Despite everyone’s insistence on doing it with the Kardashians, keeping up with Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga is never an easy task. They are blessed with financial riches and a selection of world class talent within their rosters, and every year, usually with a stubborn Atleti nearby, those two are the sides battling for the title. But after just three games this season only two teams have managed to earn maximum points: Barcelona and Real. Surprisingly, it’s not the Real who play in white under the guidance of Zinedine Zidane, but Sociedad, who play in royal blue managed by Eusebio Sacristan.
For the club based in San Sebastian, consistency has been almost something of a unique selling point. They are a steady side that always fair well domestically, ranging from mid-table finishers to Europa League challengers over the past decade. Having finished fourth in 2012/13 thanks to their Antoine Griezmann and Carlos Vela inspired frontline, reaching those heights yet again has proven difficult, particularly with David Moyes at the helm for twelve months. But under Sacristan there’s a newfound sturdiness to them, but more importantly, it’s a newfound sturdiness that doesn’t negate their natural attacking instincts and they’re flourishing.
Like most good teams, success is found at the Anoeta Stadium thanks to their solid spine. Geronimo Rulli is an assured goalkeeper who has no issues commanding his penalty area despite not being the tallest, and suits Real’s style of play thanks to his strong distribution and desire to play on the front foot. Aritz Elustondo has been a colossus at the heart of the defence, bouncing back from criticism impressively to offer a reference point that the rest of the back four can follow with confidence. Of course, Asier Illarramendi in the centre of midfield can do no wrong. With the club since the age of six (barring a difficult two-year spell at Real Madrid), the 27-year-old brings control, bite and energy to the side and even though veteran Xabi Prieto holds the armband – Illarra is often the man leading by example.
This ever-present spine then allows their attacking players to express themselves, which has benefitted the side dramatically, scoring ten goals already this season. Sacristan likes his teams to play in an attacking 4-3-3 formation which suits the current personnel down to a tee. Willian Jose tends to spearhead the front three, using his pace and intelligent movement to get in behind, with silky Spanish duo Juanmi and Mikel Oyarzabal roaming and interchanging with regularity. Between them, the trio have six goals and three assists in La Liga and at 25, 23 and 20 years of age respectively, there is the opportunity to contribute in the present but also to grow for the future. Sergio Canales – now over his injury problems – is a great option to have off the bench as well.
What’s also worth noting is how they continue to conduct themselves off the pitch. They are a club with strong moral values, but also pride in their Basque identity and youth academy. Much like Athletic Bilbao, there is a clear pathway from the B team to the first team which allows players to stay motivated and hungry, whereas in other academies young players are farmed off on loan three or four times without making a single appearance. Alvaro Odriozola, Kevin Rodrigues and Igor Zubeldia are all great examples of this policy, having been fully integrated into the first team this season after progressing through the famed youth set-up.
So where do they go from here? Nobody is backing Sociedad for Europe or to challenge for the top four. But quietly, the ambitions of the owner, the manager, the squad and the fans are fusing to create something really special. Many were surprised by the series of events which lead to Sacristán’s appointment, but the decision has been vindicated as slowly but surely, the club are ticking off objective after objective. It’s difficult to say with certainty what La Real could achieve this season, but they’ve certainly started well.