The reportedly in-demand Athletic and France Under-21 defender chats with FFT’s Andrew Murray…
You always seem to play with one touch. Is that your trademark?
I think that comes from our coach Ernesto Valverde. He wants us to play calmly, because that’s very important in football, but also to start attacks quickly from the back. Playing with one touch quickens the play and makes us much more difficult to defend against. This is what modern football is all about. We want to play out from the back, and involve our creative midfielders in developing attacking moves. Maybe we play with fewer touches [at Athletic], but that’s who we are.
The fans are unique, too…
Absolutely. It’s different at Athletic to almost any other club. There’s a profound feeling that the club is distinct. Our fans defend this club until the death. San Mames is always full and that gives us so much motivation to succeed for them.
Why do you think the Basque Country have developed so many excellent defenders?
I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, I think that’s something you [the press] have created. Here, our forwards are just as good as the defenders. We’re a team of talented players, it’s not limited to a position. People talk about the climate being different, because it’s wetter up here, but that doesn’t influence things at all. No chance.
There’ve been quite a few. Ronaldo and Messi are very difficult to play against, so one of those two. I don’t think I can pick one, please don’t make me!
What’s the best piece of advice someone’s given you?
The best advice? [Pauses] Pffft, there have been thousands. But the best? Wow. I guess remaining humble and working hard.
How would you sum up the Champions League this season?
We played well and were unlucky not to go through. It was just one or two games where we lost a bit of rhythm early on. By the end we were playing very. We know it’s going to be very difficult, because of a slow start to the season, but we’re going to fight very hard to get back in the Champions League. That’s where we want to be.
Do you see yourselves as Europa League contenders?
Yes, without doubt. We want to go very far in that competition. We have good memories of reaching the final in 2012, knocking out Manchester United on the way. We all want to go one step better.
Have you noticed a difference between Champions League and Liga opposition?
I don’t know if there’s a huge difference in quality, I think what we struggled with was the extra competition and playing more games. You’re not always able to play at 100 per cent because you might not be fully recovered from the previous game. That’s what I’ve noticed the most. The concentration required from a defender, too. You must centre yourself on the game and the opposition forward at all times.
Who’s the best forward you’ve faced?
Oof, that’s a tough question! [Laughs] There’ve been quite a few. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are very difficult to play against, so one of those two. [FFT: Come one, pick one…] I don’t think I can, please don’t make me…!
We’ll let you off. What scares you?
Nothing. I don’t think you can be fearful of anything in football.
Do you have any superstition that you perform before every game?
Not many, actually, but I do always try to enter the pitch with my right foot first. [FFT: But you’re left-footed, right?] I know! I don’t know why I do it. It’s just something I’ve always done, I suppose.
What are your first footballing memories?
I don’t know, really. When I was a kid, I was always a centre-forward growing up in the French Basque Country and won my team’s golden boot pretty much every season. They’re great memories from my childhood. I’ll also always remember my mum, dad and grandparents taking me to training and coming to watch my matches. I felt so proud that they were watching me.
Little by little, I moved back the pitch so that by the time I came to Athletic, I was a centre-back. I was about 13 when my coach said he wanted to try me at the back because I was tall and strong. I did well and have played there ever since.
You came to Athletic when you were 15. How difficult was it to change country at such a young age?
Yes, it was certainly a difficult time at the beginning, but I was lucky enough to arrive with four other French guys, one of whom I knew from the France Under-15 side, so it could have been worse. We all went to the same school and three of us in the same Athletic team. I don’t identify myself as being the second Frenchman to play for the Athletic first team. I’m just another member of this wonderful club.
Who was your hero, growing up?
I had a lot, but they were all forwards! I loved watching Pauleta, the Portuguese forward, and Sylvain Wiltord when they were at Bordeaux, who I followed as a kid. Their records in France were incredible. When I had time to go to games, we’d go and watch them. They’re great memories.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
In five years? Wow, I’ve got no idea! I hope a full international for France, or fighting to get in the squad regularly. That would be a big plus.
Do you have any desire to play in England one day?
Not really, not at the moment, anyway. I’m feeling very good at Athletic and want to keep developing as best I can here, because I can feel myself improving every day.
And finally, describe yourself in three words…
Oof, I don’t like doing this! I guess I’d say, Calm, confident, serious.