How Real Sociedad built one of Europe’s most exciting young teams

Real Sociedad stadium

As Alexander Isak produced his second brilliant finish in as many minutes to put Real Sociedad 3-0 up at the Bernabéu last week, there was more than a touch of deja-vu at the sight of Real Madrid being torn open by a bold, young team on their own patch. At one point, even the scoreline matched Ajax’s brilliant 4-1 win in Madrid last March.

While the circumstances were very different and while this was some way short of Real Madrid’s strongest back-line, the ease with which La Real found space in the final third and the manner of their victory, made quite an impression on a stunned Bernabéu. So much so that Real Sociedad’s two chief protagonists, 21 year old Martin Ødegaard and 20 year old Isak both left to a smattering of applause from the home fans when they were substituted with the game all but won.

Ødegaard, is of course officially a Real Madrid player, so it was no great surprise to see such a response even though he had been one of the main architects of Real Madrid’s downfall on the night. Isak meanwhile has no links to Los Blancos, although it won’t be long before they start to show an interest if the Swede keeps up his current form which now stands at 12 goals in 12 games, including 8 in his last 6 in all competitions.

Real Sociedad’s Scandinavian double-act both joined in the summer. Ødegaard arrived on a two-year loan deal from Real Madrid and made an immediate impression, quickly cementing himself as one of the standout midfielders in La Liga this season.

Isak had to wait a bit longer for his chance. Ultimately it was the Willian José transfer saga that finally paved the way for the Swede, who arrived for just €6.5m from Borussia Dortmund, to forge his way into Imanol’s first XI. It’s fair to say he has taken his opportunity.

Rested against Athletic at the weekend in the Basque Derby, Isak came off the bench to replace the Brazilian in the Second Half and he immediately brought life into a relatively uneventful game. In his 35 minutes on the pitch, Isak scored one and created another as La Real sealed a 2-1 victory, further underlining his new status as Real Sociedad’s first choice striker.

While Isak and Ødegaard are both incredibly exciting young talents and are rightly starting to draw plaudits from far and wide, there is much more to this Real Sociedad side than just them. This has always been a club that has placed great emphasis on developing their own and this current squad is full of academy graduates.

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The pick of the bunch is 22 year old Mikel Oyarzabal, who has been one of the best players outside of La Liga’s top three for at least a couple of years now. The winger has already chalked up over 150 appearances in the Spanish top flight and his decision to turn down a move to rivals Athletic in 2018 and instead sign a new long-term deal at Anoeta was a very significant moment in what is starting to look like it may even be something of a power-shift across the Bay of Biscay from Bilbao to Donostia.

How long-lasting that shift proves to be will depend on a number of factors. However if Real Sociedad can consistently hold onto their best youth products, as opposed to losing them to Athletic who will always have a vested interest in Basque players, then the future could be a very bright one for La Real.

As well as Oyarzabal, fellow academy graduates Joseba Zaldúa and Igor Zubeldia have also been regulars this term with the latter excelling in a vital holding midfield role which has allowed Real Sociedad’s array of attack-minded midfielders and wide-men license to get forward and shine. His form may even make it difficult for club captain and fellow ‘cantera’ product Asier Illarramendi to regain his place when he recovers from a long-term injury.

Aihen Muñoz, Aritz Elustondo and Ander Guevara are three more academy graduates to have played more than 500 minutes of league football for Real Sociedad this season.

The club’s proven record of developing and giving opportunities to young talent may very well have helped convince the likes of Isak and Ødegaard that Donostia was the right destination for them. The success those players have had should in turn convince other young foreign players to follow suit in the coming years. Their current attacking brand of football also helps with that and the club appear to be positioning themselves in a way that may help them continue to punch above their weight in the transfer market.

Almost all their signings over the past year or two seem to fit a clear strategy of buying either young talent or players that strengthen their already fierce local identity. Álex Remiro, Mikel Merino and Nacho Monreal are also regulars in this current Real Sociedad side. All three grew up in the region, came through the ranks at other Basque clubs and all signed for La Real either last summer or the one before.

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The outlier is Murcia-born Portu but he appears to have quickly bought into the Real Sociedad way of doing things. He has been an invaluable presence in the team too and only Leo Messi, Luis Suarez and Karim Benzema have been involved in more goals this season in La Liga than the former Girona man who has 7 goals and 7 assists from the right flank.

If there is a cloud on the horizon for Real Sociedad, it may just be the fear that they will struggle to hold onto their brightest young talents this summer and that this team may break up almost as quickly as it was formed.

To some extent, it is out of their hands.

Real Madrid have the option to recall Martin Ødegaard from his loan a year early. While the Norwegian international currently seems intent on spending another year at Anoeta, it will ultimately be his parent club’s call.

Alexander Isak meanwhile is a Real Sociedad player but with his value currently soaring with each passing game, Borussia Dortmund may be very tempted to activate their option to buy the Swede back for €30 million. Even if they have no interest in the player, the German giants may see it as a way to make a quick buck if they think they can sell Isak on for more.

Mikel Oyarzabal has also been consistently linked with moves to one of the giants in either Spain or England with Pep Guardiola thought to be an admirer.

Therefore this is something of a catch-22 situation for Real Sociedad and the more they achieve this season, the more likely it is that they will find themselves having to rebuild again this summer. The best case scenario may be that they at least manage to stagger the departures which would make it easier to hold onto the identity of this young side that has been so impressive this season.

If they do depart, the legacy of Real Sociedad’s young stars may just be an end to a 33 year wait for major silverware with the Basques now favourites to win the Copa del Rey after their wonderful Quarter-Final victory in Madrid last week. A top four finish and Champions League qualification would be the icing on the cake.


by Mark Sochon – @marksoc1


 

Spanish football writer
About Mark Sochon 1703 Articles
Mark is a freelance writer based in Madrid, writing mostly about Spanish football. His work has been published by the likes of Guardian Sport & World Soccer. Contact: marksochon (at) hotmail.co.uk

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