Real Sociedad begin the 2019/20 looking to make amends for a wasted 2018/19, but with heaps of promise. A busy summer on the transfer market has seen essential to a rebuilding project which looks to consign Asier Garitano’s short lived reign to the past, instead constructing a squad ready for Imanol Alguacil. Having been with the club for eight years as a player and now since 2011 as a coach, he finally has the job in the hot seat permanently.
An analysis of the tactics of Real Sociedad must begin with their formation, which will almost certainly begin as a 4–2-3-1 shape. Variations of the deployment of this shape will certainly be seen, particularly in regards to how much width is shown. However, this formation is what has dictated their summer recruitment and has been the most evident set-up throughout their pre-season campaign.
What is up for debate is who will get the starting spots. Men like Alex Remiro, Diego Llorente, Asier Illarramendi, Mikel Oyarzabal and Portu are guaranteed their positions as the spine of the team, but many others are up for grabs. Transfer business this summer has strengthened the squad where there was once a lack of depth and that has meant that a number of positions need to be filled. Their selection may well depend upon the opponent, with Alguacil never settling for one specific line-up at any time in his pre-season preparations.
Reliable defensive spine
The most significant change comes in goal, where Alex Remiro has joined from arch rivals Athletic Club having spent a year on the sidelines having been exiled as he decided to run his contract down to join their neighbours. Whilst pre-season has understandably shown him having some nervy moments where he has been rusty of match practice, it has also seen him integrate surprising quickly. His movement off his line and mobility make him similar in style to Geronimo Rulli, only more disciplined, which makes a crucial difference. In a side which tends to play a high defensive line, this is fundamental as Remiro knows when to stay and when to go, communicating well with his team-mates. Where Rulli would needlessly rush out and leave his position exposed, Remiro is happy to do so, but only when required. Having the consistency of a regular number one will also help to build that confidence and trust to develop the foundation of a strong spine to the team.
In defence itself, Llorente will be one of the first names on the team-sheet. Alongside him, Aritz Elustondo is most likely to get the starting role though promising signing Modibo Sagnan provides competition. Llorente and Elustondo also have the bonus of years of experience playing alongside one another, reading each other’s games well. In the high risk style that they play with a high-line, that factor cannot be underestimated.
Another factor that allows Real Sociedad to play such a high line comes in the role that the full-backs play. Rarely do they venture forwards or overlap, instead playing a more disciplined role. This allows Alguacil to overload the midfield and attack with more offensive minded players, not having to worry as much about how they would track back to cover. These two positions are some of the most competitive, though they are filled by disciplined players who will fulfill their role. With cover through the middle from the likes of Illarramendi or Zubeldia, there is plenty of numbers, but out wide their rigid structure is key to avoid the collapse of the system.
Playmakers in the middle
The transfer business done in midfield has had one clear objective: bring in creativity to ease the dependence on Mikel Oyarzabal. It is done with good reason too given that he was involved in one in every three of all of Real Sociedad’s goals last season. Martin Ødegaard is among the most exciting additions, brought in on loan from Real Madrid to feature in La Liga for the first time. The aim will also be to bring in similar players to Adnan Januzaj, whose pace, energy and technical ability is an asset, but to provide greater depth and competition to truly find consistency.
The role of the winger, or better put wide forward, is to cut inside into the half-spaces, rather than to bomb down the flanks. Real Sociedad are not a side who look to get crosses in from the byline and once they enter the final third, much of their play comes straight through the middle. This comes from players like Ødegaard or Januzaj cutting inside to link-up with the forwards and play a supporting role. These players initially start wide before moving inside as they advance further up the field, as can be seen below. At times last season, Oyarzabal played the central role that Portu will now occupy, but this freedom to interchange and swap between many players will be essential to ensuring tactical diversity which makes them hard to predict. By starting from a wider position, the two central figures and one attacking central midfielder can combine to push on without being cramped, while the wide playmakers only come into play as the ball enters the final third.
Another key aspect is the role of Portu. Whilst some may consider him a forward, he will almost certainly play in a deeper role at Real Sociedad. Sitting off the central striker, he will be the link between midfield and attack, primarily supplying the creativity that the likes of Illarramendi have struggled to provide in a more advanced role in the past. More offensive in nature than Oyarzabal, he will also thrive when looking to find and create space, identifying the gaps left by the wingers as they move inside and then drift wide again. Crucially, he has also proven at Girona that he can pay on either flank if needs be to provide that interflowing and fluid system which disrupts defences with movement.
Target men up top
Essential not only to Real Sociedad’s attacking play, but also to their defensive play, is the role of the target man. In attacking terms, the outlet of the long ball to Willian José presents the spark to the wide men to advance their runs, often moving inside from wide position ready to capitalise on any knock-down. They attack the spaces between the full-back and the central defender, often leading to the creation of space in the wide areas, but also pinning the opposition defence back. This is vital as it allows the playmaking midfielders more room to create opportunities from deep should the ball be cleared whilst overloading the final third with attackers if it is not. It must also be said that such crosses from deep or long balls into the box often lead to goals directly. In 2016/17, no player scored more headed goals than the Brazilian and a return to that approach would appear to be the aim for Alguacil.
This will also suit Portu. The ex-Girona man knows all about playing alongside a target man having lined up with Cristhian Stuani for two seasons and Willian José represents a similar style of player. He tends to position himself deeply and then react to the knock-down, sprinting into the box with great movement and timing to finish chances off and pounce on loose balls in the final third. This also applies to Alexander Isaak, who has joined from Borussia Dortmund. In pre-season, he has either lined up in place of Willian José or out wide, though his role there has primarily been to break into the box with poachers’ instinct to apply the finishing touch. With two players making such runs from deep, even the most disciplined of opposition midfields will be tested.
However, it cannot be forgotten that this also contributes to Alguacil’s defensive game plan. Whilst only a last resort, a long ball to the centre forward is an option for Real Sociedad as they look to clear their lines. Willian José is efficient in the air and wins on average 1.5 aerial challenges per 90 minutes, which helps to bring the ball under control without necessarily losing possession. If it is lost though, Real Sociedad immediately look to spring a high press whenever possible. The two players alongside him from wide positions, the attacking midfielder and one central midfielder react before the ball has landed, applying pressure to ensure that the opposition player has to get his first touch perfectly right with his passing channels already being closed off. In pre-season, this high press has repeatedly been deployed and will surely become a key element of Alguacil’s strategy this campaign.
Real Sociedad clearly have a settled and well-defined tactical approach. This summer has been about recruiting the players needed to make that system work. That brings with it the challenge of integrating several new players into the squad and set-up. It may mean that results do not come immediately, but there is great potential in Alguacil’s project. Having the patience to see it through, even if there is a slow start, as could be expected given visits to Mestalla and San Mamés accompany a home tie against Atlético Madrid in the first four fixtures, will define the stature that Real Sociedad could have in the years to come. The building blocks have been put in place by Alguacil and his staff, but the cement is not yet dry.
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