Real Sociedad currently sit 6th in La Liga with 31 points after a blistering start which saw La Real first in the table after seven games of the 2020/21 season. The Basque side have the 4th most goals in the Spanish Primera División with 31 goals and retain the same position for goals conceded with 18, along with Getafe. The San Sebastián club have been under the stewardship of Imanol Alguacil since 2018. The former La Real right-back is a Basque native, and in addition to a youth and professional playing career at the club, worked his way up through their youth system as a coach. Alguacil then progressed to Real Sociedad B, the reserve team. He served as assistant there from 2013-2014, then head coach from 2014-2018.
While he had experience as a first-team coach under David Moyes in 2014, the Spaniard’s first stint in the top job came unexpectedly. Replacing Eusebio Sacristán on an interim basis in March 2018 whilst Real Sociedad lay 15th, Alguacil improved their position to 12th. La Real’s board were not convinced, bringing in Asier Garitano as a permanent head coach for the 2018/19 season. By December 2018, Real Sociedad were again in 15th, four points above the bottom three. Alguacil was once again brought in to overturn the crisis. The Spaniard succeeded, as the Txuri-Urdin ended the season in 9th. On a one-year rolling deal from the start of his return, Alguacil has had to prove himself every season.
After finishing 9th in 2018/19, Sociedad finished 6th the next season and reached the currently-postponed Copa del Rey final, where the club will face fellow Basque side, Athletic Club. Alguacil also ensured La Real qualified for the Europa League for the first time since 2017/18. The Basque native has his hometown side playing high-pressing, fluid attacking football. Here is how Alguacil sets Real Sociedad up on the pitch this season:
Real Sociedad have lined up in either a 4-1-4-1 formation; a 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-3 and variations of a 4-4-2. In build-up, either the single-pivot or one of the double pivot drops into the defence to create a back three. The full-backs then push up higher, which allows La Real’s wingers to either drop deep into midfield or position themselves narrow in the half-space between full-back and centre-back (as seen below). How the Sociedad players occupy space in the opposition half is one of their strengths.
This tactic is implemented to establish numerical superiority in the central areas of the pitch or in front of the opposition defence, as Alguacil wants his players in close proximity between the lines for intricate link-up play and passing to occur. This numerical superiority in central areas is also done to compel the opposition defensive line to become narrow in their shape, which then leaves space in the wide areas for Sociedad’s full-backs to exploit (as seen below).
Alguacil’s team usually have fluid movement and positional rotation, while maintaining the aforementioned movement between the lines. There is also an emphasis on wide players positioning themselves in the channel or space between defenders so as to provide runs for through balls in behind. These rotations like Portu and Isak below leave the opposition confused about who to press and mark.
Mikel Merino likes to drift into the half-spaces on the field to thread through balls also, and the above images illustrate Merino driving the ball forward from the left half-space on his preferred left foot to create a scoring opportunity. He and Mikel Oyarzabal often swap positions, with Merino finding space on the left flank whilst Oyazabal drops into midfield to receive the ball.
As previously mentioned, the use of movement between the lines and the positioning of the wingers/wide midfielders in the half-space between full-back and centre-back leads to the opposition defensive line becoming narrow in shape. When the ball is distributed to Real Sociedad full-backs in wide areas, Alguacil requires that his team have at least three players in the box as options for the cross. As witnessed in matchday eight’s 4-1 win over Celta Vigo:
Some neat interplay by the Sociedad midfield three above leads to the ball going out wide to Aihen Muñoz, the left-back. Oyarzabal coming inside draws the opposition full-back, leaving a lot of space on the flanks for right-back Andoni Gorosabel.
As evidenced above, there are four La Real players in the box for the incoming cross from Muñoz with a fifth entering the box. All the players ensure the runs into the box are at different angles and speed to disorganize the opposition defence and find space. The runs usually include deep runs from midfield by the #8s or #10, runs made into the channels by wide players or blindside runs from the other full-back.
While Oyarzabal still lurked in the space between full-back and centre-back, #10 David Silva drifts into the space between the Celta centre-backs to head home the opening goal. Another key aspect of this goal was Sociedad #9 Willian Jose’s movement pinning the Celta left-centre back to create the space for Silva. This is another component of how La Real play.
OUT OF POSSESSION
With the 3rd lowest PPDA in LaLiga this season at 8.1 passes per defensive action, La Real are a high pressing team, but not without purpose. Pressing is a defensive and offensive strategy for them, as Alguacil implements this style of play so as to win the ball back as quickly as possible, whilst also winning it as close to the opposition box as possible. Inversely, this tactic also ensures the ball is far from Real Sociedad’s 18-yard box. La Real set pressing traps, guiding the ball out wide with curved runs to block passing lanes. The touchline can then be used as an extra defender, with the ball out wide. Sociedad shift their shape to the wide area in order to press the ball aggressively when this occurs.
La Real are often efficient at pressing the ball as a team but are sometimes too eager to press. This often leaves space in critical areas such as zones 5 and 8 (see below), leaving the defense wide open to runners and ball carriers. When the press is beaten though, Sociedad will then drop to a mid-block of either a 4-1-4-1 and variations of a 4-4-2.
La Real also employ a high defensive line as seen below in the foremost image. This is to reduce the area in which their opposition can play, whilst minimising space between the lines. Sociedad also use this high-line as a way to catch opponent’s offside. Real Sociedad’s high line defensive line leaves a lot of space in behind, space that accurate long balls can exploit. As seen in La Real’s recent game vs. Real Betis, opponents have zoned in on this as a weakness:
Betis goalkeeper Joel Robles sends a long ball in behind the Real Sociedad defence, which is quite high in position. As Robles runs up for the kick, his teammate Loren Morón begins to run into the space behind the defence between La Real’s center-backs, whilst also on Sociedad midfielder Jon Guridi’s blindside.
Loren’s run was read by Sociedad left centre-back Robin Le Normand who began sprinting back to cover the space in behind as soon as the ball was kicked.
Robin Le Normand succeeds in pressuring Loren and ensuring the ball bounces back to Sociedad’s keeper. Loren is certainly not a slow player, but a quicker player outpaces Le Normand, controls the ball, and finishes from a route-one pass. The desire to push up the backline also leaves La Real susceptible to deep runs from opposition full-backs who exploit the tendency of the offensive players to switch off. As seen below vs. Huesca:
The Sociedad backline rushing backward allows Huesca’s Rafa Mir to then use a shadow run behind the centre-backs to gain superior momentum and head home (as seen below).
Real Sociedad have prioritised possession during Alguacil’s tenure. The Basque side have averaged at least 51% possession per game annually since 2018/19, ranking in the top eight for three consecutive years (Source: FBref). Possession is seen as a defensive tactic by La Real, as them having the ball means their opponents cannot create due to not having it. He sees the forwards as the first defenders on the team, the first line of pressure for the team. Scenarios like opposition goal kicks are handled with high-pressing as well as zonal marking, with the latter used to block passing lanes for whoever receives the ball.
La Real are still in the European places with half the season played, and Imanol Alguacil ‘s side have found consistency for the first time in a few years. Another year of European football will be welcome for fans, as well as the prestige of the club. The Copa del Rey final against rivals Athletic could also deliver La Real’s first trophy since 1986/87 when they also won the Copa. The Spaniard, whose 44% league win percentage is only bettered by one Sociedad manager, has achieved this with extensive use of the famed Basque side’s youth system. Having produced the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Mikel Oyarzabal from their academy in recent years, Real Sociedad had the youngest squad in LaLiga in 2019/20 with an average age of 25.45 years. Oyarzabal captains the San Sebastián club at 23 years old, while over 20 homegrown players have been used this season alone. The foundations are there for Real Sociedad to progress into a force in Spanish football over the next decade; and Alguacil has certainly proven himself now as the man with the knowledge, background and experience to build the structure.