There are few more impressive tales in European football than that of Real Sociedad in recent years. With a thriving academy and a clear pathway for young players to progress into the first team set-up, they’ve become a model of steady growth and one that’s the envy of many clubs around Spain and beyond.
Under the guidance of Imanol Alguacil, they’ve briefly threatened to mix it with the giants of Spanish football whilst laying the foundations for Europa League challenges at various points during what is nearing a five year reign for the Gipuzkoa-born coach.
However it is true that cracks have often started to show with the volume of games catching up on a young squad in the middle part of previous seasons. While it’s still early days in the 2023/24 campaign, there is a growing sense that this is no longer just a talented young side, but an increasingly mature one with a number of now seasoned campaigners who know how to handle different situations and know how to win ugly if needed.
Real Sociedad are sitting 5th in LaLiga and according to 1xBet odds, they are strongly expected to make it through to the knockout stage of the Champions League for the first time in twenty years. That alone would be a historic achievement for the Basque club who have already claimed impressive victories in Salzburg and Lisbon in the UCL group stage.
Take Kubo entering the elite
At the heart of everything for Real Sociedad this term, has been Japanese international Take Kubo.
The club were rocked by a serious ACL injury in pre-season for veteran midfielder David Silva, La Real’s creator in chief for much of the last three seasons. The 37 year old was forced to retire as a result, leaving Real Sociedad with a serious void to fill ahead of their first Champions League campaign in a decade.
While the club did spend €13m on 20 year old attacking midfielder Arsen Zakharyan, by far their biggest summer purchase, Imanol’s solution to the Silva setback has been to adapt his structure and place greater responsibility on the young shoulders of Kubo.
It’s a challenge, the 22 year old has certainly risen to. Kubo has been exceptional this season, registering 5 goals and 3 assists in all competitions. Mostly operating on the right flank, the switch to Donostia has proved the perfect way for Kubo to move on from three difficult loan periods and blossom into the fine player many hoped he would become when he started to draw attention as a talented teenager in Real Madrid’s academy.
The winger deserves credit for having the courage to cut ties with a massive club Real Madrid at a young age in 2022 and pursue his career in the Basque Country following a €6.5m move. His improvement since has been so rapid that Los Blancos may already be entertaining the idea of trying to bring Kubo back with the side from the Spanish capital believed to have a clause that would enable them to re-sign the player for €33m, significantly less than his €60m release fee.
Barrenetxea & Oyarzabal putting injury woe behind them
While Kubo is the player that Real Sociedad increasingly look to when they’re in need of a bit of magic, the return to form of both Ander Barrenetxea and Mikel Oyarzabal has been just as significant.
Oyarzabal is still only 26, but already feels like a veteran in the context of this Real Sociedad team having first established himself in the starting eleven way back in the 2015/16 season.
The last eighteen months has been by far the toughest period in Oyarzabal’s career with a torn ACL in March of last year, not only effectively ending his chances of going to a World Cup, but leaving him struggling for form and full match sharpness during the remainder of the 2022/23 season.
Even as recently as August, doubts remained as to whether Oyarzabal could return to his old level. Imanol left him out of the starting lineup on matchdays 2 and 3 with Carlos Fernandez preferred to lead the line in a particularly tepid attacking display in the goalless draw at Las Palmas at the end of the month.
Something clicked on matchday 4 though as the shackles were released and Imanol appeared to stumble on his best team and best system in the 5-3 win over Granada with Oyarzabal operating through the middle and Ander Barrenetxea on the left flank in a dominant performance.
While his first goal of the new campaign didn’t come until late September, Oyarzabal has very much rediscovered his goalscoring touch since with 6 goals in 6 league appearances, propelling him to joint 3rd in LaLiga’s Pichichi race, behind only Jude Bellingham and Antoine Griezmann.
Alongside him, Barrenetxea’s start to the season has been just as heartwarming. The winger made headlines back in the 2018/19 season by becoming the first 21st Century born player to feature in LaLiga when he debuted for La Real as a 16 year old against Alaves, before scoring his first goal in a victory over Real Madrid later in the campaign.
Flashes of his huge potential were evident from an early age, but Barrenetxea’s progression since has been seriously hampered by hamstring and thigh problems with the latter requiring surgery and a lengthy spell on the sidelines in 2022.
The 21 year old is starting to look like he may have come out the other side from those issues and for the first time is playing with the confidence of a player enjoying the continuity that comes with regular first team starts with the winger getting the nod in 8 of Real Sociedad’s league matches so far this term and all of their Champions League games.
Imanol managing his squad as La Real shine on the UCL stage
There has been a slight sense of inevitability to Real Sociedad’s mid-season wobbles in recent years. Imanol Alguacil has treated every competition with respect, a factor that helped La Real get their hands on the 2020 Copa del Rey, ending a wait of more than 30 years for a major trophy.
However their tendency to go strong in both domestic and European cup competitions, not aided by what at times have been extensive injury problems, has contributed to Real Sociedad suffering a dip in form after the turn of the year and exiting the Europa League at the first knockout hurdle in each of the past three seasons.
This season feels different though. Real Sociedad are doing much better on the injury front and Imanol has already used 23 players so far in LaLiga with Jon Pacheco, Beñat Turrientes, Jon Ander Olasagasti and Urko Gonzalez among the latest batch of promising youngsters to get meaningful minutes.
Every outfield player has been rested at least once in the league with even key men like Robin Le Normand and Take Kubo dropping out of the starting lineup on more than one occasion.
That should stand what feels like a wiser Real Sociedad in good stead as we head into the middle and latter parts of what is shaping up to be an exciting season for everyone connected with the Txuri-Urdin.