One of the sub-plots on an entertaining final day in La Liga last year involved an unlikely contender for the final Champion’s League place, Real Sociedad. Last seen in Europe in 2004, the San Sebastián club have since flirted between La Liga and La Segunda, Spain’s second division, home to many fallen giants in financial turmoil. In Real Sociedad, Spain has a genuine “people’s club” to complement the giant commercial machines of Real Madrid and Barcelona, but can a smaller, fan-oriented club really be expected to compete, now on two fronts, between European commitments, Champion’s League or otherwise, and maintaining a strong league position in La Liga?
Unfortunately, the transfer window would indicate not. Sociedad’s main playmaker and Xabi Alonsoreplica, Asier Illaramendi has been sold to Real Madrid for the irresistible sum of €30million and as yet, has not been replaced. Illaramendi’s rise to fame last year, in part thanks to the inevitable comparisons to Xabi Alonso, were key to los txuri-urdin’s successes last year, and he will be a huge loss regardless of where the money is spent. Real Sociedad’s only investment thus far has been on Swiss striker Haris Seferovic, who, while a useful and promising young talent, is far from a ready made first teamer, and will struggle to be anything more than back-up to a successful and settled front three of Antoine Griezmann, Imanol Agirretxe and Carlos Vela, the former Arsenal hitman. The only other incoming player is Jose Angel, the former Roma left back who spent last year on loan at Anoeta, and made a positive impression for his sharp attacking movement.
The other main concern for the coming season comes with a change in leadership at the club. Outgoing French coach, Philippe Montanier, who left at the end of his contract to manage Stade Rennais in his homeland, has been replaced by Jagoba Arrasate, his former youth coach and assistant. Perhaps influenced by the successful transition experienced between Pep Guardiola and his then assistant, Tito Vilanova, Sociedad have opted for the same approach, and the result, they hope will be consistency and continuity. A similar style of play from last year, and a similar outcome will be considered a tremendous success in Arrasate’s first season, and for a team that wowed with it’s lethal counter-attacking style of play, similar to that of last year’s Champion’s League black horses, Dortmünd, a successful Champion’s League run isn’t too far from realistic.
The biggest obstacle to this though, is something that has remained constant since Sociedad’s previous European campaign. In 2004, Sociedad were knocked out in the last 16 of the Champion’s League by then French champions, Olympique Lyonnais. Fast forward to 2013, and Sociedad have a two legged knockout qualifier against the same club to reach the group stages of the Champion’s League. Lyon are far from the force they were in 2004, but will still be a serious threat to a team adapting to a new manager and without last season’s star performer. A win against Lyon though, and I would definitely keep an eye on Real Sociedad’s progress in the competition.
Things are far from bleak on the north coast though. Los Txuri-Urdin are on the back of their most successful season since 2002/3, have a healthy bank balance in a league full of financial wrecks, and genuine optimism is rife. In Griezmann they have one of the most exciting young players in Europe, but no big clubs seem to be after him, Vela is a new man following his departure from the Emirates, and aside from Illaramendi, the squad from last year’s impressive showing is still together, and a further European place is far from out of reach. La Real’s defence, last year the best outside of the top three, is still entirely in place, and despite Illara’s long passing leaving, the three-pronged attack that scored the third highest in the league, (More than a Falcao inspired Atletí) is also still in place. This will be a big season then, for the expected midfield trio of David Zurutuza, Ruben Pardo and captain, Xabi Prieto in trying to continue where they left off last year.
Barcelona and Real Madrid will be unreachable, Valencia will be resurgent under Miroslav Djukic, Atletico Madrid will continue to do well despite Falcao’s sale, and Sevilla will be far more competitive under ultra-focused coach, Unai Emery, but Sociedad are definitely capable of mixing with the big boys again. Sociedad may not have the budget to match their competitors but, in “Zubieta”, La Real have one of Europe’s best youth academies. A quick look through their current crop shows that the entire squad has been put together for a total transfer outlay of €8.5 million, a total dwarfed by Illara’s €30 million sale this summer, with a remarkable total of 13 products of their youth academy in the team.
Ultimately, Real Sociedad have a close knit, mainly homebred squad with a great work ethic and an effective style of football. They are reticent to spend the money from Illara’s sale, and may look to promote from within, the ‘Real Way’, but this has served them well in the past and long may it continue. This is a well ran, fan oriented club, in a league of clubs that have broken the bank and themselves chasing past glories, that brings a host of players through it’s academy, and should be looked to by many as a great example of how a football club should operate. The club’s recent fan initiative “We carry you on our shirts” (The player’s shirts bore not a sponsor, but a club member’s name) is a brilliant and innovative idea, a sign of a club putting fan satisfaction above financial gain. It may have been a while since Los Txuri-Urdin last dipped their feet into the pool of gold that nowadays is the Champion’s League but 9 years after their last European campaign, 2013/14 could be the season that the real “La Real” are back to stay.
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