The international break is always a good time to take stock. You take off your mask, breathe in breathe out, then decide whether, nine games in, you’re up and running again with the current season and the state of your nation. Maybe this season there’s little choice, confined to barracks as we are, slowly getting used to turning off the pop-up ads on the footy-streaming site and assimilating the fact that Rakel, 22, whose arse has just appeared in the far north-eastern corner of your screen, does not actually live around the corner. It’s all part of the new reality of bums, buffering and empty terraces. Bring it on.
In sunny Spain, LaLiga takes a two-week break and can congratulate itself for cooking up a fairly tasty starter-dish, 9 games in. After the summer woes at Barcelona and the stasis at Real Madrid there was always a chance of the illusion of some equality of opportunity, and so far the mice have come out to play. Real Sociedad head the table on 20 points, Real Madrid sit uncomfortably in 4th place on 16, and Barcelona are awkwardly perched in 8th place, their new star Ansu Fati now out for 5 months with a meniscus injury, their idiot-president departed and some semblance of coherence returning. But with Barça you never really know. Messi has begun to smile again, fitfully, but with the brooding presence of Ronald Koeman on the touchline, his emotion-free eyes fixed joylessly in an empty stare of world-weary disgust with the present – it somehow augurs ill – like sharing a prison-cell with Van Gaal.
Koeman knows that the players, despite a grudging respect for his stubbornness, don’t really like him, and that if Victor Font is elected president in March then he’ll most-likely be out on his Dutch rump. Font wants to re-stock the club’s management executive with former heroes Xavi and Puyol, a combi that might prove irresistible to the weary fan base. Koeman doesn’t make friends easily (ask Joaquin), and whilst his authoritarian approach can prosper in the framework of the inept death-throes of the Bartomeu regime, his scowl is probably not a methodology that lasts. Losing the clásico didn’t help either.
Whatever – Barça still look a decent side in-the-making, and the Ansu Fati setback notwithstanding, have unearthed some interesting new talent in the excellent Pedri and Sergino Dest. Despite summer’s imperfect storm there seems to be a sense of post-Messi planning, whether Koeman has had much to do with it or not. De Jong isn’t quite there, but meanwhile he’s hardly a poor player, and if Riqui Puig could be fattened up a little then the management might start to believe in him. Pedri looks as if he’s just escaped from Devil’s Island too. What’s with the La Masia canteen these days? All lettuce and quinoa? Get some butifarra and chips down ‘em now I say.
Real Madrid seem a curious mixture of optimism and resignation, depending on which week it is. Any time they manage to win, the club’s army of media sycophants proclaim recovery and roll out a Marcelo’s-not-so-bad-after-all approach to their analysis of the White House, and when they lose the doom and gloom is equally instant, like a crematorium worker who snaps on a serious face when the next troupe of mourners turn up. There is no middle way with this club – but everyone seems unable to really say what they think – that Zidane is actually a bit of an oddball.
Unlike with Koeman, people think that they like the Frenchman – and yet they don’t really know him. Short on enemies (save Materazzi) but friendless too, in the strange limbo-world of football fame Zidane floats through press conferences with a slightly defensive charm. There is no crisis, his publicly mild manner suggests, and yet there’s a stubborn edge to him, a possible inability to learn from others. He doesn’t want your advice. Bale? He had no problem with Bale – except he obviously did. Is he a good man-manager? Well for those in whom he shows an eternal (and questionable) confidence the answer will be yes, but others will have different stories. Martin Odegaard already looks nostalgic for San Sebastián. Mendy looks good, Valverde too, and Rodrygo half-decent – but Hazard looks too injury-prone to build the current project around – assuming that was ever the idea.
Meanwhile, as the Pretorian Guard grows older and tubbier, Atlético look the best side in Madrid, with Getafe not far behind. Joao Felix is neither tubby nor past it, and for some random reason has decided to look like the player he was built up to be, as opposed to his timid showings last campaign. It’s the nature of players, or of systems perhaps. Players like Felix need to have the worker bees around them to be buzzing. Although Thomas has gone (without whom there was rumoured to be no Partey) the return of Koke to form and the emergence of a more confident Marcos Llorente seems to have helped his cause.
With Atlético, it’s all about the mix. There’s finesse in there now, but being an opposing defender with Luis Súarez and Diego Costa up front for the day is a bit like those survivors in Zombie Dawn who wake up after a night holed up in some abandoned household only to see the predators still hanging around outside the window in the morning. Or as my centre-back son said of his recent experiences in the East of Scotland Premier – you walked out onto the pitch and took a look at the life-scarred opposition striker, and you knew you were in for ‘a rough wee day’.
Although one would expect Sevilla to catch up as the season progresses, watch out for Villarreal, whose slow start (2 wins in the first 6 games) was a false augury of what may come. Having nicked the best of Valencia (Parejo, Coquelin and Alcacer) to add to the likes of Moreno and Chukwuese, their best player is emerging as Pau Torres, the extraordinary calm and gifted centre-back who is now strutting his stuff for the national side too. Even Unai Emery seems to have learned that as far as speaking goes, less could be more. As I’ve written before, an ex-player once told me of Emery ‘he’s a good guy, but he just never shuts the fuck up’.
But you didn’t come here to read about these clubs, did you? You want the inside story about the leaders, Real Sociedad, and of course I’m happy to oblige. If you can’t be arsed to read on, then please listen to the first ten minutes of last week’s La Liga Lowdown podcast where I also explain, for the hard of reading.
The only surprise about Real Sociedad is that some folks are still surprised. They’re leading LaLiga and looking like the most attractive side in Europe – but they were last season as well, until the pandemic took the wind out of their young, locally-made sails. When Martin Odegaard was snatched from his cradle back in the summer by a panicky Zidane, the Basque club took it on the chin and quietly plotted their own snatch of David Silva, otherwise destined for Lazio. In this old-head-for-young-buck policy change, a lot of factors have gone unmentioned, but the most significant one is that Silva actually wanted to come to San Sebastián, and it wasn’t just for the gourmet food and beautiful beaches. He wanted to come because of the stuff they were playing. And the fact that no other Spanish club had considered him says little for their policy makers, because Silva, apart from being an outstanding player, is one who has rarely suffered from long-term injuries. 309 games at Man City attest to that, in ten seasons. The average is easy to work out. For a skinny little bloke, he’s made of strong stuff – a fact often overlooked in the public’s general view of the player. He’s actually brought some much-needed aggression to the cause, and has 4 yellows accumulated to date.
Real Sociedad have been pigeon-holed as members of the new ‘high-press’ paradigm, as if that were the only thing about them. They do indeed practise this postmodern art to near perfection, but you can’t make a gourmet meal out of tinned contents. Apart from Silva’s astonishing repertoire of visionary passing, hardly dimmed by age, Real Sociedad come with fresh ingredients, dew-drop delivered to the market stall. Their average age is 23, but take out Monreal and Silva and the figure plummets. To play a high press for 80 of the 90 minutes you need strong young legs and lungs, and young Basques are about the only kids in Europe who actually like black beans, chick-peas and lentils – force-fed as they are upon them, from the moment their teeth appear.
To play the pressing game you need other things too, because once you get the ball back you need to keep it, and the technical prowess of this locally-groomed side is most impressive, schooled in the arts of possession by the obsessive but humble figure of coach Imanol, a thoroughly decent bloke from the nearby fishing village of Orio.
Free-range feeder Mikel Oyarzabal, currently the league’s top scorer and the captain at 23, seems to have been around for ever. After him, in procession, midfielders keep bursting into bloom like popcorn in a microwave, such that the squad seems almost over-stocked. Mikel Merino, the current master of ceremonies from nearby Navarre, is not home-made but it kind of feels like he is. After that, it’s a march-past cavalcade from Zubieta, the training-ground and quarry of talent. The Basques have always produced good midfielders, but Xabi Alonso upped the ante and it’s been a series of more-than-decent wannabees ever since. My son grew up and played here in the wake of the Alonso effect, enabling me to watch it first-hand, and the influence on that generation has produced Guridi, Sangalli, Unai López (now at Athletic), Merquelanz, Zubeldia, Guevara and now probably the cream of the crop, Martin Zubimendi. The excellent Roberto López, though born in Zaragoza, has also come through the system, but note too that last season’s excellence was achieved without Real’s most recent holding midfielder par excellence, Asier Illaramendi. He’s still injured, but with the current busy bees buzzing through the fields you can’t really see him getting back into the side. I never thought I’d write that sentence, for Illarramendi remains a class act, despite the tarnished image left after his brief Bernabéu experience.
Zubimendi might be better. Still only 21 and rushed into an injury-hit side at the end of last season, it wasn’t long before the Alonso parallels were being drawn. He slots into that pivot space with his head permanently up, like Alonso, and his defensive instincts are equally good – although he’s quicker than Xabi was. His passing is immediately vertical and well-paced, seemingly always starting something, always thought out in an instant. He played for Spain U-21 last week and was the stand-out performer.
With the high press you also need one of your centre-backs (Aritz Elustondo) and one of your full-backs (Gorosabel and/or Zaldua) to be quick, because in effect you’re always playing with a defence of three. So far, only Valencia in the league have beaten Sociedad by parking the bus and then catching them on the break (0-1), but the result seemed farcically unjust.
Around the identity-building this solid local base affords (16 of the 25-man squad), the others slot into a flexible system of attack. Portu was a clever signing from Girona, and has been clocked as the fastest in the league over 25 yards. His work-rate has enabled the high-press, freed the full-backs behind him and terrified opposing defences into staying in their shells. The young Swede Alexander Isak is also scarily quick, and functions as a potent weapon against tiring defences. Willian José is still fancied by Mourinho, but plays more in the hole. The younger local striker Bautista, another from the crop of ’95, is more of a traditional up-and-at-‘em type, but the variations enable Imanol to pick horses for courses, depending on the likely approaches of the opposition. So far it’s worked rather well, and the side are top scorers, leaders, and second only to Atlético as best defenders. Ah – and don’t forget Adnan Januzaz, on his day (and he’s starting to have more of them) a ridiculously talented player.
Everywhere you look the squad has quality, but it might be pushing it to say that they are title challengers. The Europa League is an energy-sapper, the young ‘uns are not used to the demands of so many games, last season’s cup final is yet to be played, the Super-Cup looms in Saudi Arabia in January and so on. You don’t win anything with kids, dixit Hansen, and he was probably right.
You want more? Nah – that’s enough for now. One doesn’t want to jinx them. But it’s worth underlining why this club and team deserve to be liked. They’re polite to refs, they play exciting footy, they beat a side 0-8 last season in the cup and invited the whole town (Becerril) to a freebie against Valencia – providing transport as well……
…..and last but not least the squad is more locally-hewn than Bilbao’s. If the quantitative argument fails to convince – then the qualitative one cannot. In short, senile Madrid and gloomy Barça will continue to hog the headlines, but up here in the north a happy revolution is stirring.