To understand my admiration for Real Sociedad, first we must talk a little about their brilliant manager Eusebio Sacristan, also known as “Ube” during his playing days. I must start by stating that I wanted Eusebio to succeed Luis Enrique as the Barcelona coach for this upcoming 2017/2018 campaign. Eusebio began his managing career as Frank Rijkaard’s assistant, up until 2008, where he enjoyed and suffered with the fellow Dutchman. The year Rijkaard left Barcelona and Guardiola was appointed, Eusebio logically left the club as well. That same year Luis Enrique was named manager for Barcelona B, a team he would manage until 2011 when he left to be Roma’s head coach. Upon Lucho’s departure, Eusebio followed in his footsteps and took control of Barcelona B. In 2013, Eusebio would already show early signs of his brilliance, when Barcelona B reached an incredible third place in second division, tying the teams best run in their history (Luis Enrique also finished 3rd). Like Lucho (2013/2014), Eusebio also coached at Celta for a year (2009/2010). It wasn’t until 2015 when “Ube” was appointed as Real Sociedad’s head coach. After comparing both careers, “Ube” is more than an ideal candidate to occupy the Barcelona position in the future.
Real Sociedad have similar playing patterns to Barcelona, as their coach formed himself with the Catalan giants. They prioritise the ball, conduct every possession with a purpose, use positional play, attack down the wings, and have a well-defined system.
To talk a little about each positions characteristics, Real Sociedad have Rulli in goal. He is good with his feet, is not afraid to play short, and has excellent distribution. The teams fullbacks possess enormous importance, as much of Real’s style of play involves wing play and crossing. These two are the players that provide width for Real. While Carlos Martinez mostly participates solely in the final third with a first time cross, Yuri is way more versatile. He can defend, run up the field, dribble, cross and even score. Real’s centre backs (Martinez and Navas) are very organised, have good defensive skills, and are comfortable with the ball at their feet. They are great at reading plays, and easily recognise whether they need to play short or play long.
Illaramendi performs a fundamental role in the squad. He plays as a deep lying midfielder in a three-man midfield. He participates very often, and his role varies depending on the match. He sometimes performs as an “N’Zonzi”, conducting many short passes to keep the ball circulating. At other times, he acts as a “Roque Mesa” or “Rudy”, participating a lot with ball circulation but also playing as a deep lying playmaker. Zurutuza is the balance of the team. A box to box midfielder that has the vision to create chances, the stamina to make the difference in both the initial and the final third, and the capacity to dictate Real’s possessions, along with Illaramendi. Xabi Prieto plays as a RCM, but his role varies into a more advanced role than Zurutuza. He performs more as a ‘number 10’, possessing a lot of vision, dribbling skills, and chance creation.
Vela and Oyarzabal are two skillful and quick wingers, who tend to drift inwards in the final third, leaving width to both fullbacks. They also play a key role in Real’s defensive structure. Willian Jose is a ‘pivot’ striker, the kind that has stupendous physical presence, always winning aerial duels and possessing astonishing finishing capabilities.
Now that you have basic background information on Eusebio, his style of play, and a short description of his starting 11, let’s get into specifics:
Real like to overpopulate their defensive line. For numerous reasons, which include having wingers with the physical capabilities to play vertically to go forward and defend, to make it harder for teams to penetrate their defensive line, and because it allows the back four to focus on creating a solid central defensive block. They often position themselves in a 6-3-1 shape, with Oyarzabal and Vela positioning themselves near C. Martinez and Yuri. Real remain steady and calm in this formation until winning possession, in which case both wingers make forward runs to help push the ball up-field.
Depending on the match situation, they can vary from a 6-3-1 to a 5-4-1 with a diamond midfield. It is rather common to notice Real switching from one to the other during the same rival possession. Here is a closer look at the defensive line they form, which, as stated, can range from a 6-3-1 to a 5-4-1:
The first clip illustrates how much patience Real have when forming their defensive line. All 6 “defenders” remain steady until winning possession. Notice how synchronised Vela and Oyarzabal’s runs are in the first clip. The second clip just shows Real maintaining this successful defensive block, as Atleti knock the ball around. The third clip is just an illustration of their 5-4-1, and how their strategy remains the same (winger involvement, high line). The last clip is merely a perfect example of Real switching formations throughout the same play, and how they were successfully able to turn a defensive situation into a rapid counter attack. Now that you know how Real Sociedad position themselves for their low-block formation, let’s see how their high pressing looks.
Upon observing several matches, I noticed a couple of similarities when opposing teams tried to play out of the back. For reference, I gathered clips from their home game in Anoeta against Barcelona.
Their high press basically consists of a 1-3-2, or a 1-3-1-1, both escorted by Illaramendi. The line of three involves both wingers and Zurutuza, while the following two men are Xabi Prieto and Willian Jose. Out of these two, it is of immense importance that one puts pressure on the ball while the other covers passing lines, this causes teams to make desperate decisions they would normally not conduct. Here is a better depiction of their high presses:
Notice how most plays end in the same situation. By pressing them effectively, timing their runs, and man-marking near passing options, Real manage to create numerical superiority down the wings when putting pressure on the ball. This causes Barcelona to either play long, or play an uncomfortable ball to Neymar, who is closely marked by C. Martinez or Vela.
As shown in the video, they intensify their pressure when the ball is near the wings.
As you might have noticed in some clips in the first video, their mid-block involves man-marking near passing options. More specifically, Zurutuza man-marks Sergio Busquets while Illaramendi man-marks Andre Gomes. Every time Ter-Stegen or Mascherano get the ball, this man-mark intensifies to further difficult Barcelona’s attempt to play out of the back. By marking Busquets, Barcelona no longer have a secure passing option that connects the left side of their team with the right, making it extremely difficult to circulate the ball. Below is an illustration of their mid-block pressing:
As you may have observed, this video too shows Real’s high pressing in their 1-3-2 formation. Now look closely at the first clip, notice Illaramendi looking at Andre Gomes, and as he recognises the ball will be played towards Mascherano, Illaramendi already shifts his body positioning to face the ball. As stated in the video, Illaramendi and Zurutuza’s man-marking then intensifies.
Now that we have taken a more in-depth analysis of how Real defend, let’s look at what they are capable of doing when in possession.
WITH THE BALL:
When possessing the ball, Eusebio’s team shines through a variety of characteristics ranging from steady possessions and positional play, to long balls and crosses. Their game ranges depending on who their striker is (Willian Jose or Juanmi), since WJ acts as a classical pivot striker while Juanmi offers much more speed and mobility.
Real Sociedad have a similar tranquillity to Barcelona when playing out of the back, as they never crack down when facing a high pressure. Both their passing capabilities and Willian Jose account for such ease. Upon facing high presses, they always have the option to play to their attacking reference point, Willian Jose, for him to act as a pivot. After they successfully do so, Real beat the first line of pressure and are free to combine. To further illustrate his pivotal role, here is a video showing how Real turn to this playing option quite often, and how well it works when pressured high:
Clearly, this aspect is emphasised in practice, and given a lot of training hours for it to work as well as it does.
Style of play:
One of the most appealing aspects of Eusebio’s team is their brilliant combination plays. They have no problem combining with teammates to play out of the back, out of pressure, create numerical and qualitative superiority, and create scoring chances. They use a common concept to perfection, known as “the third man.” This concept involves two people passing the ball while another teammate makes a movement into a more favourable position than any of the two who initially passed. Real apply this method so well, and have started to implement a similar concept, only with one more teammate involved, called “the fourth man concept.” A bit confused? If so, hopefully this video clarifies everything:
As explained in the video, most of these passes towards the 3rd man, or in some cases 4th, are played the way the passer is facing. This is a simple concept to play the person who has the better look at the whole field.
The first two clips are examples of Real using this principle to play out of a mid-block pressure, and to play out of a high pressure. The third and fourth clip show the most advanced concept, the 4th man. Three Sociedad players combine in a triangle to then play a further teammate who has either positional or qualitative superiority. These rapid combination plays can be conducted in any area of the field, and are an accurate depiction of Real Sociedad’s overall style of play.
Here are a few clips varying in game situations, which all give a better idea of what Real like to do with the ball under certain scenarios:
The first clip shows Real playing back after an attacking corner. The purpose of this is to reorganise their team and de-congest the final third, which was clustered with Atleti players. They then form a triangle, creating numerical superiority down the wing, to then look for a cross into the box. Notice Vela asking for the ball on the opposite end as the play starts building up; this is a clear sign of all players being synchronised into having perfect chemistry. The second clip illustrates Rulli playing long to Willian Jose to beat the initial line of pressure. WJ then lays it off for his teammates to build up the play. After doing so, they are free to combine and attack. The third clip shows a common run in Real Sociedad’s matches. As Vela gets the ball, he starts drifting towards the middle of the field. This is done for two main reasons: Vela is a lefty, and to make space for Carlos Martinez who is then free to cross the ball into the box. The following clip shows how Sociedad’s defend with a 6-3-1, use Willian Jose as a pivot, then Zurutuza waiting for teammates to combine with, and finally Oyarzabal making a run down the line to later play a dangerous ball into the striker. Again, all traits that are constantly repeated throughout Real Sociedad’s season.
Yuri is fundamental to the team’s versatility. His ability to play vertically allows Real to advance up the field in quick fashion. Like shown in the video, not only can he run up the field with possession, he can also be very creative in the final third. His dribbling capacity has vastly improved since last season, as he was responsible for many take-on’s and chances created in the final third. This video illustrates Yuri’s versatility:
As recently explained, the first clip shows Atleti having to track back to catch up to Yuri, whereas the second clips just shows his associative qualities and dribbling talent to win a penalty.
Real’s counters were fairly similar in most games, with Zurutuza being the main man to connect the defence with the forwards. Sociedad look for him when they recognise the chance to conduct a counter-attack. Zurutuza does a brilliant job at reading the play, deciding to either run at the opposition or create a scoring opportunity for his team. Here is how Real Sociedad counter-attack:
Here are two scenarios, one with Zurutuza winning the ball and conducting a through pass from deep to place Oyarzabal in a scoring position, and another with Oyarzabal and Yuri finding Zurutuza after they won the ball back. He then carries the ball up the field, to perform a perfect delivery to assist Yuri. Again, Yuri’s verticality allows him to win the ball back in his field and score within a matter of seconds.
Real Sociedad’s style of play is rather spectacular. They prioritise the ball, try to be the protagonists in every match, and are not afraid to play out of the back. Having a manager that formed himself at Barcelona, Eusebio’s team effectively utilise positional play to their advantage in nearly any given situation. Quick combination plays are also seen in most possessions, and the purpose of such range from long possessions, direct counter’s, or simply to create space for their fullbacks to cross. With Yuri out to PSG, and Inigo likely moving to Barcelona, it will be interesting to see how Eusebio manages to keep the squad functioning like it did this past season.