By Josh Parish
In the beautiful coastal city of San Sebastian stands the recently renovated Anoeta: the home Real Sociedad; a cathedral of Basque football passion.
With the seats moved in and the running track removed, the atmosphere generated by a 40,000 capacity crowd will be breathtaking – as soon as the club’s fervent fan base is allowed back.
In the words of president Jokin Aperribay: “the fans are the soul, the nourishment, and the reason for Real Sociedad.”
Despite their proud history and passionate support, however, Real Sociedad have not won a top-flight trophy since the glory days of the 1980s. Their average player salary is around 1/8th that of their Real Madrid or Barcelona counterparts.
So how are La Real sitting 2nd in the league, 5 & 11 points ahead of Real and Barca respectively?
“They can’t afford to buy the type of players that they have – so they created the players themselves,” La Liga journalist Alexandra Jonson told FNR’s The Full 90 with Josh & Lachie on Tuesday night.
Boasting the highest number of ‘one-club men’ in La Liga’s history, there is clearly something other than money persuading their best talent to stay.
“It’s such a unique club in the world of football today, because if you look at the squad, the majority of those players are not just youth products, they are from the small area – Gipuzkoa – where Real Sociedad is from, and this is the club they’ve grown up loving,” says Jonson.
“To be able to bring these players through the youth academy, and then have those players not wanting to leave at the first offer they get… it’s very, very rare.
“You have several players in the current squad who have the idea that they’re never going to leave.”
The emergence of young, home-grown talents over the past few seasons has demonstrated the efficacy of this approach. Holding midfielder Martin Zubimendi (21), left back Aihen Munoz (23), attacking midfielder Roberto Lopez (20) and electric teenage winger Ander Barrenetxea (18) have all played big minutes this season, while forward Mikel Oyarzabal (23) has broken into the Spain squad off the back of his impressive displays.
And while successful underdogs typically achieve their upsets via disciplined, risk-averse, counter-attacking play, Real Sociedad have done it in style.
“It’s a possession-holding, attacking team, I would say, but also really strong defensively,” continues Jonson.
“It’s the unity of the squad – you could pick out any player as the best, because they have so many that are such high quality. They would be star players at other clubs.
“But the key is all of those players are working as a unit. They’ve scored the most goals, and only Atletico Madrid has conceded fewer.
“Because they all care so much about the club and they come from the area, I think they have something special within the group that you just can’t create if all the players come from different places.”
So could La Real really do the unthinkable, and win their first league title since 1982?
“It should be impossible for them to even be a contender – in normal circumstances.
“Real Madrid and Barcelona are having really bad seasons at the same time, which is really unusual.
“And then there is one thing that Real Sociedad have more than any other team in their situation, and that is a depth in the squad.
“Barcelona, Real Madrid or Atletico have different resources, so the players they throw in from the bench can be just as good or better than the starting players in most teams in the rest of the league. This is why it’s so hard for any other team to compete with them for an entire season.
“But what we’re seeing in this Real Sociedad team is that in almost every position, you have two players that are almost at the same level.
“[Head coach] Imanol [Alguacil] has been playing different starting lineups and different formations basically every game. And particularly at the start of the season, we didn’t see any difference with these rotations. You don’t realise it’s a different team until you actually look at the roster!
“The big question is the experience: they are so young. It’s the youngest team in La Liga. Against Villarreal the average age of their starting XI was 23. So the signing of David Silva is very important for them.”
Having played 6 games in November, and set for 7 games in December, the fixture congestion is beginning to mount. Will their hectic schedule eventually catch up with them?
“They are playing a lot in the Europa League, and their group [containing Napoli, AZ Alkmaar and Rijeka] has been really tough compared to the groups of Granada or Villarreal. They are starting to get injuries with David Silva and Mikel Oyarzabal.
“Every matches they are playing, they’re still the best team on the pitch – but they’re not scoring the goals. They have problems with [strikers] Willian Jose and Alexander Isak, who are not really in form at the moment.
“But if there is any time any other team [outside the big 3] could potentially challenge for a league title, it’s Real Sociedad this season.”