Jagoba Arrasate: Osasuna’s humble hero
Jagoba Arrasate Elustondo is an understated character among the vibrant range in LaLiga. But that should not be taken as any kind of criticism of him. It is his way and he is supremely comfortable and confident with his own identity.
Arrasate is a football fanatic. From the early age of seven, he would regularly go to play beach football at Deva, 20 minutes from his hometown Berriatua, and the passion grew from there. “It seemed eternal,” he remembered, speaking to Abraham Romero in El Mundo. “One of my first memories is a Real Sociedad game against [Diego] Maradona’s Barça”. That love continued throughout his life, and he had a modest playing career, reaching Segunda B with Eibar’s B team and Portugalete.
His coaching career began with his hometown club, Berriatuko, although it was in the youth ranks of Real Sociedad where he got his first major break. From the youth team he was appointed as assistant to first-team coach Philippe Montanier, before being promoted to the top job in summer 2013 as Montanier returned to his native France. Having made it through the Champions League qualifiers, La Real suffered a torrid group stage, losing five of their six matches and scoring just once. A seventh-placed finish in LaLiga was respectable, but early into the following season he was sacked and replaced by David Moyes. It would be four years before he had another chance to test himself in the top division of Spain.
A solid three-year spell at Numancia followed, but it was the impressive run to the play-offs in the third season which saw his stock rise again. Reaching the final was an overachievement for a club of Numancia’s size, and while Real Valladolid were too good for them, Osasuna took a chance and appointed Arrasate that summer.
It was a masterstroke. Arrasate led them to automatic promotion as champions as they recorded 87 points, the highest in Segunda since the 2011/12 season. The crucial factor was Arrasate’s ability to coalesce his resources and generate a superior spirit to make them greater than the sum of their parts. A squad full of Spaniards, Arrasate brought his tough Basque attributes and transmitted them to the team. That was never clearer than when Osasuna played on home turf, creating a formidable record of results. El Sadar was an intimidating fortress for any opponent. Los Rojillos won 19 of their 21 home games that season, and drew the other two, conceding a miserly seven goals.
This defensive foundation and raucous home atmosphere were the cornerstones of their plans to stay up. Their start to life back in LaLiga followed this trend: a win and four draws to start the season, including a pulsating 2-2 draw with champions Barcelona at a vociferous El Sadar. Their first defeat of the season had to wait until matchday six when they visited the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. The aforementioned run of results at home reached a record of 31 games unbeaten as they finished comfortably in mid-table, winning more games than they lost. Arrasate described the union between club, fans and stadium as “binominal” in an interview with Sid Lowe on ESPN. At this stage, plans were well underway to renovate the ground and make it bigger, steeper, louder, grander.
Any second season back in the top flight is always tough, and so it proved for Osasuna. Their problems were compounded by the pandemic, meaning that fans could not attend matches for what felt like an eternity. All clubs miss their home crowds of course, but for Osasuna and the bond they have with their supporters, this loss was exacerbated and translated onto the pitch. They endured 13 matches without a win from October 2020 to January 2021, and they were second from bottom in the table. Arrasate is not one to make excuses lightly, but he drew a clear link between the downturn in form and the absence of fans: “[It’s] s***. The fans are the essence of everything. We lost that. We’ve lost that identity” he told Lowe. The board did not panic and reinforced their belief in him. “This is our coach, and if he goes down, we all go down”, said Braulio Vázquez, the club’s sporting director.
The turning point had to come, though. It was a 3-1 win over Granada, with back-to-basics, direct football. Arrasate’s celebration encapsulated everything about the relationship between himself and the club. He couldn’t contain his joy, running down the touchline, jumping into the air before returning and embracing his coaching staff. Osasuna never looked back and ended in 11th, another remarkable finish given the budget and size of the club.
In Arrasate, they have a coach who fits Los Rojillos like a glove. He is modest but confident in his own abilities, humble but not shy. Pamplona may not be Basque in the strictest geographical sense, but the socio-cultural values and ideals are manifestly similar. Arrasate is well aware of this and brings the best of his own culture to blend with Pamplona. This is perhaps best illustrated by the videos that went viral in October, showing him and his staff enjoying a few beers on a terrace a short distance from El Sadar after a game. It may be a cliché, but Arrasate genuinely is a man of the people: approachable, relatable, normal. His family is settled in Pamplona, assimilating to the local culture with ease. “There is a feeling of deep-rooted belonging. My children wear the Osasuna shirt, nobody wears Real Madrid or Barça shirts,” he told Romero.
Tactically under-rated too, Jagoba has shown flexibility this season in applying different gameplans to suit different opponents. For example, he deployed an ultra-defensive 5-3-2 at the Bernabéu against free-scoring Real Madrid, but kept them out for 90 minutes. The stalemate in the snow at El Sadar last season was clearly no fluke, and Osasuna remain the last team to stop Carlo Ancelotti’s men from scoring. The same approach almost worked across the city, but a late Atleti winner denied them another well-deserved point. However, in the recent game against Barcelona, Arrasate recognised their fragile vulnerability and went with a more direct and expansive system to put them under pressure. Manu Sánchez was deployed much higher up the pitch and caused havoc down Barça’s right. In fact, the best chances for the Catalans were on the break, which shows how adventurous this Osasuna performance was.
Adding in a win at Camp Nou at the tail end of 19/20, Arrasate’s Osasuna have taken five points from a possible 15 against Barça and recorded two impressive 0-0 draws with Real Madrid. That’s not bad for a club in its third season back in Primera. His ability to resonate with everyone is laid bare in his explanation of his team’s identity. “We are an honest team that will not make things easy and we will always fight,” he told Alexander Ciriza in El País.
It can be tempting to over-analyse football these days, but sometimes the right answer is the simple one. With Arrasate and Osasuna, there is a symbiotic relationship that is built on trust, humility and dedication. Their values are shared, the respect earned and reciprocated. There is a reason why Basque coaches are excelling in LaLiga right now, and Arrasate is the embodiment of all of those factors. He wouldn’t admit it, but he genuinely is the hero at El Sadar.
To follow Arrasate's journey, or just to see photos of a packed El Sadar, follow us on Twitter at @LaLigaLowdown.