Rising star Oihan Sancet has overcome adversity to become Athletic Club’s most versatile player

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Oihan Sancet is still only 22 years of age, but already he has made 89 appearances for the Athletic Club’s first team, including all 11 of the Basque club’s LaLiga Santander matches this campaign. Born in Pamplona, Sancet moved to Bilbao in 2015 to join Athletic Club’s prestigious academy at Lezama and has been one of the most promising players on the club’s books ever since.

In 2018, shortly after his 18th birthday, he was called up for the first team’s pre-season training camp and stood out so much that he earned a place in the plans of Eduardo Berizzo, the coach at the time. However, some very bad luck followed as the midfielder suffered an ACL injury to his left knee at the beginning of September 2018, keeping him out for most of the 2018/19 season.

An injury like that can often derail a career, but not in the case of Sancet. He put in the hard work to recover in the best way possible and was able to make his long-awaited first-team debut in the first LaLiga Santander match of 2019/20, as Los Leones defeated FC Barcelona 1-0 at a packed San Mamés.

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After playing 764 minutes across 19 appearances in that 2019/20 campaign, Sancet earned more playing time with each season as he played 1,126 minutes over 26 games in 2020/21 and then 1,682 minutes in 33 games in 2021/22. However, all these minutes came in a variety of different positions as Sancet demonstrated to each of his coaches that he could perform to a high level in different roles.

Even though he had mostly played as a defensive midfielder when coming through the academy, Sancet started out with the first team as an attacking midfielder and then spent most of 2021/22 as a forward, either supporting a No.9 or playing the centre-forward role himself.

Playing up front, Sancet produced the best performance of his career so far in January of 2022 when he scored a hat-trick in his hometown of Pamplona in a 3-1 Athletic Club victory over CA Osasuna. Aged 21 years and 253 days at the time, which made him the youngest Athletic Club player to bag a hat-trick since Julen Guerrero did so at age 20 in 1994.

This season, though, Sancet has been tasked with playing a much deeper role by Ernesto Valverde, who returned to the San Mamés dugout in the summer. Asked to play as part of the double pivot in the team’s 4-2-3-1 formation, the youngster is back in the role that he most commonly occupied during his youth career, but the player who grew up idolising Ronaldinho has a license to use his creative instincts to surge forward to join the attack. This has seen Sancet score three goals this term, meaning he is on pace for his best-ever scoring season despite playing deeper than ever before.

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Speaking about his new role with the Basque newspaper Deia, Sancet explained: “The coach thinks I can do well in this position because I run a lot, I can get into the box and I can participate with passes and shots. I’ve been getting used to this position. I already knew what it was like, but hadn’t played in the centre of the pitch for a long time, as I was fielded further up. I’m getting more and more comfortable with it.”

He is also increasingly comfortable physically. Even though the player from Pamplona was able to return from his ACL injury in 2019, the after-effects of such a serious issue lingered with him over the course of the following seasons. As he was taking his first steps in senior football, he had to take them with some caution.

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Now, though, Sancet feels better than ever and he is powering Athletic Club’s pursuit of European qualification. It surely won’t be long before he catches the eye of Spain’s national team coach Luis Enrique either.