In this digital age where instant gratification reigns supreme, football fans do not know how to be patient. We want historic teams to be assembled in a year or two, we lose interest in young players whose growth does not follow a linear trajectory, or we give up on great players who had one or two bad years.
While club management has gotten smarter in the last few decades (for example, in player recruitment), the pressure to perform is perhaps higher than ever. This means that club management must face an environment with little patience for healthy processes that can lead to medium and long-term success. Thus clubs become organisations that must prioritise the short term.
This pressure is reflected in managers and players. In the Premier League, the time of the average managerial tenure has been cut in half over the past decade. Similar things are happening in Spain and the other big five leagues.
I vividly remember the years between 2016 and 2018, Karim Benzema’s darkest hours at Real Madrid. In the 2017-18 season, he only scored five goals in La Liga, a far cry from the striker who would later become the 2022 Ballon d’Or.
Many fans and journalists then saw the situation as unsustainable, yet his coach, Zinedine Zidane, had zero hesitation in defending Benzema. “If you like football, you must like Benzema”, he declared.
I recalled these statements from Zidane when I heard Imanol Alguacil defending Mikel Oyarzabal last month: “If anyone has doubts about Mikel, they understand nothing, nothing, nothing, about football. Mikel has proved himself, he is one of the best in Real Sociedad’s history. He’s different, he’s special”.
In March 2022, Oyarzabal ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee during a training session. This injury kept him away from the pitch for nine months. While his return was a heartwarming moment for Real Sociedad and all of Spanish football, his performances during the second half of last season were far from his usual level.
His characteristic burst of speed seemed gone. He was never a top-class dribbler, but his ability to beat a man or carry the ball into dangerous areas took a huge hit. Most worryingly, his ability to run into scoring positions was also affected. This was reflected in his underlying shot and expected goal numbers, as well as his goal and assist output.
The beginning of the 2023-24 season did not invite further optimism. Oyarzabal was barely averaging one shot per game and continued to look like a ghost of himself. However, coach Alguacil persisted in playing him, even if other players, such as Ander Barrenetxea, potentially deserved to start over him.
With Umar Sadiq also struggling in his post-injury recovery, Alguacil needed an alternative for the central striker role in the 4-3-3 formation and thus started playing Oyarzabal there more frequently. This is a role Oyarzabal had already played in the Spanish national team, both at the junior and senior levels. Besides, getting him closer to the goal and shortening the amount of ground his legs had to cover seemed like a reasonable way to adapt to his new body.
The struggles continued after this change in position until something clicked on the day of the Getafe game. Injury recovery must happen both physically and mentally, and perhaps Oyarzabal’s mind still needed those two goals as a reminder of what he’s capable of. Sometimes, goals are the best physiotherapist a player can have.
The upward trend continued with a brief but impactful cameo in the Basque Derby. While the game had been mostly decided by then, the third goal he scored was… nostalgic. Long, elegant, but fast strides to run in behind his defenders, a calm dribble past the keeper to score in front of an empty goal. This goal could only be scored by Mikel Oyarzabal at his pre-injury level.
These great cameos set the stage for the following two games against RB Salzburg and Atletico, each featuring 90 minutes of Mikel Oyarzabal at his pre-injury best. He scored twice against two complicated opponents, and these goals were no fluke. The intensity and length of his runs and his awareness of which spaces to attack allowed Oyarzabal to shoot a total of eight times throughout these games.
While he did not score this past weekend against Mallorca, Oyarzabal had enough chances to do so. He consistently slipped past defenders to get into the right shooting positions, and soon enough, he’d score another goal, and another, and so on.
Imanol Alguacil had an unshakeable faith in Mikel Oyarzabal’s talent for nine months, and the bet has finally paid off. The sample size is still tiny, but it’s impossible not to get excited about what we have witnessed over the last month.
Alguacil chose to have patience in an age where there’s none. It’s an age where we expect inhuman consistency from players with overcrowded schedules, yet even world-class talents can have off years for various reasons. This sport waits for no one, yet sometimes, waiting is worth it.