Despite it being early days in the new La Liga season, heads are already being turned by the excitement being brought to the league by Real Sociedad. With their opening three league matches featuring 14 goals, they are becoming an early source of entertainment, finally appearing as a settled La Liga side.
The question on the lips of Sociedad fans now is: Can we challenge for the top four again? It is certainly not an impossibility. After David Moyes’ lackluster tenure, La Real have consistently improved, finishing 6th in the 2016/17 campaign. With manager Eusebio Sacristán now in charge for almost two years, the Basque outfit is looking set to kick on again, with a return to the big time in their sights.
Sociedad finished last season just eight points off Sevilla in fourth, and with Sacristán voicing his loyalty earlier this year, everyone in and around the club can feel confident of another impressive season. Despite being linked as the successor to outgoing Barcelona manager Luis Enrique, Sacristán told AS newspaper “I’m flattered that I’m considered as a future option for Barcelona. But it doesn’t take a second of my focus on my day to day.” It is clear that he has big plans with Sociedad, knowing that he needs his players to execute the perfect route to Champions League qualification.
In summer signings Diego Llorente and Adnan Januzaj, Sacristán has brought in players that have experience growing up with the world’s best players, at Real Madrid and Manchester United respectively. Llorente and Januzaj both made their debuts for La Real last weekend in a brilliant 4-2 away victory at Deportivo La Coruña, with Llorente coming off the bench to send his team 3-2 up in the 86th minute, and Januzaj looking hugely promising during his first start.
The style of football has undoubtedly become more free-flowing this season, as Sociedad have scored 10 goals already, with their defensive shape needing to be tweaked slightly if they are to improve their league position. Despite this, they are thus far grinding out results and becoming more competitive, with two snatch-and-grab away victories so far; at Celta Vigo on opening day, and Depor last Sunday.
Playing with a fashionable 4-3-3 formation, consisting of a rigid yet creative midfield that is already chipping in with plenty of goals and assists, Sociedad are becoming the complete package. The career of former Real Madrid man Asier Illarramendi has been rejuvenated in San Sebastián, where he had already racked up 147 league appearances for the Sociedad senior and B team. Alongside the Basque veteran and club captain Xabi Prieto in midfield, Illarra has been integral to Sociedad’s rapid start to the season. The two have contributed three goals and two assists so far, thereby having a hand in half the goals the team has scored this season.
There is also much more variety in attacking areas, with wider positions being utilised in the new system and more goals being created from crosses. The predatory instincts of Willian José and Juanmi have supplied five goals in the first three league matches of the season, with the two players taking up both wide and central striking positions. Their chemistry has been promising thus far, and their crisp finishing adds a clinical edge to the Sociedad frontline.
Sociedad had a relatively stable summer, meaning Sacristán was able to consolidate his squad. He would not, therefore, be surprised that they have started so brightly, as they were not reeling from any high-profile departures, unlike their main rivals in the top four race. Both Villarreal and Sevilla have lost important players this summer, and it has provided a perfect opportunity for Sociedad to take advantage of their early settling period with their new players.
Villarreal finished 5th last season, just three points above La Real, but have lost key players this summer such as Mateo Mussachio and Roberto Soldado. This has meant their first XI will need time to integrate in the first few weeks of the season. It was clear that this was the case, as Sociedad convincingly defeated The Yellow Submarine 3-0 at their home ground Anoeta on Matchday Two.
Despite an agreement being made in the summer over the sale of Mexican winger Carlos Vela to Los Angeles FC, there is a contingency plan in place for his delayed departure in January. The signing of Januzaj is an upgrade on Vela, especially if the young Belgian can deliver on the early promise he showed at United. Sergio Canales returning to fitness at the beginning of this season also brings some healthy competition to the squad.
La Real have a strong spine that can help them push for the top four, as well as doing well in other competitions, with the squad suitably equipped to do well in the Copa del Rey and the Europa League. Gerónimo Rulli is Sociedad’s established No.1 goalkeeper, despite an unsuccessful loan spell at Manchester City. Iñigo Martínez, with 193 league appearances for the club, will feature heavily and will be a leader in the biggest matches of the season from central defence. Basque veteran David Zurutuza in midfield also adds to an impressive spine, which Sacristán has now built around with some much-needed flair, with the hope of making Sociedad more enjoyable to watch this season.
Sociedad have already displayed that they have the edge against the teams below them, as well as their closest rivals in the race for the top four, and have set themselves up for a remarkable season. You only have to look at the successes of Hoffenheim, Nice, and Atalanta to see that with a combination of managerial stability, distinct playing identity, and a devoted fan following, a top four finish in a major European league is by no means impossible.
The standard of Basque football as a whole is improving exponentially with SD Eibar joining Athletic Bilbao and Sociedad in the top half of La Liga last season. Leading the way however in the Basque region is undoubtedly Real Sociedad, who are intent on a return to the pinnacle of European football. Along the way, they are looking to entertain the onlookers from the rest of the league, and at this rate, they will be right in the mix for a top four finish come May.