Martin Zubimendi 2020/21 – scout report
Martin Zubimendi is one of the quickest risers in La Liga. He got into Real Sociedad’s first team after the COVID break, substituting injured Asier Illarramendi, and has become a key player in a very short time. In this tactical analysis, we will see how he plays and why he’s so important for Real Sociedad’s tactics.
An academy product, Zubimendi has played with Real Sociedad at all youth levels, being coached in the B team by Xabi Alonso and also playing for Spain at U17, U19 and U21 levels. With his team currently sitting on top of La Liga and Spain’s midfield getting older, it won’t be long until he makes his senior debut with the national team.
Zubimendi is a right-footed defensive midfielder who usually plays as the central defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation. As we will see in this tactical analysis, that’s the position that suits him better and the one in which he can contribute more to his team tactics.
He stands at 181cm but is well-built, strong and with fantastic stamina. His pace and mobility are just average but they are good enough for the position and don’t limit his game. He’s coordinated enough to escape pressure and uses both feet to control and pass the ball.
In Real Sociedad’s tactics, Zubimendi covers all the central areas from his own box to the opponent’s final third, advancing as his team advances but usually positioned behind the ball. He rarely makes runs from the second line or touches the ball in the final third, preferring to stay deep, cover the defensive line and be a safe option to move the ball from side to side.
He usually plays alongside Mikel Merino and David Silva in midfield, both of them much more offensive-minded, so Zubimendi’s role is to balance their movements and provide balance to his team both on and off the ball.
In the heatmap below, we can see how Zubimendi covers lots of ground but doesn’t appear in the final third. This doesn’t mean he’s technically limited or a purely defensive player, but his offensive contributions lay more on distributing and moving the ball quickly than on assisting or scoring by himself.
Role in the buildup
When Real Sociedad build from the back, Zubimendi usually stays in central positions and behind the first pressing line. Differently to other defensive midfielders, he doesn’t usually step between the centre-backs to form a back-three, preferring to attract the attention of the rivals and generate spaces. If he’s left unmarked, he’s usually a safe option to build through the middle and has the quality to turn and move the ball forward.
Let’s see some examples of how he moves during the buildup phase. In this first picture, we can see Zubimendi staying behind the two rival strikers during the buildup. When both strikers try to press the centre-back, he passes the ball to Zubimendi, who’s free. He turns with a nice first touch and finds the run of the left-back with a good pass.
In this second example, one of the strikers in the rival front-two marks Zubimendi. Knowing it, Zubimendi approaches the ball and leaves the left centre-back free to start the attack from that side. The aim of Zubimendi’s movements isn’t always to get the ball but to drag rivals with him and open up spaces for his teammates to play from the back comfortably.
Once he’s behind the ball, Zubimendi actively tries to get the ball and is always an option to restart the attacks. Zubimendi’s main role in Real Sociedad’s attacks is to stay behind and provide safe passing lanes so his teammates don’t lose the ball. Zubimendi works very hard moving from side to side to be close to the ball and when the attacks reach a dead-end he’s there to take the ball and move it quickly to the other side.
He supports the ball possessor all over the pitch, not only when the ball is high up the pitch. In the picture below, we can see Zubimendi’s midfield partner Mikel Merino under heavy pressure from Getafe. Seeing that, Zubimendi moves close to his defensive line to distance himself from the Getafe midfield and when he receives the ball he quickly switches the attack to the right side. This role acts as a safety net for his more talented teammates, knowing that they will always have a passing option when under pressure.
He also supports his teammates closer to the wings, showing a very high work rate and running constantly from side to side. In the example below, Real Sociedad’s right-back receives under pressure and Zubimendi sprints to quickly offer a passing lane. In this play, he receives the ball and makes a long pass forward, but he also attracts the players who were pressing the right-back, so he has the option to play back and start again the buildup.
But Zubimendi can also play through the middle by himself once he receives the ball. He reads the game very well and is aware of his surroundings, meaning he can easily turn and continue advancing when the option exists. He has the quality to feint passes and uses his body to send the rivals the wrong way, creating his own space to advance and progress the ball.
You can’t say Zubimendi is a skilful dribbler or someone who will easily fly past players, but he has the intelligence to leave a player behind when needed. He has only attempted 17 dribbles in the last 365 days in La Liga (0.4 per 90), but he has completed 82.4% of them, meaning he has chosen wisely when to risk the ball.
In the play shown below, we see Zubimendi again approaching his full-back to offer support. Knowing he’s marked, he feints a pass to the running full-back, sending the rival the other way as he lets the ball run and turns to start the play from an unmarked position and facing the opposite half. This shows not only his reading of the game but also his confidence and personality to take responsibility when needed.
Below there’s another example of this ability to turn in delicate situations. This time, Zubimendi receives the ball from the centre-back in the centre circle. Seeing the rival is very close, Zubimendi feints to pass the ball back to the centre-back, so the opponent moves quickly to intercept that pass. But instead of doing that, Zubimendi turns with one touch and has space to advance and establish his team in the opposition half. If he had tried to turn and run without the feint, his pace wouldn’t probably be enough and he would have risked the ball, but with that little feint, he won the space and time needed to progress.
Acting as a ‘wall’ to recycle possession
When Real Sociedad are in a positional attack, Zubimendi stays deep but close to where the action is happening. He acts as a wall, meaning that every time his team reaches a dead-end, they pass the ball back to him and he ‘rebounds’ the ball and plays it back forward to a less congested area.
Most of Zubimendi’s passes are mostly short and he tries to find his midfield partners – usually Merino and Silva – whenever he can. He also plays simple horizontal passes to the full-backs or wingers and his passing accuracy is among the highest in La Liga (92.97% so far this season).
But this doesn’t mean Zubimendi doesn’t have a good passing technique or that he can’t play in tight spaces or under pressure. Instead, he uses both feet very efficiently to play very accurate and tense passes between various rivals and thinks very quickly under pressure, finding good passes and not needing to get involved in offensive duels (just 2.36 per 90, ranking 124th between La Liga midfielders).
Next in this tactical analysis, we will provide some examples of Zubimendi’s passing ability in more difficult situations. In this first example, one Granada player is pressing him but instead of protecting the ball and trying a simple pass, Zubimendi uses his left foot to play a very accurate pass between two rivals and find Silva at the edge of the box. Even if his role is to maintain possession, he trusts his passing and won’t doubt to play the ball forward when he sees a good option.
Below again, Zubimendi doesn’t have any easy progressive passing options. This time he’s not pressed, but instead of playing a simple pass backwards he believes in his ability and plays a perfect pass between two rivals to the left-wing. This pass again requires confidence and lots of accuracy as losing a ball there would mean a dangerous counterattack.
Finally, the last example of Zubimendi’s ability to play forward but still be among the most accurate passers in La Liga. This time, Zubimend has the ball in a central and deep position and he spots Oyarzabal’s run from the right-wing into a pocket of space in the half-space and between the lines. Even if two Celta players are in a position to intercept the pass, a third one has spotted the run and forces him to be very accurate and he has to use his left foot, Zubimendi still tries and succeeds, creating a chance for his team. Not many players can combine a very safe approach in their passing with the ability to break lines, play under pressure and use both feet as he does.
Lastly in this part of the scout report, we will look at a play Real Sociedad usually uses to advance and establish themselves in the opposition half with Zubimendi having the main role in it.
Zubimendi is not afraid of passing the ball into a pocket of space and to a marked teammate, but when he does that he quickly adjusts his position to receive the ball back, so he’s not forcing his teammates to escape pressure with a quality individual play. By playing this one-two vertical passes, Real Sociedad forces the rival to move back in an attempt to press the receptor of the first pass and once that happens, the ball comes back to Zubimendi, who has space to advance and move the ball to a different area, moving all the team forward.
This will be much clearer with an example. In the picture below, Zubimendi has already played the first pass of the sequence, finding Januzaj between the lines. But instead of trying to turn and create from there, Januzaj returns the ball to Zubimendi with a first touch pass. Even if the situation seems to be the same as before the first pass, Getafe’s midfield is forced to track back to press Januzaj and defend a possible attacking play, so when Zubimendi receives the ball back he has much more space to advance and push his team forward.
Zubimendi is a midfielder with a very high tactical IQ. In all phases of the game, he’s thinking what could happen next and is great at balancing his team and being ready to recover the ball quickly in any situation.
In Real Sociedad’s tactics, Zubimendi forms a triangle with both centre-backs that is rarely broken, being the base on which the rest of the team rests. With lots of talented players in front of him – Merino, Silva, Januzaj, Oyarzabal, Willian José, Isak or Portu – and very attacking full-backs, Zubimendi has a key role at avoiding counterattacks and balancing the movements of his teammates with his deep and intelligent positioning.
If we have a look at the average positions of one of his last games against Celta, we can see how Zubimendi – number 36 – and the two centre-backs are the deepest field players, freeing the rest of the team to go forward and develop the attacking tactics Imano Alguacil uses.
Zubimendi also reads the game very well when it comes to occupying the positions left by his teammates. When one of the defenders leave his position to press, he quickly steps back and covers the hole left, being always aware of the defensive needs of his team. But he also does this in the attacking phase. When a defender rushes forward to join the attack, he stays back and covers that position, making sure his team is ready for an eventual transition.
In the image below, Real Sociedad’s right-back leaves his position to press high. Instead of joining him and press high, Zubimendi takes a more conservative approach and occupies his position, making sure his team always maintains and balances shape.
Another example, this time in the buildup phase. The left centre-back drives the ball forward and leaves his position. Again, instead of taking a more advanced position, Zubimendi steps back and occupies the space left by his teammate, making sure the team keeps its shape in case the defender loses the ball.
Once Real Sociedad have reached the opposition half and are in a positional attack, Zubimendi is always positioned near the ball but in a deep position. This doesn’t only help to restart the attacks as we have previously seen in this analysis but also helps him press quickly or intercept any clearances. Again, Zubimendi acts as a ‘wall’ and it’s very difficult to play past him in a quick transition.
If we have a look at Zubimendi’s recoveries map, we can see he doesn’t press in the final third. As said before, lots of his positioning recoveries happen in the highlighted area, being at the end of clearances or intercepting counterattacks attempts. He’s also very active in his own half and inside his own box.
Finally, Zubimendi is also a very good defender. When the rival tries to play directly he gets near the centre-backs and is great both in the air, winning 71.43% of his aerial duels in the last year, and on the ground, winning 65.91% of his defensive duels. His positioning and defensive qualities make Zubimendi a very reliable option to act as the only defensive midfielder in Real Sociedad’s 4-3-3.
After only 20 appearances for Real Sociedad, Zubimendi has become a key player for the Basque team. The 1999-born midfielder has adapted automatically to La Liga after being coached by former Real Sociedad star Xabi Alonso in the B team, and many see him as the successor of the ex Liverpool playmaker.
With a contract running until 2025 and a release clause of 60 million euros, Zubimendi is a long-term project for Real Sociedad. But if his form continues and his development is as quick as it has been so far, soon his release clause could be too low, with UEFA Champions League contenders always eager to sign an intelligent and complete defensive midfielder like him.