Real Sociedad: LaLiga’s emerging force
After their opening-day defeat to Barcelona, Real Sociedad have gone from strength to strength. Under Imanol Alguacil, they look competent and well-drilled. After 10 games, the Basque side sit top of the table, having had a start to the season that will give fans a team to believe in. Given the fact that the regular ‘top teams’ seem to be faltering around them, the sky’s the limit for Real Sociedad.
Last April, Imanol led his boyhood club to the Copa del Rey title against rivals Athletic Club in the delayed final of the 2019/20 campaign. The game itself took La Real fans by storm. However, his post-match celebrations truly captured just how much he lives for the club.
“I’m going to go from manager mode to fan mode if you allow me,” Imanol said to the gathered press after the historic win, before proceeding to sing the club’s chant with a raw and passionate rendition. "This goes for all of you, Guipúzcoa! This goes for all of you who love Real Sociedad!" His message was clear, his message was for fans to believe again.
Fast forward six months and that belief has remained for the Txuri-Urdin. Since that mid-August loss to Barcelona in August, they have gone unbeaten in 12 games across all competitions, keeping six clean sheets in the process.
One of the main reasons for their successful start to the campaign lies with their talisman and captain, Mikel Oyarzabal. He has scored six goals in his first eight appearances this season and has been in fine form with the Spanish national team too, netting in the Nations League final defeat to France.
Leading from the front has rarely been an issue for Oyarzabal during his time at La Real. After 10 matches, he is joined only by Aritz Elustondo (two) and Julen Lobete (two) in scoring multiple league goals for the side. However, in the case of Oyarzabal, aside from the quantity, it is the quality of goals and the situations from which he scores.
The attacker scored a winning penalty against Rayo Vallecano, a brace in a 2-0 win against Cádiz, the winner against Elche, and an equalising goal in their draw against Getafe. His contributions bring about points on the board and that’s a fact. Having missed the last two due to injury, should he return to fitness and form quickly, then the possibilities for Real Sociedad are seemingly endless.
Midfielder Mikel Merino has been another reason behind Real Sociedad’s impressive start to the season. After a summer representing Spain at the Tokyo Olympics, he needed little time to show his ability again this season. Merino’s performances have convinced Luis Enrique to call him up for the past two international breaks. The way in which he plays shows the standards he sets himself. Not only this, he stands tall and is counted in every game, making him a key player for Imanol this season.
David Silva, who returned to Spain by joining La Real in 2020, is the oldest player in the side aged 35. He started the season well, up until getting injured midway through September. Since his return, he has showcased his skill in abundance and reinstates with every touch why the club wanted him to join despite his advancing years.
One player looking to return to the fray after his injury is exciting prospect Ander Barrenetxea. The 19-year-old started the season in fine form with an assist away at Barcelona and a goal against Levante in matchday three, and looks to be a key player in the future for La Real. When fit, Barrenetxea gives Imanol a talent to call on who can surprise many and take the pressure off the more mature players in the squad. He has already proven that he can chip in with a goal contribution when called upon.
In defence, one player who has been reliable as ever is Aritz Elustondo. The 27-year-old has provided stability to the side, as well as proving to be a threat in attack: two goals and an assist in LaLiga have complemented his consistent performances. Elustondo has also featured often in Europe this season, playing well when required.
So far in the Europa League, La Real have two draws and one win from three games against Monaco, PSV and SK Sturm Graz. Scorer on matchday one in Europe, Alexander Isak is slowly finding his form for the Txuri-Urdin following his recent goal against Atleti in the league.
For good measure, Isak has scored in each of his last two appearances for Sweden. If he can continue to improve and share the goal-scoring expectation with Oyarzabal and Alexander Sørloth, then it will be to the benefit of La Real both in LaLiga and in Europe.
There is no doubt that Isak is one of the crown jewels of this side, however his three club goals this season will have left many somewhat surprised. One thing is for certain, he will want to silence any critics on the pitch.
On the topic of critics, Real Sociedad may still have a few lurking even after this start to the season. On paper, in the league their biggest tests have come from Barcelona, Sevilla and Atleti; they lost one and drew two of these matches. If they want to still be challenging for the title come the end of the season, they will have to be able to beat the best.
With the team running out of steam in the weeks running up to the most recent international break for the Nations League final, there was a feeling that it came at the right time for Real Sociedad and Imanol. It gave the team an opportunity to refresh their ideas and go again in the league.
Their first game back against Mallorca on 16th October confirmed that the break from club football had done them good, as La Real won 1-0 despite playing the second half with 10 men following Aihen Muñoz’ dismissal. It required resilience from Imanol’s team, who were arguably on the wrong side of a couple refereeing decisions before mustering a last-gasp winner in the 90th minute. Lobete’s strike found a way to the back of the net, after Mallorca keeper Manolo Reina fumbled the effort.
Seeing the celebrations of La Real after the game showed their unity, as they moved up to top of the table at the end of matchday nine. It was a moment that not many would have predicted, but was warmly welcomed by followers of the Txuri-Urdin.
They followed that up with a dominant performance against SK Sturm Graz in the Europa League. Their 1-0 win against the Austrian side gave them their first victory in the competition this season and moved them to second in their group standings.
After that midweek success, their attention soon turned to reigning champions Atlético Madrid, who they faced on matchday 10 at the Wanda Metropolitano. They lined up with their Scandinavian striker duo, Isak and Sørloth, due to Oyarzabal being injured. Despite the firepower of Atleti, La Real played well and dictated the pace of the game in the first half and early into the second. They built on this and went two goals up early in the second half through goals from their two aforementioned strikers. Their durability was later overcome by a Luis Suárez brace, yet the 2-2 draw saw them return to top of the table with 10 games played.
Having watched their game against Atleti with two Real Sociedad fans, it was clear that they were not taking their table position for granted. Instead, they reflected on the match and their position at the top of the table as, “now it’s serious.”
An apt way for fans of La Real to align their expectations for the remainder of the season is to demand more from this team and to believe with all of their heart in Imanol’s side. Based on the early evidence, anything is possible for the Txuri-Urdin.
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