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The Imanol Alguacil story

Written by Alex Brotherton

As Swedish striker Alexander Isak took a touch to control the loose ball, steadied himself and then rifled a shot into the near top corner, you could practically hear a pin drop inside the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.

The sound of the ball hitting the back stanchion of the goal reverberated around the famous old ground, through living room televisions and across Spain. Real Sociedad had just gone 3-0 up against Real Madrid, in

their own back yard, in the quarter-final of the Copa del Rey. They were ripping the champions-elect apart.

That night in February was perhaps the standout performance in an impressive 2019/20 campaign for La Real, one that saw them secure a return to the Europa League and a first Copa del Rey final appearance in 33 years. But perhaps most importantly, exquisite football returned to San Sebastián. Coach Imanol Alguacil is the man to thank for that. Utilising a blend of hungry young players and experienced heads to play a possession-based, attacking, yet exciting, brand of football, Real Sociedad are on the up. But just who is their quiet, down-to-earth manager?

Imanol Alguacil is fast becoming a hero amongst realistas, both for the way he’s brought quality football back to San Sebastián and for his local roots. Born in Orio, a small fishing town situated on the banks of the River Oria, 18 kilometres from San Sebastián, he’s as local as they come. It’s a town of fishermen and rowers, full of honest, committed and grounded people. They’re winners too; the local rowing teams often prevail in the annual Traineras competition. Alguacil is no different. He’s a ‘no-excuses’ sort of man whose air of calmness and responsibility masks his insatiable hunger and desire for success. That kind of thing goes down well in Gipuzkoa – it’s very Basque.

But if Imanol, as locals affectionately call him, was born and bred in Orio, then he was made in San Sebastián.

30 years prior to becoming Real Sociedad’s head coach, he was just beginning his fledgling playing career with the youth team. The young right-back quickly ascended the ranks, playing with the reserves, Real Sociedad B, for two seasons in Segunda División B, before making his first-team and LaLiga debut in September 1990.

Imanol didn’t exactly set the world alight, barring an exceptional individual goal against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu in 1994, but what he lacked in technical ability he made up for with enthusiasm, versatility and dedication. Before his departure in 1998, he made 128 appearances for La Real; a total that would have been higher but for an injury-plagued final few years.

It was John Toshack who handed the youngster his debut in 1991, but in an interview with Diario Vasco, the Welsh coach admitted his surprise at Alguacil’s foray into coaching. “To be honest, if you’d told me back then that he was going to manage Real, I’d have laughed. You spot some players and you think that they’ll make coaches later on, but Imanol never said anything. He was very shy. If you asked him an opinion, he’d just shrug. He never said a bloody thing.”

But a coach he became, and where better to do so than at his boyhood club. In 2011, all of 13 years after he left as a player, Alguacil returned to coach the youth side. Three years on, after a brief spell on first-team manager David Moyes’ coaching staff, he was placed in charge of Real Sociedad B. It was there that Imanol’s tactical system began to take shape, but as author and Real Sociedad fan Phill Ball explains, it bears little resemblance to his qualities as a player.

“He wasn’t the sort of full-back you’d base your attacking options on, but now he’s rated as an offensively-minded coach – he’s closer to a Pep tiki-taka than a counter-attacker mentality or a cautious Mourinho sort. He went through a long apprenticeship with the ‘B’ team and seems to have emerged from that as an offensive, possession-based coach.”

All would agree that he did a tremendous job with the B team, the pinnacle of his tenure being the run to the 2018 Segunda B play-offs. In March 2018, he even stepped in to lead the first team on an interim basis following the dismissal of Eusebio Sacristán, steering them away from the looming threat of relegation. But according to journalist Beñat Gutiérrez, what endeared him to supporters most was his commitment.

“He was patient and loyal. After saving the team [from relegation] he stayed with La Real despite being sent back to the B team. Most coaches would have used that LaLiga experience to get a new job, but he didn’t, so I think that makes him quite special.”

Finally, in December 2018, he got a proper crack at the top job. Tactically he revamped the side, adopting a 4-2-3-1 system that focussed heavily on retaining possession. The polar opposite of predecessor Asier Garitano’s long-ball method, Imanol’s approach is not too dissimilar to Eusebio’s ‘pass and move’, but with a crucial difference: plenty of vertical movement. His side will look to keep it neat and tidy, but will catch opponents out with through-balls if the opportunity arises.

With the team lacking the necessary pace and technical quality needed for his dynamic system, the summer of 2019 was a busy one. Working closely with director of football Roberto Olabe, Imanol welcomed attackers Portu and Isak, while the scoop of Martin Ødegaard on loan from Real Madrid sought to relieve some of the creative strain placed on Mikel Oyarzabal. Being a local lad, he was keen to have a base of cantera (youth system) players, preferably from the Gipuzkoa region. Real Sociedad B players Robin Le Normand and Ander Guevara became first team regulars, while hot prospect Ander Barrenetxea made his debut at just 16 years of age. To complement the exciting youngsters, veteran left-back Nacho Monreal also arrived, joining Asier Illarramendi and David Zurutuza as the squad’s elder statesmen.

The results were impressive. For much of the season Imanol’s side were in free-scoring form, a final haul of 56 goals bettered only by Villarreal, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Standout moments included a 2-0 win against Atlético Madrid and a 2-2 draw with Barça, both at Anoeta, and of course the 4-3 cup win over Real Madrid. In LaLiga, Willian José, Oyarzabal and Isak recorded 11, 10 and nine goals respectively, while Oyarzabal, Portu and Ødegaard provided 24 assists between them.

It’s clear that just about everyone in San Sebastián loves Imanol, but that’s not just down to results on the pitch says Phil Ball. “He’s the most Basque coach La Real have had over the past 30 years, in the sense of ticking all the cultural boxes. He’s very Gipuzkoan, very down-to-earth. He never signals anyone and never complains about referees. He’s enormously liked and respected because he’s a ‘club man’.

“The local press love him, making the press-club relationship much rosier. He often does press conferences in Euskera first then Spanish, but he seems much more comfortable in Euskera. He knows how to handle them and vice-versa. It’s great.”

Of course, it would be naïve to say that everything is perfect. La Real’s post-Coronavirus-return collapse was alarming, as two wins in their final 11 games saw them slip from fourth to sixth place in LaLiga. What seemed to be nailed-on Champions League qualification was lost, with only an 88th-minute Adnan Januzaj goal on the final day securing a Europa League berth.

There are critics of Imanol’s system too. Some worry that the attacking dedication creates defensive fragilities, while others are sceptical of Imanol’s ability to change approach mid-way through games, if things aren’t going well.

This season certainly looks a promising one for Real Sociedad. Apart from Ødegaard, who returned to Real Madrid after his loan spell, Imanol has managed to keep hold of all his young talents, and in Martín Zubimendi and Roberto López, has two more exciting B team graduates at his disposal. A huge statement of intent has been made by the signing of 2010 World Cup winner David Silva, who at 34 years old still has a lot to offer. And of course, the postponed all-Basque Copa del Rey final awaits.

Real Sociedad and Imanol Alguacil seem the perfect match. An understated manager committed to developing young players, coaching a team quietly proud of its identity and roots, with fans that crave exciting football. If anyone can return Txuri-urdinak to the top table, it’s Imanol.

If you'd like to see more up-to-date Spanish football news, match information or are searching for a translation of José Luis Mendilibar’s crazy touchline rants - you can find us on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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