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Behind Enemy Lines: Real Sociedad

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Alexander Isak’s goals and Silva’s return dragged Real Sociedad out of its midseason slump. How do they matchup against Real Madrid?

Real Sociedad v Deportivo Alaves - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

The Real Sociedad Project Keeps Improving

After an already great 2019-20 season, Real Sociedad execute the press-and-possess game plan of coach Imanol Alguacil even more effectively than before, and that has been reflected in their 2020/21 numbers and results. As the chart below shows, compared to last season they are accumulating more points, scoring more goals, creating higher quality shots, as well as conceding fewer goals, shots, and expected goals.

At the moment Real Sociedad have the 4th best attack and defense in La Liga with 41 goals scored and 20 conceded, which is backed up by the 2nd best expected goals created (40.9) and conceded (19.4). Despite the 0-4 thrashing they suffered recently at the hands of Manchester United, their defensive numbers are among the top in Europe.

They are achieving these performances with revenues and wage bills that are roughly 7x smaller than Real Madrid’s. Local rivals Athletic Bilbao get a lot of plaudits for their Basque-only policy and youth academy system, but Real Sociedad might have the stronger academy at the moment. Half of their first team squad is composed of home-grown players, and according to a CIES Football Observatory study published last year, Real Sociedad had the 6th most youth academy trainees playing in the big 5 European leagues (26). In the last couple of years, they have complemented this great academy production with some smart transfers, from interesting young players like Mikel Merino and Alexander Isak to veterans like Nacho Monreal and David Silva.

Offense: Isak and Silva Drag La Real Out of Their Midseason Slump

Alguacil has built his team in a 4-3-3 shape in possession with some positional play elements. The players have internalized this system and its principles so well that they no longer have pre-defined movements, they kind of improvise within the framework of the system. This makes their buildup phase fluid and consistent, better able to deal with the opposition press.

As shown by the underlying numbers, Real Sociedad are one of the strongest and most stable collective structures in La Liga. Results can go up or down but the team plays consistently the same week after week.

However, not everything has gone according to plan in San Sebastián. During December and January, the team only won 1 out of 11 league games. The injuries of veteran playmaker David Silva—absent for a total of 9 league games—and star forward Mikel Oyárzabal—absent for 5 games—played a key role in this slump. La Real could still move the ball well in the first two thirds, but things got murky in the final third without Silva’s creativity with the ball and Oyarzabal’s astute movement without the ball. To make things worse, strikers Alexander Isak and Willian José suffered bad streaks and were not putting away their chances.

Efficiency in front of goal (and results) have improved significantly over the last month thanks chiefly to Silva’s return and Isak finding his form. Despite his 35 years of age, Silva still provides elite creative output, and has become la Real’s key player in moving the ball into danger zones. His dribbling remains sharp and has proved to be a vital tool for la Real to keep the ball in the opposition half and disorder opposition deep blocks.

During the winter transfer market, la Real decided to be bold and loan Willian José to Wolverhampton Wolves with an option to buy. The Brazlian had led the forward line well for many years, but at 29 years of age, he was a declining asset and la Real seek to sell him while they could still fetch a good price for him.

With José’s departure, la Real gave 21-year-old Alexander Isak the undisputed starting striker role. Few young forwards combine his skillset: great link-up play in transition, excellent at carrying the ball forward, fast and decisive at attacking spaces. The Swede can become a world-class striker, but he struggled being consistent during his time at la Real. Having to share minutes with José did not help because Isak rarely got to start several games in a row and thus get that nice, continuous run of games that can build the confidence and consistency of a young player.

A more impatient club would have simply thought about the short term and kept starting José over Isak, but Real Sociedad trusted that Isak had the potential to do much more and they took the leap of faith. Isak has answered this trust with the best two months of his career at la Real, racking up 9 goals and 1 assist in the last 6 league games.

Last week against Alavés, Silva and Isak demonstrated how dangerous they can be, with Isak scoring a hat-trick and Silva providing two of the assists for those goals.

Defense: Real Sociedad’s Spectacular Pressing Numbers

Real Sociedad’s pressing has kicked into a new gear this season, and has arguably been the most improved phase of play for Real Sociedad this season. In terms of tactics, the pressing has become more aggressive than last season, and in terms of execution, the players now do it with greater determination an cohesion. The forward three press in a more zonal way, shifting in unison from side to side depending on where the opponent has the ball. The players don’t necessarily rush forward to tackle and steal the ball, but instead they can stay back and use their cover shadows to block the passing lanes of the opposition players during the buildup. Merino and Silva will move forward to join the press and track the opposition’s midfielders.

The example below from a Europa League game against Napoli, shows some of the principles we have discussed: the forward trio (Portu - José - Januzaj) shifting towards the right side of Napoli’s buildup, José and Januzaj using their cover shadows to block multiple passing options, and Merino and Silva pushing up against the Napoli double pivot.

To measure how intensely a team press we can use a metric called passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA). The PPDA metric is calculated by dividing the number of passes allowed by the defending team by the total number of defensive actions; both values are calculated with reference to a specific area of the pitch, usually the opposition half. The lower the PPDA value, the more aggressive the press.

Understat data shows that Real sociedad has a PPDA in the opposition half of 7.77, which ranks 5th among all the big 5 European leagues and 3rd in La Liga after Celta de Vigo and Sevilla. For comparison, the most intense pressing team in this data set is, unsurprisingly, Bielsa’s Leeds United with 6.78, while the team that presses least is Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United with 18.06. Real Madrid ranks 30th with 9.56.

The chart below shows some of the most intense pressing sides in the big 5 leagues, with the x-axis showing PPDA and the y-axis showing the percentage of pressures in the attacking third. In the latter metric, Real Sociedad rank 10th.

These improvements in pressing have boosted la Real’s defensive numbers, which rank among the very best in the big 5 European leagues:

  • 2nd fewest shots conceded
  • 4th fewest expected goals conceded
  • 6th fewest passes and carries allowed into the final third

This aggressive pressing, however, comes at a cost. Real Sociedad defenders and midfielders are not exactly the fastest in the business, so to compensate for this and prevent opponents from constantly starting counters, Real Sociedad make constant use of tactical fouls. Among the big 5 leagues, Real Sociedad rank as the third team that interrupts play most frequently through fouls (surprisingly, Lopetegui’s Sevilla ranks first).

When the opponent has the ball, Real Sociedad commits a foul every 82 seconds. To provide a bit of a comparison:

  • Atletico commits a foul every 102 seconds of opposition play
  • Liverpool every 106 seconds
  • Real Madrid every 107 seconds
  • Manchester City every 129 seconds
  • Cádiz (one of the least aggressive defenses in Europe) every 157 seconds.

Matchup against Real Madrid

For this game, Real Sociedad has to deal with the injuries of defensive leader Aritz Elustondo, right back Joseba Zaldúa, and backup striker Carlos Fernández. Mikel Merino will be absent too due to a disciplinary suspension. Robin Le Normand will replace Elustondo and start as a central defender alongside Igor Zubeldia. To replace Merino, Alguacil could choose playmaker Ander Guevara if he wants more creativity with the ball or the more aggressive Jon Guridi if he wants more pressing and defensive workrate.

For the right winger role, we will see if Alguacil continues starting Cristian Portu—more aggressive at making runs—like he did in previous game against Alavés, or if he chooses Adnan Januzaj—more creative with the ball.

If I had to take a guess, Alguacil will go for the plan that provides more workrate without the ball and pressing, so the lineup will likely be

  • Keeper: Alex Remiro
  • Center backs: Igor Zubeldia on the right, Robin Le Normand on the left
  • Full backs: Andoni Gorosabel on the right, Nacho Monreal on the left
  • Midfield trio: Asier Illarramendi in the holding role, Jon Guridi on the left, and David Silva on the right
  • Forwards: Oyarzabal on the left, Isak as the striker, Portu on the right

Even though their defensive numbers sound scary, Real Sociedad are a favorable matchup for Real Madrid in a similar way to how Atalanta was. This season Real Madrid have improved their buildup mechanisms and performed much better against high-pressing sides like Real Sociedad than against deep blocks. The blueprint and personnel selection to defeat Real Sociedad could end up being very similar to what was used against Atalanta.

For this game, Zidane finally recovers some previously injured players, with Odriozola, Marcelo, Valverde, and Rodrygo coming back to the matchday squad. However, knowing Zidane’s conservatism and lack of rotation this season, I would expect the same XI that faced Atalanta midweek with no changes, including a continuation of the Isco false 9 experiment.

Isco’s role against Atalanta had an impact in dragging defenders out of position and articulating the attack through good combinations with Mendy and Vinicius. The Mendy - Isco - Vinicius connection on the left was arguably the most positive aspect of what Real did in possession against Atalanta, and it would make sense to see Zidane use this again.

Real Sociedad center backs do struggle against faster, more physical attackers, as it happened in the 0-4 defeat against Manchester United, so there is also an argument for starting Mariano, or at the very least, using him as an impact sub.

It will also be interesting to see if Rodrygo gets some minutes during the second half after a long absence due to injuries. The young attacker has shown to be a more clinical and precise forward than Vinicius and a more aggressive and intelligent runner than Asensio, so if he’s able to go back to his pre-injury form quickly, he can make significant contributions to the attack.

As far as matchups, watch out for the damage that Mendy and Vinicius can do against the right side of Real Sociedad’s defense. Real Sociedad attack more heavily on the right side (the side where Silva plays), but that is also their weaker defensive side. Manchester United won their Europa League tie against la Real by using the speed of Rashford and Bruno Fernandes to create counterattacks on that side that blew la Real’s high defensive line out of the water. Mendy and Vinicius are not as productive as the Manchester United attacking duo, but their aggressive runs could be used in a similar way. If Isco starts, he can try to lure center back Igor Zubeldia out of position and create spaces that Vinicius and Mendy can run into.

On the other side of the pitch, watch out for the battle of Alexander Isak and Oyarzabal against Casemiro, Nacho and Varane. The pair are aggressive, smart, and fast, and they can create dangerous counters to punish any defensive disorder from Real’s defense. Isak can drive the ball really well from deeper zones and has quick combination play, so it will be important that Varane and Casemiro to stay close and prevent him from successfully completing these actions.

However, that’s not the only threat Casemiro will have to deal with. David Silva excels at receiving the ball behind opposition pressing lines, and if la Real get the ball to Silva behind Kroos’ back, he might have plenty of time and space to launch exceptional through balls to his fast teammates in the forward line. Casemiro will have to watch out for this, too, and Nacho and Varane will have to keep the defensive line high and compress the amount of space that Silva can operate in.