It is ten years since Real Sociedad missed out on La Liga by two points as the potent strike-force of Nihat Kavheci and Darko Kovacevic hit a combined tally of 43 goals to lead them to a runners-up spot. Xabi Alonso, the World Cup winner now with Real Madrid, won the Don Balon for 2003 while French coach Raynald Denoeueix won manager of the year.
The following year Denoeueix all but disappeared from the game and a relegation to the second tier followed in 2007 with the club crippled with debts. Now, they are back at the top table and on the up again.
Perhaps sixth in La Liga is not quite on par with Denoeueix’s superb side of 2002-03, but they are only five points off a return to the Champions League where they have not competed since 2004. They are now under another Frenchman, a former goalkeeper by the name of Philippe Montanier, and have built a vibrant side based on talented young players.
The revolution started slowly, Sociedad were amongst more familiar company of bottom in the November of Montanier’s first year, but he managed to turn it around to steer the club to a respectable twelfth placed finish. The kids were given a chance, 20 year old centre-half Inigo Martinez, 21 year old winger Antoine Griezmann and 19 year old centre-midfielder Ruben Pardo all indicated a bright future. Pardo in particular, dubbed the new Xabi Alonso, Real Madrid offered €10 million before he’d even appeared for Sociedad.
Martinez is now a regular starter at the back with another youth product, the 22 year old Asier Illaramendi, offering protection to the back four in midfield. Griezmann plays on the left side of Monatnier’s attacking midfield 3 and has scored four goals this season. The squad is also offered depth by target man Imanol Agirretxe and midfielders Xabi Preito, David Zurutuza and Gorka Elustondo, all graduates of the club’s youth set-up and fully ingrained in life at the Anoeta. Pardo has been given the cautious treatment of easing him into the spotlight, making 9 starts and a further 9 appearances as a substitute.
It is this reliance on homegrown talent that has allowed Montanier to operate on a shoestring. The club’s sole signing of the Frenchman’s first summer in charge was a short term deal for Parma’s defensive midfielder McDonald Mariga for whom they forked just £1 million. Then last summer, they turned Carlos Vela’s loan spell from Arsenal permanent for £4 million after he hit 12 goals last season. Jose Angel, a 22 year old left-back from Roma, has also been added, for free, and will join the club at the end of the season.
This season the young Mexican Vela is Sociedad’s top scorer with ten. Having struggled in the Premier League with Arsenal due to a slight frame and a crisis in confidence, the 23 year old has thrived against the high-lines of La Liga and has accounted for 26% of Sociedad’s 38 league goals as well as registering 5 assists.
He’s also shown his versatility as Montanier has deployed him right across the front three; left, right, through the middle, it doesn’t seem to matter to Vela who has got on with the job to minimal fuss. Arsenal, perhaps ruing the prematurity with which they released him, have the option to buy him back for €4 million.
It is Montanier’s positive style that has ensured only the top 3 of Barcelona, Real and Atletico Madrid have scored more than Sociedad’s 38, a style that urges possession football with an emphasis on width. They have lost just once in fourteen matches, they have beaten Barcelona (the only team to do it in La Liga so far) and Malaga, and they sit in a Europa League place.
It has been a great turnaround from the days of Chris Coleman and his doomed tenure in the Spanish Segunda, with Montanier, a rookie coach of previous experience with just Boulogne and Valenciennes, relying on not money, but young talent and tactical nous.
The 48 year old Montanier will surely have won himself a few admirers with the job he is doing in the Basque Country of San Sebastien, in a league plagued with growing debts, Sociedad are looking upwards on a diet of homegrown talent and just the odd clever signing.
It may not be the days of Alonso, Kovacevic and Nihat a decade ago when they came agonisingly close to winning La Liga, but it sure is just as remarkable.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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