Early Leaders – What’s going right at Real Sociedad?

Early Leaders - What’s going right at Real Sociedad?
Real Sociedad meet Atleti in a midweek top of the table clash.

Real Sociedad supporters would have had reason to be a little bit anxious heading into the new season. Their team struggled post lockdown last term, winning just two of their final eleven games. They did manage to sneak into the Europa League with Adnan Januzaj’s late goal at the Wanda Metropolitano sparking jubilant celebrations on the final weekend, although some regarded European qualification as a mixed blessing ahead of what was already set to be the most congested season in football history.

The summer break brought with it a severe blow as Martin Ødegaard, La Real’s star performer for much of last season, was recalled by Real Madrid halfway through his proposed two year loan spell. As replacements go, the swift acquisition of the legendary, albeit ageing figure of David Silva, looked an inspired move but didn’t totally distract from a window in which the Basque club failed to spend a single cent on transfer fees and sold the player regarded as their best centre-back with Diego Llorente joining Leeds United for €20 million.

Compared to fellow Spanish Europa League participants Granada and Villarreal, who were both very active in the market, it was a worryingly quiet summer at Anoeta. It was one that posed more questions than answers and their plans for the new campaign weren’t aided by a COVID outbreak which affected several key players in the week leading up to the big kick-off.

So far though, Real Sociedad have managed those challenges as well as anyone could have expected and the decision not to rock the boat with new arrivals and to keep the faith in a squad that underperformed at the back end of last season, is paying off.

After seven games, Real Sociedad are top of LaLiga with the best goalscoring record and second best defence. A winning start in the Europa League means they head into this Thursday’s glamour tie against Napoli in high spirits.

There have been a few key ingredients in their flying start to the 2020/21 season:

Elustondo-Le Normand Pairing Clicks

Sometimes in football, unforeseen events or situations can lead to clubs stumbling on solutions they didn’t know they had. Real Sociedad’s first game this season, a 1-1 draw at Real Valladolid, saw Diego Llorente start in central defence alongside Aritz Elustondo with Robin Le Normand having to settle for a place on the bench.

Interest in Llorente, La Real’s first choice centre-back alongside either Elustondo or Le Normand last term, materialised soon after that game and Real Sociedad ultimately decided to accept a generous offer from Premier League newcomers Leeds United. They still had plenty of time to source a replacement with the transfer window not closing until early October but a series of strong displays from Elustondo and Le Normand clearly convinced Imanol and the Real Sociedad hierarchy that they already had a solution to their central defensive conundrum.

Since that opening game, the duo have played every minute of Real Sociedad’s games with their blossoming relationship key during a period which has seen La Real concede just two goals in seven matches – a huge improvement on last season when if anything the defence was the weak link in Imanol’s side.

Andoni Gorosabel, one of many players in this squad to have come through the Real Sociedad cantera, has also stepped up and delivered some assured displays at right-back in the absence of the injured Joseba Zaldúa.

Midfield Balance

Real Sociedad’s midfield was vital to their success last term with Mikel Merino enjoying the best season of his career to date while Martin Ødegaard was outstanding during the first two thirds of the campaign.

While Ødegaard is no longer at the club, they again look to have a really nice balance in the middle of the park. David Silva has come in and while he’s taken a little while to find his groove in new surroundings, the former Manchester City man showcased all of his class with a virtuoso display against Huesca at the weekend in which he created two goals and was the chief protagonist in a dominant Second Half display from La Real.

Mikel Merino just gets better almost every time you see him play and is emerging as a genuine contender to start for Spain at the Euros next summer. Meanwhile the never-ending conveyor belt that is the Real Sociedad academy appears to have churned out another gem with Donostia-born Martín Zubimendi impressing in the holding role in the absence of the injured Igor Zubeldia, who was one of their breakout stars last season.

Goals from the Flanks

Perhaps the most curious element of Real Sociedad’s success this term is that they have scored four more goals than any other team in LaLiga despite the fact neither of the two main strikers are in any sort of form. Willian Jose has failed to net this term while Alexander Isak had also gone over three months without a goal for Real Sociedad prior to a clinical finish in the win over Huesca last time out.

When those players do rediscover their touch in front of goal, La Real will be quite a handful if the current form of Mikel Oyarzabal and Portu is anything to go by. Both players have netted four times so far in LaLiga and the movement of the two wide men is providing headaches for opposing defences, a trend that is only likely to continue the more David Silva familiarises himself with the runs they make.

Spanish football writer
About Mark Sochon 1538 Articles
Mark is a freelance writer based in Madrid. He has also lived in Seville and Barcelona and has written extensively about Spanish football. His work has been published by the likes of Guardian Sport & World Soccer.