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Real Sociedad: The peculiar case of their attack

Last year, at the Anoeta Stadium in San Sebastián, Real Sociedad lay in ninth place in the La Liga standings. Scoring 45 goals and conceding 46 goals, they topped out on 53 points. However, with the turn of the year, Real Sociedad, before the coronavirus pandemic, found themselves in fourth place. All of a sudden, La Real were battling against the likes of Atletico Madrid, Valencia, and Sevilla for a fighting chance to get a Champions League Spot.

Comparing the two Real Sociedad squads, we see a clear distinction in the attack. While La Real scored 45 goals in the entirety of the 2018/19 season, they ended up scoring the tally of goals having only played 27 games. Ranking La Liga in terms of goals scored, Txuriurdin ranks third – right behind the galactic Barcelona and Real Madrid. Sociedad’s closest competitor, Valencia, scored 44 goals and after that, there is a six-goal difference between the next competitor.

Clearly, something ticked at La Real in the attacking department – leading them to Champions League stardom. In this data analysis, we analyze the data and statistics behind Real Sociedad’s rise to the top. Using data analysis, we seek to find out what and where this ascent to the top came from by looking at the players who have featured in 20 games or more for Imanol Aguacil’s team this season.

Real Sociedad’s Perplexing Case

As is so prevalent in data analysis, surface numbers are often the tip of the iceberg. While La Real might have scored 45 goals, it merits looking at their underlying statistics.

Real Sociedad’s xG, the expected number of goals they should have scored, stands at 35.1 goals. This is in stark contrast to their actual number of goals scored, 45, and shows a positive over-performance of 9.9 goals. Looking at the whole league’s xG-goals differential, we find that Real Sociedad showcase the second biggest positive performance – the first place being taken by Barcelona. 

La Real’s xGA, the expected number of goals they should have conceded, stands at 32.8 which is close to their 33 goals conceded. Clearly, La Real’s attacking play made the biggest difference in their ranking. This is reflected in their xP, the expected number of points they should have gained, which stands at 38.1. Their actual ranking at 46 points displays the fifth-biggest overperformance in La Liga in xP. As such, their attack was key to their position prior to the pandemic. 

We find more perplexing performances by Real Sociedad when looks at xG and goals scored per match.

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Here the games recorded from latest to most recent. The grey bars indicate the xG of Real Sociedad while the red line represents the actual goals scored by Real Sociedad. In most games, La Real scored more than they were expected to.

This clearly merits the question: how were La Real scoring more than they were expected in most games? To answer this question, we need to see player contributions to La Real’s attack.

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Here we see player contributions, in goals and assists, to the team on a treemap. Size indicates how many goals they scored while the colour shading indicates the number of assists. We see clear names such as Mikel Oyarzabal, Portu, Alexander Isak, Martin Ødegaard, and Willian José. To figure out how La Real performed so excellently, we have to analyze these players and their statistics in the context of the whole league.

Real Sociedad’s Strikers

The first thing that needs to be analyzed are Real Sociedad’s strikers. After all, they are the ones on the end of the through balls and creative passes and are the beacon of coach Imanol Alguacil’s squad. 

Playing in a flexible 4-1-4-1 / 4-2-3-1, Alguacil’s striker preference shifts between young Isak and the veteran José. Isak averaged 1160 minutes while José recorded 1536 minutes. There seems to be a slight preference for José however Isak’s talent is too promising for him to sit on the bench.

The first analysis needs to be done about the strikers’ goal metrics. While this is a simple exploratory analysis, it is powerful in what it reveals about strikers. A word of note, however, is that overperformance and underperformance in goal metrics can be credited to various factors, coaching, finishing, or a good patch, and as such we have to take the statistics in context.

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Here we see xG per 90 on the x-axis while goals per 90 on the y-axis. Analyzing the plot with clusters reveals three types of strikers. The first ones, shown in yellow, are those who score less while the second ones, shown in blue, are those are the more reliable and average strikers. The third ones, shown in red, are normally the best strikers in the league. This is where you’ll find your superstars and world-class talent lying.

We see that José and Isak lie in the second and third zone, respectively, with both considerably overperforming their xG. José recorded an approximate 0.35 xG per 90 and actually recorded near 0.52 xG per 90. Isak records an xG per 90 of 0.40 while actually scoring 0.55 xG per 90. La Real are clearly getting two excellent strikers who are not only in good scoring positions but also scoring much more than expected. 

This is the first indicator as to how La Real were able to score almost 10 more goals than expected. With two strikers, both, scoring one goal per two games, Sociedad clearly had clinical strikers. Isak’s performance here is even more commendable seeing he is only 20 years old.

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Here we have shots per 90 on the y-axis while touches in box per 90 is on the x-axis. In addition, the colouring indicates the xG per 90 of the striker. José is seen in the middle of the plot, recording average shots per 90 with average touches in the box per 90. José is the reliable striker that will perform slightly above average. While recording similar shots per 90, we see that Isak gets himself into the box more often. In fact, only Benzema records higher touches in the box per 90. Clearly, the young Swede is getting into the box much more often and this is rewarded with his high xG per 90 of 0.4.

Analyzing movement in strikers reveals why Sociedad’s strikers, in particular Isak, were so critical in their overperformance. 

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

In this graph, we see touches in box per 90 on the y-axis while progressive runs per 90 is on the x-axis. While José is rather immobile – as seen by his 0.29 progressive runs per 90 – Isak is the complete opposite. We see that Isak making 2.41 progressive runs per 90 and ranks fourth in all the strikers. Isak’s dynamic and constant movement, as illuminated by these graphs, showcase an attack line that is exuberant and bountiful. Pairing this up with José’s more experienced and knowledgeable play – extracting 0.52 goals per 90 with 3.5 touches in box per 90 – makes Sociedad’s attack wise as well.

Analyzing Isak’s event data reveals just how active the young Swede is.

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

We see here that his preferred method of progressing the ball is through his runs – something which is also reflected in how Isak primarily delivers the ball to the penalty area through carries. This progressive running – along with his ability to get many touches in the box – transforms him into a formidable weapon.

Real Sociedad’s Non-Conventional Wide Midfielders

A key tenet to Sociedad’s 4-1-4-1 is their use of wide midfielders – primarily Portu and Oyarzabal. Looking at the treemap, we find that both Portu and Oyzarzabal contribute greatly to the team through goals and assists. 

However, Portu and Oyarzabal are not your traditional creative wing-midfielders

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Here we see that Portu and Oyarbazal are not prolific forward passes, ranking near the bottom, and do not make a lot of passes to the final third passes per 90.

Analyzing these creative metrics, we find that Portu and Oyarbazal often rank below average or average in metrics such as dribbles, offensive duels, progressive runs, and through balls. So what do the pair of the wide midfielders specialize in?

As it turns out, Portu and Oyarbazal are players who specialize in crossing and, more importantly, specialize in goal threat. As we’ll analyze later, there are other players for the creative aspect for Sociedad. While both of them do not have the most talented feet, the two wide-men do have an excellent eye for goal. 

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Here we see an analysis of crossing play for wide men. We see that both Oyarzabal and Portu rank highly in the crosses per 90 on their respective side – being in the top ten. Placing the crosses to the goalie box per 90 as the size of a point and we see that the Txuriurdin players are not the most direct crosses.

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Analyzing deep completed crosses – A cross that is targeted to the zone within 20 meters of the opponent’s goal – with crosses, we see how the Txuriurdin wide-men use their crosses. While Oyarbazal does not rank highly, we see Portu rank highly. In addition, both wide-men record high accuracy rates.

In context, this translates to wide midfielders who are crossing frequently and directly crossing the ball within 20 meters from goal. These types of crosses pose much more danger than crosses to the goalie box as this definition is now counting cut-backs, low and ground crosses, and more rehearsed crossing play. Analyzing these crosses in-depth, we get to see just how Portu and Oyarbazal helped Sociedad performed excellently in the attacking department.

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

We see that Oyarbazal likes to make ground crosses that are angled from the half-space towards the penalty spot. These types of crosses are crosses where low crosses come in and are met by someone. On the other hand, we see that Portu’s ground crosses originate near the touchline and are hitting back at the penalty spot. These types of crosses constitute cross-backs. In addition to this, Portu’s preferred cross are high crosses that often originate deeper from the half-space. These types of crosses, coming from deep and coming to the penalty spot, often cause confusion in the backline and is evidenced by the fact that 50% of Portu’s assists – 3 – come from crossing like this.

Clearly, the two wide-men are imaginative in their crossing abilities. Their goal threats extend beyond their crossing and into actual goals. Between both of the Erreala players, they have 15 goals. 

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Here we see that the two wide-men record high touches in box per 90, especially Portu, with high goal conversion percentages for wide men. We see that Portu ranks in the top three while Oyarbazal ranks in the top 15. Clearly, goal-wise, both wide-men have a keen eye on goal with their high touches and high goal conversion percentages.

As they often say, “You don’t win unless you score a goal” and that is certainly applicable to the two wide-men who ensure that their team is getting goals from all areas of the pitch. 

However, in our analysis, we have yet to encounter the creative spark. The strikers are great finishers and have great movement while the wide-men combine creative crossing and goal-threats to help Sociedad’s attacks. However, the catalyst of these attacks has to start somewhere. If the wide-men don’t contribute to attacking play, then who does?

Sociedad’s Central Midfield Reveals ‘Happy Feet’ 

The central midfield of Sociedad s often composed of one defensive midfielder, one normal central-midfielder, and one attacking midfielder. Normally, Alguacil picks Igor Zubeldia as the defensive midfielder, Mikel Merino as the normal central-midfielder, and Martin Ødegaard as the attacking midfielder.

Analyzing the central midfielder, in particular ‘Happy Feet’ Ødegaard, through the lens of creativity reveals the backbone of Sociedad’s attacks and the final piece of the puzzle of how Sociedad were able to perform so excellently in their attack. 

The first step to analyzing the central midfield is looking at expected assists and assists. This gives a clue of the extent of creativity laden in the midfield and we may proceed from there.

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Here we see Zubeldia ranking near the bottom while Merino does somewhat better. However, Ødegaard steals the show here, among central midfielders, by recording an xA of 4.75. In terms of expected assists, the young Norweigian ranks third. From this analysis, we conclude that Merino is more of a box-to-box midfielder, adding stability and steadfastness to the Sociedad midfield.

The creative spark of Sociedad is undeniably Ødegaard and as we’ll see, there is a lot of responsibility laying which he fulfils to the maximum.

Good metrics to analyze creative, attacking interplay are second and third assists. Quite simply, the second assist is the pass before an assist while the third assist is the pass before the second assist occurs. In both cases, both metrics help us see how interconnected certain players are in the attacking play. Great attacking players often exchange with their teammates leading to high second and third assists.

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Here we see second and third assists for central midfielders in La Liga. Zubeldia and Merino,

who is stacked behind Zubeldia, record 0.04 third assists per 90 which makes sense as both of them are often involved in the initial stages of an attacking build-play. Zubeldia being a defensive midfielder and Merino a box-to-box midfielder means that they often start the sequence leading to assist. This is why we see more defensive midfielders like Casemiro and Frenkie de Jong recording high third assists per 90.

On the other hand, we see Ødegaard recording 0.13 second assists per 90 which also makes sense as Ødegaard is the attacking midfielder. He is involved in the last sequences of an attacking play and will have more second assists as he is giving the final pass before an assist either through a smart pass or dribbling. 

While Ødegaard still is the creative spark, we see that Sociedad have two good midfielders who often engage the buildup to many attacking plays. This ensures that attacking play is coming from systematic methods which makes attacks more sustainable.

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Taking a further look into assist and pre-assists is the metric deep completed passes per 90. Defined as a non-cross pass that is targeted to the zone within 20 meters of the opponent’s goal, deep completed passes target show the ability to put a pass that puts the receiving end near the goal.

Analyzing this metric among central midfielders, we see Ødegaard rank the first in deep completed passes. Ødegaard is making those penetrative passes that put his team in a position to be the most dangerous.

Complementing this is Ødegaard’s ability to get the ball in the box is further complemented by his ability to be scarily accurate in where he puts the ball.

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Here we see passes to penalty area per 90 versus accuracy with the size of the dot indicating deep completed passes per 90. Again, we see Ødegaard again making himself distinct with his high frequency and high accuracy. Clearly, Ødegaard is not only placing the ball in the box frequently, but he is also doing it right to the penalty spot – the most dangerous position for a ball to be – with high accuracy.

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Here we have yet another metric quantifying creativity and insight. Here we see smart passes – a creative and penetrative pass that attempts to break the opposition’s defensive lines to gain a significant advantage in attack – and its accuracy. In this metric as well, we see Ødegaard light-years ahead of other experienced midfielders like Toni Kroos and Dani Parejo. Clearly Ødegaard is putting the types of passes that split the defence and put his team-mates in great positions to score with great accuracy and frequency.

We also see Merino putting up great metrics in this category – adding another weapon in Sociedad’s creative midfield.

Combine Ødegaard’s creative and incisive passing with Isak and José’s great positioning inside the box and their abilities on the ball and you have a high reason as to why Sociedad did so well in their attack. Combine this accurate and creative passing with two wide-men who love to get themselves in the box and the secrets to Sociedad’s attack begins to unravel.

Ødegaard’s talents do not stop there as we further analyze him in the context of attacking midfielders. 

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Here we analyze the same metric, deep completed passes, through the lens of attacking midfielders in La Liga. Yet again we see Ødegaard’s talent shining through, compared to some veterans like Nabil Fekir. With high accuracy and high frequency, Ødegaard’s ability to incisive pass means that Sociedad get the ability to get in great positions.

Analyzing expected assists per 90 between attacking midfielders only strengthens Ødegaard’s ability.

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Here we see a beeswarm graph of expected assists per 90 between attacking midfielders. Yet again, we see a considerable gap between Ødegaard and the rest. Not only is he putting his team in great positions but he is also doing it in a way that increases the chance for a goal to go in. Analyzing Ødegaard’s event map gives us more clarity as to where this incisive passing comes from and ends up at.

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Here we see penalty area deliveries and two other metrics related to his event data. Analyzing his event data, we see that Ødegaard’s pass, shown in white, marks out to the left and right hand of the goal – more on the right-hand side. This is due to, as previously described, Portu and Oyarbazal’s tendency to be inside the box more and eye the goal more.

La Liga 2019/20: Analyzing Real Sociedad's attacking tactics - data analysis statistics

Portu’s heatmap indicates that he likes to stray inside the box very frequently – particularly on the right – compared to Oyarbazal which indicates why Ødegaard makes more of his passes to the right than compared to the left.

In addition to this linkup with his wide-men, we see that Ødegaard ranks second in through balls per 90 in the whole league while he ranks in the top 10 in shots assists per 90. These metrics indicate that Ødegaard likes to make through passes in the front third which makes the passes more deadly as the end product is the player near the goal. In addition, his shot assists per 90 showcase that he is very intelligent in setting up his teammates to shoot. While some of this statistic might just be him giving a straight pass and his teammate shooting, his rank in this metric indicates that Ødegaard assists shots in much more creative ways.


After such conclusive data analysis, it is good to take a breather. From this analysis, we’ve seen just how Sociedad excelled in their attack. With their creative spark Ødegaard supplying incisive passes that increase Sociedad’s goal threat, La Real have a creative jewel that ensures that their attack does not starve of diversity.

With two wide-men, Portu and Oyarbazal, who are goal-hungry and make plentiful crosses, Sociedad gain another weapon in their arsenal. Linking all of it together are the strikers, Isak and José,  who not only receive Ødegaard’s lovely passes but also Portu and Oyarbazal’s incisive crosses. This, in combination with their high activity in and outside the box along with their finishing ability, means that the strikers are able to score from low xG positions. 

There are some limitations here, namely being that without a full course, it is difficult to say whether this combination of players and skillset would have sustained their high attacking performances or not. However, one thing can be said definitively: The Txuriurdin have a white and blue spear coloured trident taking place and its potential is only going to get higher.