Not for 17 years had Barcelona and Real Madrid both lost their games before a Clasico. Not since 2018 had they both lost on the same weekend. When one rival is suffering, it’s customary for the other to be thriving. Custom, however, has been disposed of this season, with Barca and Real Madrid both struggling badly.
This has opened the door for an outsider to crash through at the top of La Liga. Atletico Madrid have enjoyed a strong start to the campaign, but Diego Simeone’s side have already established themselves as a third force in Spanish soccer, finishing top of the pile in 2014.
Real Sociedad, however, are true outsiders—and currently setting the pace at the top of the table.
La Real’s rise has been building for a number of years. Last season saw them occupy a place in the top four for much of the campaign only for their form to suffer after lockdown. A sixth place finish still represented progression from the ninth place finish charted the season before, but didn’t offer a true reflection of how well Sociedad had played.
This season, Imanol Alguacil’s side have lost just one of their 11 La Liga fixtures. There’s a growing confidence, certainly at the recently redeveloped Anoeta, that Real Sociedad can make their current position stick. “Well, who knows,” Nacho Monreal shrugged when asked if La Real could really win the Spanish title this season.
“Logically, the favourites are Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico but I saw Leicester win the league and in week 30, everyone said: “they’ll slip away, they’ll slip away”, and they never did. Us win it? We’re not thinking long term. We are trying to win all our games and enjoy our football and then tomorrow let’s see where we are. One thing I’m clear about is that we don’t feel inferior to anyone.”
Neither should they feel inferior. Alguacil has put in place a framework which should sustain Real Sociedad in a title race. His 4-1-4-1 shape, which can easily morph into more of a 4-2-3-1, allows his team to adapt and tailor their approach depending on the opponent and task at hand. La Real are both a proactive and reactive side.
They boast some of the most exciting young players in the Spanish game at this moment in time. Mikel Oyarzabal, for instance, is at the vanguard of the country’s next generation. Mikel Merino has proven himself as an elite level midfield dynamo these past two seasons. Martin Zubimendi is another with a bright future ahead of him.
Then there’s Alexander Isak, the Swedish striker who was compared to Zlatan Ibrahimovic earlier in his career. While Isak struggled to live up to his billing at Borussia Dortmund, he has thrived at Real Sociedad, resuming a career trajectory which has him on course to become one of the game’s best centre forwards.
Monreal added some much-needed mental steel and experience last season, with the arrival of David Silva this summer only strengthening Real Sociedad’s squad further in this regard. In these two figures, Alguacil has a pair of older heads to keep the younger members of his squad on the straight and narrow. There is a generational balance at the Anoeta.
Silva was a statement signing, with the former Manchester City playmaker publicly turning down the overtures of Lazio despite verbally agreeing to join the Serie A side. At 34 years old, Silva is into the twilight of his career, but his creative mind remains as sharp as ever. He has every quickly become Sociedad’s pacemaker, filling the void that was left by Martin Odegaard upon his return to Real Madrid..
Tough tests are on the horizon for Alguacil and his players. Real Sociedad will face Barcelona at the Camp Nou before Christmas with a Basque derby away to Athletic Club soon after that. Then comes a tricky trip to Andalucia to take on Sevilla in the new year before another away day at high-flying Villarreal before January is out. The next two months will be a real test of La Real’s title credentials. We will know a lot more about them after this period.
Naturally, Sociedad don’t have the squad depth of Barcelona or Real Madrid, or even Atletico Madrid. It could be argued Villarreal, also in the hunt near the top of La Liga, have more in the way of options. But barring an injury crisis, Alguacil’s side should stay competitive for the full campaign. La Real look to have learned the lessons of last season. They’re for real.