Real and Barça are weakening, while a Basque club is on the verge of rising – and now considered a secret favorite for the title. Its success is not surprising. Partly thanks to three former Bundesliga faces.
Ten points ahead are really a number in top football. Seven points more is enough for most clubs to leave their competitors behind at the end of the season. On a down-to-earth basis, the chances of Real Sociedad San Sebastián celebrating the third Spanish championship in their 111-year club history in May 2021, with a significant lead over FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, are quite high.
After eleven match days, the Basques lead the table of the Primera División with 24 points and only had to accept five goals. Many football fans rub their eyes in amazement and wonder: how did San Sebastian get into this promising position? As so often, the answer is through advanced, long-term development.
Debts to the stadium’s construction radically change San Sebastian’s squad schedule
This started in 2010. At that point the traditional club returned from the Atlantic coast to “La Liga”, the elite class of Spanish football. Plans were quickly made to move San Sebastian into the top group in the country in terms of infrastructure. In 2015, renovations began at Estadio Anoeta, which has housed the club with its iconic curved roof since 1990. The problem: the construction works completed in 2019 have devoured 50 million euros. Transfer investments were excluded at “La Real”. So the club, which allowed only Basques to stand up for themselves until 1989, turned to its own descendants – and thus to a prosperous future.
Estadio Anoeta: The Women’s Champions League final tournament took place at the home of “La Real” in August 2020. (Source: Sports Press Photo / image images)
In 2018, San Sebastián installed Imanol Alguacil, a man as head coach who already has experience with this future. U17, U19, U23 – the now 49-year-old had taken care of them before. Now it was up to him to cut his most promising diamonds in the rough under the rigors of professional football.
Today, one of these gems surpasses the other 15 self-grown players in the professional squad: Mikel Oyarzabal is the undisputed protagonist in San Sebastián. The 23-year-old, who scored the final 6-0 for the Spanish national team in November in DFB’s historic disgrace, exudes calm and serenity on the field, which is unusual for a left winger. And with his drooping eyelids, Oyarzabal is visually reminiscent of the bearded Andrea Pirlo in the fall of his career. He often seems a bit slow.
Merino and Oyarzabal dominate the midfield of “La Real”
But as with the Italian midfield director, don’t be dazzled by the visual appearance of the Spanish winger. Oyarzabal reacts with lightning speed to events on the field, moving to the center to boost the Basques’ short pass, replacing goalkeeper Willian José in the offensive lead and starting a dynamic attack on the wing. It is precisely because of this flexibility and his dedication that Oyarzabal’s word has great weight within the team. It is therefore not surprising that he has been captain of “La Real” since September 2019.
Mikel Oyarzabal: Despite his tired eyes, the dynamics of the left winger should not be underestimated. (Source: Pro Shots / Image Images)
In the hussar ride through the Spanish league, Oyarzabal and San Sebastián receive significant support from three players who failed at Borussia Dortmund: Mikel Merino, Adnan Januzaj and Alexander Isak. In particular, the development of the former should bring tears to the eyes of one or the other BVB supporter.
In 2016, the Dortmund team brought Merino for only two million euros as a promising talent from CA Osasuna. But the midfielder only came into the Bundesliga eight times. BVB did not want to be patient for the Spaniard and loaned him out to Newcastle United after just one season. Merino fared better with the English, was kicked off from Dortmund for seven million euros – only to be sold eleven days later for twelve million euros to “La Real”. The Basques had been watching the boy from Pamplona, some 50 miles away, for some time and recognized his potential: he would become the control center of the future.
Mikel Merino: The ex-BVB professional has grown into a top player in San Sebastián. (Source: Alterphotos / image images)
And it is precisely this role that the now 24-year-old fills with finesse in the midfield of “La Real”. Merino is always present as a playstation, the game shifts from horizontal to vertical, feeds the other ex-BVB players Januzaj and Isak with interface passes. Since joining Anoeta in the summer of 2018, Merino has grown into a Spanish national player and, according to transfermarkt.de, has increased its market value to 35 million euros.
David Silva is the crucial piece of the puzzle of success
Since this summer, Merino also has a world-class teacher by his side: David Silva moved from Manchester City to San Sebastian after ten years and four English championship titles. Merlin, the magician, as he is called by fans, was the decisive, final piece of the puzzle that actually made the Basques the defending champion. The 125-time Spain international is best known for his quick perception and great opening to the game under pressure – qualities that are extremely important in Alguacil’s “cruyffesque” ball possession.
Slowly but surely they are rolling towards the first title on the Atlantic coast since 1987. At that moment “La Real” won the Spanish cup for the last time. In other words, silverware they could have obtained for themselves last spring. San Sebastián should have met Basque rival Athletic Bilbao in the cup final – because of the corona in the empty Olympic stadium in Seville. But both Athletic and Real Sociedad declined. Both clubs agreed not to play the cup final until another football match in a full stadium was possible. After all, the greatest holiday in decades cannot just be taken away from its followers and all of the Basque Country. The Spanish Football Association RFEF is currently planning to play the game in January 2021, possibly only with the partial admission of a few thousand grandstanders.
So it is quite possible that “La Real” even celebrates a historic lookalike at the end of a historic season. With a team that could only come about thanks to construction debts and the impatience of Borussia Dortmund.