball is lost, covering a lot of ground.’

There will be another fine exponent of his midfield art on the pitch on Thursday and the admiration for Casemiro is clear.

‘He was the perfect ‘pivote’ (the Spanish term for holding midfielder) for Real Madrid,’ Zubimendi adds.

‘Madrid can hurt you with a short game or with direct football and when the football is more direct the team can become quite strung out and you need a player who can defend against quick transitions and hold the team together.’

Zubimendi is set to play Manchester United in Thursday’s Europa League group stage opener

He shares a common trait with Casemiro: the Brazilian was never shown a straight red in nine years in La Liga and Zubimendi is also yet to be sent off.

‘I don’t know how he has done it,’ he says. ‘To leave with no straight reds. That’s a gift that he has.

‘I think I have less yellow cards than the manager would like. I think that he would like me to be harder at times in the way I end attacks at source.’

Casemiro’s move to United was the second biggest surprise in La Liga’s transfer window. Zubimendi witnessed the most surprising first hand when team-mate Isak left for Newcastle.

‘I found out in the same was as everyone else,’ he says. ‘Training had finished and I was in the treatment room having a massage and a physio came in with his phone, showing us the news.

‘From the physio’s room, which has glass [walls] you can see the gym and you could see him (Isak) in there still. And we were like: ‘but he hasn’t said anything to anyone!’.

The 23-year-old hailed Casemiro (third left), who joined United from Real Madrid this summer

‘He deserves it too. And I’m sure he’s going to play a level of football that means that the money they paid is well worth it. He’s a player for the Premier League with that speed he has. It’s a pity he has gone but it was bound to happen sooner or later.’

Will Zubimendi follow one day?

‘There is always that unknown, wondering if I could play the same there. But at the moment I am at La Real and that’s the only thing I think about. In the future we’ll see.’

Real Sociedad is a good place to be right now. The club broke their transfer record signing Isak’s replacement, the Nigerian forward Umar Sadiq, who scored on his debut on Saturday.

They have also signed 18-year-old winger Mohamed-Ali ‘Momo’ Cho who spent time at Everton’s academy and played for England under-16s before moving to France.

‘From the first day we could see the potential,’ he says of the winger, who has impressed enough to already be first choice.

And Zubimendi admitted Sociedad are wary of new manager Erik ten Hag’s ‘very solid’ outfit

‘Sometimes he insists on receiving the ball to feet when his virtue is to get it in space but he has the speed and the power and he’s also got the calm to play the right final pass. There is a special excitement about the club and the signings are good ones.’

The aim is to keep progressing. Two seasons ago Real Sociedad got 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 away to get a better result this time.

He continues: ‘I get the feeling that defensively they are very solid with Martinez and Varane. And in attack, whether it’s through pace or passing combinations inside with Bruno and Eriksen, they have a good variety. They can attack you in different ways.’

Xabi will be happy if his prodigy performs well on a stage he knows so well.

‘Last year we would see each other a lot at the training ground because he was managing the B team,’ Zubimendi says of Alonso. ‘Now that he’s not with a team, I don’t see him as much, I would like to see him and have a chat.

‘I get asked about him so much that he must get bored of hearing what I say about him, hearing all these good things, but I can’t say anything else. He was an idol for me, a role model for me to follow.’ 

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