We often speak about the competitive nature of teams in different leagues in Europe. There is this strange idea that most leagues aren’t really competitive by nature, and I think that’s a rather arrogant view of looking at it. I think this has been said a lot about the Spanish league and I think there’s no real truth in it.
Barcelona obviously is a very good side, but what fascinated me in Spain were the three teams fighting for UWCL spots: Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, and Real Sociedad. In this tactical analysis piece, I will look closely to the latter – as they finished second in the Primera Ibedrola with six points more than number three Real Madrid. They now will face Bayern München for a place in the UWCL group stages.
Real Sociedad have been present in the Real Sociedad for quite some time now and the last season can be seen as a great development from recent seasons. In 18/19 they became 7th, in 19/20 they became 6th and in 20/21 they became 5th. Every year they tried and achieved a better ranking on the table than the year before. Their aim was to grow into the higher rankings of the league and they did that, but in this analysis, we will look into the tactics and see how second place was achieved.
The two most used formations by La Real were the 4-1-4-1 and the 4-3-3. In the last few games, the formations looked like this on paper:
For the majority of the games, Sociedad played with a 4-1-4-1, and their aim was to have sufficient defensive coverage in case of a counter-attack, but still have a high-tempo ball movement with their four-woman midfield. The back line consists of Nuria Rabano on left back, Vanegas and Etxezarreta as the central defensive duo, and Poljak on the right back position. This doesn’t change throughout the formations. Torre plays as the deepest midfielder or defensive midfielder. Her role in the 4-1-4-1 is more defensively and acts as the connection between defence and midfield, in the 4-3-3 she moves up the pitch and is more involved with the passes going forward.
Another constant in midfield is Gili on the left central midfield position, but the right position changes. Eizaguirre or Garcia play there – but with Eizaguirre, it’s never really certain where she will play. She can play on the right and the left in midfield – centrally and wide – but also in the attack as a winger or even as a striker. Her versatility is a huge asset to this squad. Franssi always plays as the lone striker and Sarriegi is a versatile wide midfielder/striker who can play on both wings, as well in midfield as in the attack.
As often argued, a formation is just a starting point to start a game or re-start after a certain development, but in the image above you can see that even in the 4-3-3 – Torre will play deeper. In fact, she plays on the same level as the full backs, which gives an interesting 3-2 dynamic for the defensive players.
Build-up and attacking play
Real Sociedad are calm on the ball, especially when building up from the back. The goalkeeper has the role of acting as the 5th passing defender and is actively engaged in the build-up. The key to building up is to pass the ball at a high tempo and pace, to create space elsewhere on the pitch.
Next to that they want to pass the ball quickly in the defensive third, but be more passive and patient with it in the middle third – they focus on carrying the ball there and dragging players out of their position in the process.
By combining these two things, they try to create space in the final third, which can be triggered by one through pass or key pass.
In the video above you can see how La Real do this against Rayo Vallecano. They use the passing, the movements to drag players out of their position and the decisive pass by Eizaguiire sets Franssi up for a goalscoring opportunity.
In the video above we see Real Sociedad in their game against Madrid CF, playing from right to left. What they do here is that the full backs go higher up the pitch, leaving the two central defenders alone with the goalkeeper. What creates more space is the fact that Torre drops down between the two central defenders. This meant that Madrid needed to follow through with their marking and opening up space in the defensive lines. Left back Nuria Rabano recognised that and recognised the run behind the defence, and provided the long ball that give way to another 1v1 with the goalkeeper.
When they get pressed high and don’t have the luxury of time on their hand, they need to revert to other measures. In the game against Sevilla, we see an aggressive press in the attacking third and middle third from Sevilla’s perspective. The preferred passing game can’t be played and therefore they revert to the long ball.
The long ball is played into the attacking midfielders who aren’t only technically gifted, but also have a physical presence that allows them to win (aerial) duels, control the ball and pass it forward to the striker(s). In winning the ball, passing it forward, and giving the through ball – from the long ball – they are set up in a 1v1, as you have seen in the video above.
Defensive style of play
In the defensive side of the game, Real Sociedad need to react and like to have two lines of defence. This can be a 4-5-1 without the ball or even a 5-3-2 without the ball, depending on how deep Torre will drop between the central defenders.
Torre drops deep between the central defenders, effectively making a back-three. The full backs complete the back-five or a 3-4-1-2, depending on how they position themselves.
So how do they conduct themselves defensively? They want to make sure they always overload the opposition and limit them in their movement. They give room on the flanks because they have the conception that dominating the central zones is more important.
In this game against Sevilla, we see that Sevilla doesn’t find many passing options through the middle, but resort to looking for the wide areas with long balls. When they do that, La Real struggle to sufficiently deal with the attacks and concede goalscoring opportunities.
In the video above you can see what happens when the opposition tries to attack through the middle with a through ball. Initially, it seems dangerous, but because the central areas are marked very well and overloaded, the opposition has to go to the wide areas. Real Sociedad do really well to block passing lanes and in the end the opposition only has the option to shoot, which didn’t trouble the goalkeeper too much.
When they have a solid defensive line at the back and the opposition is doing their build-up, Real Sociedad do have a good way of dealing with the attacks.
Transition defence to attack
Another phase of play we can look at is the transition phase from defence to attack. How do Real Sociedad convert from a deep defensive formation to an attacking formation within a few seconds? As we have seen La Real used the defensive midfielder a lot in the defensive phases of the game and the midfield consisted of the attacking + central midfielders + wide players. As soon as they regain possession of the ball the striker goes higher and is a player to receive and hold the ball.
After that, she makes runs towards the flanks or remains in her position to give her teammates the time to progress up the pitch as well. This can be seen in a few examples of counter-attacking football employed by Real Sociedad.
In the video above you see Real Sociedad against Rayo Vallecano when Vallecano have the ball. Real Sociedad have six players behind the ball, with the whole midfield dropping deep as well, with Eizaguirre as the most progressive player. As soon as they intercept the ball they go into attacking mode.
Because of the high regain and the physicality of Eizaguirre, the team can progress quite easily into the middle third. Vallecano have seven players in the defensive lines, but Real Sociedad do have six going into that middle third and they can pose a real threat. Especially when Eizaguirre holds on to the ball and allows the wingers to make runs down the line. After the pass comes and the cross comes in the box, we see the strikers and the left winger attacking that cross – posing threat to a defence because of their pace and movement, not because of their numerical superiority.
In this counter-attack against Sevilla they conceded a corner first. It’s an interesting situation because as defence you play very deep, but the attacking side will be mostly in the penalty area too. Initially, they get the ball but aren’t quick with going forward and allowing the rest defence of Sevilla to re-group.
What’s interesting here is that on one hand the defender plays back to the goalkeeper who will kick it long into an area where no player is situated yet. Eizaguirre makes the run into that area, dragging defenders with her while she tries to create something. At the same time, she opens space for Franssi who was playing deeper, to go into and pose a threat to the Sevilla central defenders.
In the video above you can see Real Sociedad in their game against Eibar. Real Sociedad regain possession of the ball on the right side of the pitch and that’s also where the heavy marking is employed by Eibar. The pressure they want to put on Real Sociedad is aggressive, but La Real manages to surpass that by having high tempo passes and runners. You can see that the two runners on the left have a lot space to make their runs into.
Franssi passes the ball to Eizaguirre and after that, she goes into the striker position high on the pitch. Eizaguirre comes into the central zones and zone 14, while she allows space for her teammate to go into the left wide area and provide support from there. In the end, Eizaguirre carries the ball into the box and she is defended well, but these counter-attacks do give Real Sociedad strength in attack.
Transition attack to defence
Due to the attacking set up employed by La Real, they have to risk being exposed in a counter-attack in transition. This was very visible in their game against Madrid CF last season. What usually happens is that one central defender stays very deep, while the other central defenders form a two with Torre and the full backs are positioned high on the pitch together with the wingers.
In case of a counter-attack by the opposition, they can get caught on the break when the opposition is quick, has a higher number of runners going with the ball and the full backs aren’t fully cooperating.
This also happens in the first counter-attack against Madrid CF. A long ball comes into the middle third and initially, it looks dangerous for Real Sociedad before the attack is slowed down. The striker however doesn’t give up and holds the ball long enough to get support. This is where they can get hurt, as they aren’t always as focused in defence in case of a counter-attack; the defenders switch off when attacks are happen in the other side of the pitch and in defence they will make errors when pushed.
In the end it’s a 5v3 situation in and around the box, but even then Madrid CF come very close to a goal – thanking Leta for a good save.
They are sloppy in midfield at times and when playing against a direct opponent like Madrid CF, you will face threat from counter-attacks. One direct pass can disrupt the rest defence, but in this case no one is switched off and recover very quickly.
There aren’t options for the opposition and Real Sociedad have a numerical superiority in the final third of 8v4, which in the end makes it much easier to regain possession of the ball and eliminate the danger faced.
This particular thing with now being fast enough in recovery mode, can also be seen in this attack by Madrid CF. Even though this isn’t the highest pace counter-attack or most direct, they still are allowed a lot of spance on the left side as the right full back and right winger don’t really have the intensity to trail back.
In failing to do so, they allow the opposition to attack that side and invite threat into their defensive third. In the end they recover well with a sliding tackle, but the lack of intensity and defensive vision can cost them sometimes.
Creating goalscoring opportunities and scoring them
We have seen how they build and construct their attacking play, but how they convert that into goalscoring opportunities? In others words, how do they create shot opportunities close to the opposition’s goal? Let’s have a look.
In the game against Tenerife they managed to score a goal through actions through the middle. In going forward it’s important for the midfielders to be open to receive the ball and as the ball is played to them, the third-man runs are employed. In doing so, they can pass the ball directly into the dangerous areas and have an advantage. The opposition then needs to recover and as you see in the clip above, La Real exploits this very well and the defenders don’t know who or where to mark, leading to a simple tap in, in the end.
In the video above you can see Real Sociedad in their game against Rayo Vallecano where they scored a very exciting goal. They like to be dominant on the ball and pass it around as much as possible to stretch the defensive side.
As soon as the pressing is triggered by Vallecano, La Real manages to be flexible and move around a lot, chosing unexpected passing options. When they do so, it’s one or two touches before they reach another player and in doing so they use their personal skill to beat an opponent. Usually they would go higher up the pitch, but with Eizaguirre on the ball – she just has a fantastic striking technique and scores a great goal.
Another Eizaguirre goal from longe-range? Yes, it is. But it’s more about the way Real Sociedad press in the middle third to get the ball. It isn’t successful at first, but they keep at it and make life difficult for Sevilla in this particular clip. They make sure to block passing lanes, forcing decisions and when the oppositions want to turn – they recover the ball and have all eyes forward. A great piece of skill to score the goal, but the press in the middle third is what made this goal for Real Sociedad.
Real Sociedad can play through the middle and create chances there as we have seen in the videos above, but in this clip where they play Real Betis – we see a different form of utilising space in attafcks. They primarily focus on exploiting the space on the wings.
In this particular example, Nuria Rabano gets the ball from deep and holds it. As soon as she spots Gili, she combines with her and immediately goes into area in and around the box. Because of her good cross and passing, she delivers it brilliant on a platter for Kinden Jensen, who can easily finish.
Player to watch: Eizaguirre
Nuria Rabano left for Barcelona and was a vital player in their attacking set up, but Nerea Eizaguirre is the player that makes this Real Sociedad team tick.
As you can see in this video, with basically all her actions in attack – she is great on the ball and is strong. She can dribble and carry the ball into dangerous areas, provide the key pass or a long pass to a vital area and is always present in the right areas to attack the space as well.
She is in my opinion a great versatile player who can play in central midfield, attacking midfield, on both wings and can even play as a false 9 when required. When she is on the ball, something happens. She has this kind of magic on the ball which draws defenders to her and opens up soace for runs for her teammates – which she often can spot. Her numbers in goals and assists are impressive, and as you can see from her goals, she shows her shooting qualities in doing so.
Real Sociedad had a great season and I think they have shown what they can do on the ball a lot. They have challenged the likes of Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, and finished above them – securing a UWCL spot in which they will now feature against Bayern München.
It will be a tough match for La Real against the Bavarians, but they will pose a lot of threat on the ball for the Germans as well. We could see an exciting match up that will be hard fought out between the two sides. It’s also an example that not only Barcelona have a good team, but the quality of the Spanish league as a whole is good. And growing.
In terms of the league this year, it might be very hard for Real Sociedad to copy last year’s results. Real Madrid have very much strengthened their squad and Atletico Madrid will look for that UWCL spot as well. Losing Nuria to Barcelona is a big hole to fill, but the key principles, philosophy and tactics are still there. It wouldn’t surprise me if Real Sociedad will still be in and around those UWCL spots.