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Mikel Oyarzabal: Real Sociedad

There are not too many 23-year-old footballers out there who can confidently say they are the leaders of their respective teams. And even fewer can say they have the ability, flair and the skill of Mikel Oyarzabal of Real Sociedad. This impressive young winger has been lighting up La Liga for the past couple of seasons but 2020/21 has been all about him.

At the moment of writing, he’s leading the pack in the goal-scoring charts as his La Real are slowly but surely becoming one of Spain’s most thrilling teams to watch. Of course, the campaign is long and we are still at the very beginning of it. However, if the early signs are anything to go by, Imanol Alguacil could lead the revolution on Oyarzabal’s wings.

And to think that they’ve just lost a highly influential player in Martin Ødegaard who returned to Real Madrid, and yet, seem more dominant than ever, is just testament to their incredible ethic and philosophy. 

Still, this tactical analysis will provide you with a scout report on Oyarzabal with a view towards 2021 and what he can do within Real Sociedad’s exciting tactics. We’ll list both his strengths and some weaknesses and tell you why we think he’s one of the players to watch for the remainder of the ongoing season.

Let’s get straight to it.

Player profile

Oyarzabal is something of a Swiss knife in a neverending arsenal of weapons Alguacil has at his disposal at Real Sociedad. On paper, the young Spaniard is a left-winger but in reality, he is just so much more than that. Before identifying what his role actually is within La Real’s tactics, let’s see how his player profile looks like.

Below, you can a graphical representation of his main metrics and they will tell us how Oyarzabal compares to the rest of the La Liga players in that same position. Note, however, that all stats are presented in percentile ranks with an average line shows as well, rather than per 90 or total numbers.

Mikel Oyarzabal 2020/21 - scout report - tactical analysis - tactics

Looking at the stats, we can immediately start identifying some of Oyarzabal’s best traits. In attack, he is a highly creative force and one that loves to threaten the opposition’s box both through his own shooting as well as creating chances for his teammates. We can see that from an extremely high percentile rank in both shots and touches in the box, which is then followed by incredible expected assists (xA) values too.

Intriguingly, for a player who doesn’t necessarily always occupy the wide areas nor is exquisitely good at dribbling, he gets into excellent positions to cross the ball and does so often and with accuracy.

Defensively, we can also talk about a player with extraordinary work-rate as he is the first to track back, intercept the ball and start the transition. This is then backed up by a high value in Padj (passes-adjusted) interceptions, which tell us he recovers the ball quite often indeed. Finally, Oyarzabal seems to engage in a lot of aerial duels, albeit he doesn’t win them as much. But this, again, is further proof of his incredible willingness to defend in the first place. Now, before heading into the tactical analysis itself, let’s quickly take a look at his heatmap and Real Sociedad’s average pass map to get a better gauge of his role.

Mikel Oyarzabal 2020/21 - scout report - tactical analysis - tactics

We can see that Oyarzabal is predominantly occupying the left-wing area, often hugging the touchline from where he can deploy those pinpoint crosses into the box. However, he is also one of the main progressors in the team as well, which can be seen in his player profile graph too. 

The heatmap can tell us a bit more about this as you can see the Spaniard often moves down through his half-space and towards the middle of the pitch, where he can receive the ball from the backline and then run with it, similarly to Barcelona’s Ansu Fati. Looking at his biggest connections on the pitch – which can be seen on the image to the left – we notice that this is where he’s usually positioned. 

This pocket of space between the lines is where Oyarzabal is particularly dangerous and where he can connect the thirds, deploy through passes or simply turn and run with the ball into the danger area. 

With the basics out of the way, we can finally start dissecting the tactics around his player profile at Real Sociedad.

Intelligent movement and space occupation

Despite not possessing some of the traits you’d expect in a natural winger, Oyarzabal is a very capable wide man whose main attributes make him a huge threat in the danger zones. One of the 23-year-old’s best qualities is his movement and space occupation. We’ve seen from the heatmap that the young Spaniard likes to stick to the left side but then drift centrally or drop deeper when necessary.

This freedom that Alguacil has given him ensures Oyarzabal is always at the heart of everything that’s happening for Real Sociedad since he’s not chained to a single position on the pitch. Still, his movement and dropping deeper is usually done for one thing – ball progression.

Let’s take a look at the first example which will show us one of the usual scenarios when Real Sociedad are in possession. Everything starts from the backline but once they are pressed, Oyarzabal will promptly drop to assist the build-up and beat the pressing squad.

Mikel Oyarzabal 2020/21 - scout report - tactical analysis - tactics

In the image above you can see Real Sociedad using his passing range and vision to relieve pressure and swap sides to advance the ball forward. Sometimes, it will be a long ball, as is the case here, or maybe a simple short combination with some of the nearby teammates in tight spaces.

Either way, his movement helps create a new passing channel or his presence becomes a new passing channel itself. It’s an effective way the coach is using his star even before he reaches the danger zones. How he reaches them, however, is also a big point in the matter. Oyarzabal is not among the best dribblers in La Liga but he is agile, enabling him to make quick turns and wrong-foot his markers.

Below, you can see him dropping deeper once again, only this time, rather than using his vision to beat the press, he suddenly turns his marker inside out and proceeds to run with the ball.

Mikel Oyarzabal 2020/21 - scout report - tactical analysis - tactics

Despite not being that quick, the initial turn of pace and the fact he used the opposition’s momentum against them gives Oyarzabal an advantage for just long enough to see his teammate enter the box on the right.

A well-timed pass is then deployed into space and Real Sociedad have a golden opportunity to score a goal.

Mikel Oyarzabal 2020/21 - scout report - tactical analysis - tactics

Interestingly, as we’ve seen from his player profile above, the 23-year-old also registers a lot of shots per game as well. This is a direct result of his positioning and movement. Oyarzabal can find pockets of space to move into before or after combining with his teammates to get the best possible position to potentially shoot from.

And it’s through deception, quick changes of direction and movement manipulation that he gets rid of his markers. Below, you can see him charge into the box alongside his marker but he changes directions all of a sudden and dismarks himself easily.

Mikel Oyarzabal 2020/21 - scout report - tactical analysis - tactics

This is indeed something he does often. As we’ve mentioned earlier in this tactical analysis, he’s very agile and it makes for a great weapon in attack. Let’s explore one more example where his great movement yielded another shot on goal.

Below, he first deploys a pass over to the left-wing and then proceeds to run into the box, taking his marker with him as well. But the defender keeps on running while Oyarzabal slows down and positions himself in a pocket of space where he can receive the ball back from his teammate.

Mikel Oyarzabal 2020/21 - scout report - tactical analysis - tactics

Again, the separation was achieved through a change in his movement, putting him in a great position to threaten the goal himself.

One other thing that’s extremely interesting about Oyarzabal’s profile when it comes to pure movement and positioning is the aforementioned freedom in his role. Alguacil usually deploys him on the left, there’s no doubt about that. However, we can often see him exchange places with his teammates and assume a position in the centre or even on the right flank.

Some would say that he is maybe even too strongly left-footed but that doesn’t stop him from being almost equally effective on both sides. Whether it’s cutting in from the left to right or from right to left, he can be used to devastating effect to the opposition.

Passing and creation

When it comes to passing, it would be rather easy to disregard Oyarzabal as one of the most proficient players in La Liga. The stats don’t really help him either. In fact, the only category in which the 23-year-old cracks the top 30 is in deep completions – in total deep completions he sits 24th with 11 and in deep completions per 90 he’s 30th with 1.52. All in one, nothing exactly to write home about.

However, ball progression, getting passes into the final third or even deploying long balls is not always his main role. He is an attacker after all and as such, will usually receive the ball in the danger area and then do the rest.

What he does best when the situation demands of him to drop and combine is work in tight areas to create and exploit space. We’ve already mentioned in this scout report how Oyarzabal will drop deeper to assist the build-up and then use his vision and skill to bypass the press. This works best when combined with his other strength we’ve analysed – movement.

Mikel Oyarzabal 2020/21 - scout report - tactical analysis - tactics

Above, you can see an example of the Spaniard dropping deep and using the third-man principle to progress the ball. First, he receives a pass from the centre-backs, lays it off to the wide man and immediately bursts into space behind him to get the ball back.

This particular example shows us how he can use his passing together with other skills like movement, space occupation and awareness to outplay the opposition’s marking. Of course, we’ve also seen from the previous examples that he has the range to instigate switches in the face of the press.

Usually, his best passing moments do come from such situations – drop slightly deeper, receive, turn quickly and instantly progress the play. A similar thing can be seen below.

Mikel Oyarzabal 2020/21 - scout report - tactical analysis - tactics

Oyarzabal receives the ball from the backline, turns in a moment and immediately exploits an open channel that can move the play forward. That’s usually his first instinct whenever he has some space to work with. Of course, this is not always possible and in a situation where the block is compact and/ or he’s tightly marked, he’ll only drop for a quick lay-off.

But Real Sociedad can definitely use him as a tool for quick transitional play, which was often the case last season. La Real are a decently positional squad and quick combinations are a big part of his arsenal. Even though he may not register among the top brass in through passes, key passes or even smart passes, he’s still capable of deploying them.

Mikel Oyarzabal 2020/21 - scout report - tactical analysis - tactics

Above is a perfect example of that as Oyarzabal presents himself as an outlet to continue the counter-attack, and a great one at that because he only needs a couple of touches to turn and deploy a piercing pass into the feet of his marauding teammate.

A similar thing happens in the final third and it’s there where he uses his movement in combination with the vision to successfully move past the opposition block. Below, for example, he drops from his usual half-space position to open a new passing channel and then – as soon as he receives the ball – the runs of his teammates are activated.

Mikel Oyarzabal 2020/21 - scout report - tactical analysis - tactics

This is more of a team play as a whole since it took multiple players manipulating the block to create an exploitable pocket of space out wide on the left but Oyarzabal recognised the opportunity and executed it well.

Sometimes, the trick is to keep it simple and be able to do those things consistently without fail.

Final remarks and prediction for the future

At 23 years of age, Oyarzabal is not a perfect player but one still in development. And that statement could very well be what the opposition are still dreading. However, with that being said, the obvious things he lacks are pace and composure.

Yes, he is great in tight spaces but can panic and go for blind clearances rather than opting to play out of the press. On the other hand, pace is something he can’t exactly control but it can also be quite limiting for a wide player.

Quite often, he will opt for a pass backwards or into the central areas because he can’t beat his man 1v1 and while that doesn’t stop him from trying, it limits what he can do as a natural winger who keeps the width and makes runs in behind the opposition line. 

This may also be part of the reason why he’s transitioning into a false nine role with his national team and Luis Enrique sees his attacking tendencies along with quality movement, shots and touches in the box as unique qualities that would make for an excellent striker or second-striker.

Maybe this is exactly what’s next in store for Mikel Oyarzabal – the evolution from an inverted winger into a false nine would perhaps help him mask some of his weaknesses and enhance the strengths even more.

Either way, one thing is for sure – 2021 will be his year. 

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