Before the Supercopa last August, few outside Spain knew just who Mikel San Jose was. That all changed in the first leg against Barcelona.
Atheltic Bilbao goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz sent the ball deep into the Catalans’ half of the pitch and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, for some unknown reason, as he was not under any pressure, came way out of his box and headed the ball back to the halfway line. San Jose took one touch and then– in rugby-union style – drop-kicked the ball into the net. It was an astonishing goal, which exhibited San Jose’s quick thinking, technique and awareness. It also opened the floodgates for what would result in an astonishing 4-0 victory for the Basques.
The goal reverberated around the world and San Jose’s name was no longer only well known in the Iberian Peninsula. Of course, this was not the case for Liverpool fans.
Curiously enough, San Jose is a former Red. Rafa Benitez lured him to Merseyside when he was just 18 years old. From the Basque Country, physical, tall and a clean passer of the ball, perhaps the current Newcastle boss saw San Jose as the successor to Xabi Alonso. It did not work out that way as, San Jose later reflected, he “lost two years with Benitez”. No love lost there, then.
After three years, the reds let him return to where he came from, Athletic Bilbao. After a slow start, by the end of his first season San Jose was a regular. Ever since then, his stock has grown significantly – if noy steadily.
The 2014-15 campaign saw San Jose enjoy his best season to date, and it resulted in his first call-up to the Spanish national team. However, unlike at club level, the defender-midfielder has yet to establish himself in Vicente del Bosque’s set-up, and it’s not really clear as to why.
As comfortable at centre-back as in central midfield, San Jose has proven to be a highly versatile and intelligent footballer. With his passing game too, one would think he would be a perfect fit for Spain. However, at centre-half, Del Bosque strangely prefers Barcelona bench-warmer Marc Bartra and, with Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos still the preferred pairing, chances have not been forthcoming. This was evident in Del Bosque’s decision to exclude him from Spain’s most recent friendlies against Romania and Italy.
If chances at centre-half have been slim then surely Del Bosque could see him as an alternative to Sergio Busquets. It is as a central defensive midfielder, after all, that San Jose has increasingly been deployed as. And, finally, he is showing why he could be the natural successor to Alonso.
San Jose commands and directs Athletic from midfield, much in the same way Busquets does for Barca. And, in addition, with his versatility to play at centre-half, surely he has enough to offer La Roja as they, incredibly, target a third successive European Championship trophy. But, as always, it will be down to Del Bosque and based on the evidence, at best San Jose will travel as a squad player. With a bit of luck, however, he could just play a key role in France.