How Real Sociedad is becoming one of the most exciting teams in LaLiga
Currently sitting fifth in the La Liga table with some pretty impressive numbers and playing some very exciting football, Real Sociedad made a promising start to the season.
Boasting the youngest average squad in La Liga on 25.1, Imanol Alguacil certainly deserves credit for getting some great results like defeating Atletico Madrid 2-0, ousting Espanyol 3-1 and breezing past Alaves 3-0. Mixing youth and experience, the developing prospects like Martin Odegaard, Mikel Oyarzabal, Mikel Merino, Alexander Isak, Ander Guevara and Igor Zubeldia have been blended nicely with the more experienced operators like Nacho Monreal, Miguel Angel Moya, Diego Llorente, Portu, Willian Jose, Joseba Zaldua, David Zurutuza and Asier Illarramendi to form a quality outfit.
Alguacil, a former youth coach at Real Sociedad, clearly knows his younger players thoroughly and hasn’t been afraid to give the more inexperienced talents a chance, as this approach is paying off handsomely. Combining this with his tactical nous and La Real have unquestionably been one of the most interesting teams to watch in Spain.
In terms of the offensive mechanics of his team, there’s been plenty to admire about their work. Deploying his team in base formations that have included 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2, these have served as the reference points but in reality, they’ve attacked in many different shapes. Often instructing a central midfielder to drop back between the central defensive pair, this has meant they regularly take on shapes like 3-1-3-3, 3-1-4-2 and a 3-4-1-2.
In doing so, this allows them to create an overload and stretch the opposition’s first line of pressure, which subsequently allows the outside centre-backs to dribble upfield into the vacant openings in the half-spaces. Once past the first line, the onrushing side backs then look to provoke a pressing action from an opposition midfielder, to open a passing lane to find a free man ahead.
If there’s no immediate option available when Sociedad are building out from the back in typical fashion, they’ll recirculate possession patiently while waiting for a weakness in the opposition block to arise. Courtesy of the multifaceted, coordinated movement of their midfielders and attackers, it doesn’t usually take long for them to find an opening to progress upfield, as they’re so good at giving the ball holder options and manipulating the second line and last line of their foes’ defensive setup.
Using a wide array of unmarking methods, Sociedad’s most advanced players, which usually consists of a combination of Odegaard, Jose, Oyarzabal, Portu, Isak and Adnan Januzaj, are extremely hard to keep quiet. Whether performing neat rotations, slick decoy runs, crafty opposite movements or strategically drawing or pinning markers to manufacture room for a colleague to exploit, they’ve coalesced brilliantly to unbalanced their adversaries. The examples below offer some neat depictions of how they’ve made room both centrally and out wide by occupying opponents.
The way the forwards have used clever double movements and sharp zig zags to gain separation from their trackers have accompanied the collective mechanics wonderfully. The fact the frontline positions themselves within proximity to one another only compounds issues for opponents. Aside from drawing the defence narrow that produces oceans of space out wide for the fullbacks, it also means they have a strong presence between the lines to partake in some intricate link play in close quarters that can be so vital in manipulating and consequently unlocking backlines.
Constantly altering reference points and placing doubt in the minds of defenders, Real Sociedad has caused plenty of confusion on who should mark who. Then, with their coherent, complementary movement, they’ve taken full advantage of any indecision to exploit the gaps between disconnected defenders to burst in behind.
When the ball is in wide areas, the fullbacks are never short of targets inside the box, for Alguacil instructs at least three and frequently four players to venture into the area to be an option. Angling and timing their runs at differing heights and positions, plus by exploiting the defenders’ blindside, markers struggle to monitor their movement. Moreover, by often establishing ideal 4v4, 4v3 or 3v2 scenarios inside the box, their danger is duly amplified. Maximising their opportunities of latching onto crosses or cutbacks, and minimising the opposition’s room for error, they’ve posed a major threat in this regard.
Having some excellent aerial targets like Jose, Isak and Oyarzabal have obviously been very beneficial in these instances. Their importance extends to other elements of play, where they’ve provided help in dealing with offensive and defensive set pieces and given a terrific outlet for Real Sociedad to use if they can’t beat the press. Using their strength, leap and judgement, they’ve won their fair share of headers to ensure their team can regain the second ball. It’s key to note their second ball structure, with this seeing them get numbers around the ball to outnumber their enemies, and therefore increase their chances of recovering the ball in promising areas.
A force to be reckoned with in transition too, where they direct their runs nicely to ask questions of unset, retreating backlines, they give the ball carrier options centrally and wide to stretch their opposition to providing width and depth to moves. Odegaard has been especially significant here, for he’s a superb ball carrier, can beat his man 1v1 and play some masterful, defence-splitting through balls to his colleagues to breathe life into passages.
Using the overload to isolate principle has offered another fruitful avenue to attack through. By initially directing their attack down one side and populating this side with numbers, which inherently forces the opposition to shift aggressively over, this then means they can exploit the underloaded far side. Once in possession, the forward surging fullback can then receive the switch in oceans of space to dribble into before unleashing a shot or assessing their options before crossing.
The impact of Odegaard deserves special mention, for the Real Madrid loanee, who’s just recently won La Liga’s player of the month award, has been crucial towards their strong start, with his creativity, execution, spatial awareness, ingenuitive passing and silky dribbling driving his team forward masterfully.
Upon delving into their numbers and the fact they’ve scored the fifth-most goals on 13, averaged the second-highest ball possession with 57%, had the third most dribbles on 31.93, completed the fourth-most deep completions on 9.14 and struck the smartest passes with 13.77 per 90 duly highlights their offensive qualities.
Meanwhile, on the defensive side, they’ve performed admirably too, on their way to registering the sixth-best record in La Liga. Having conceded nine goals from eight games, a tally which has included a couple of own goals and excellent finishes from opponents, Sociedad has been a solid stopping outfit aside from a couple of mistakes and some errors defending crosses from out wide.
A team who loves to press high and stifle their opposition, they rank second in La Liga for Passes Allowed per Defensive Action (PPDA) and third for challenge intensity. Strategic in his pressing setups, Alguacil’s done a solid job of setting pressing traps and encouraging opponents to play out wide and at times centrally by giving them the perception of a free man before his team then shift across rapidly and press hard to suffocate their opponents to limit their options and force turnovers.
The fact they regularly accompany their high press with a high line allows them to further condense the pitch to ensure compactness so there aren’t huge spaces between their lines to exploit. Although this can leave them open to be got at with balls in behind, their calculated pressing often negates this.
Using a mixture of zonal and man-marking, they’ve been a very challenging team to bypass for the most part due to their cohesive pressing and ability to cover options. By angling their pressing cleverly, they’ve done a sharp job of using their cover shadows to block passing lanes behind them, which makes life even more difficult for foes to find an outlet. Responding quickly to pressing triggers like when a sideways or backwards pass is played, a sloppy underhit pass is struck, if a poor first touch is taken, plus when an opponent receives in an open body posture or back to goal, they pounce immediately to heap the pressure on.
Also, a team who counter presses fiercely after the ball is lost, Real Sociedad swarm the ball carrier and the nearby out balls in an attempt to win the ball back rapidly so they can immediately attack again against teams who are preparing for a counter of their own. Giving opponents minimal time on the ball to make decisions, this has been a method that’s created some really promising chances for them, particularly when they lose the ball centrally and their many numbers can swiftly spring into action.
If their press is beaten, Sociedad has done a good job of settling back into an organised mid-block that’s taken on 4-1-4-1, 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 animations. Be it covering space, shifting laterally, pushing up, dropping back or getting pressure on the ball when cues arise, there’s been a lot to like about their efforts here. Closing passing routes forward and using the touchline as an extra defender, opponents haven’t found it easy to conjure clear chances against Sociedad, who have defended sternly as a collective unit.
Doing a sterling job so far under Alguacil’s tutelage and expected to get even better as they continue to adapt to his philosophy, there’s no reason to suggest Real Sociedad can’t build on their positive beginnings to finish in the European qualifying places this campaign.