Real Sociedad have a belief in something that few teams until now have. A belief that has its roots buried deep within the club, and its flower is finally blossoming.
What may appear a culmination of foresight, hard work and belief with Champions League qualification, happens to be only the beginning. La Real don’t want to be another case of recent years in Spanish football – progressing, then falling foul of a system in Spain that takes away your best players and eventually makes you step backwards. Villarreal took so many back, they were relegated.
This week la Real took the decision to appoint Jagoba Arrasate. No one knew his name outside of Zubieta, but that didn’t matter, as Zubieta is what matters most. “This is not a gamble, we want to continue along the sporting line we have marked out,” the president Jokin Apperibay stated.
“It is the moment for [Arrasate] to assume this responsibility. Jagoba knows the internal workings at La Real absolutely and he has all the characteristics we were looking for. This is not an experiment – an experiment would be to bring in a coach from outside who did not know us.”
Arrasate’s relationship with la Real began at 16-years-old upon the opening of Anoeta when he was a socio, and two years later he would play for them. He’d see out his playing career before retiring and within months of doing so took his first job. It wasn’t until 2010/2011 he’d return to la Real though, this time as a coach after succeeding elsewhere in the region with minor teams.
In the first year at División de Honor level he lost the league on the final day, and the next season he went to Liga Nacional level and finished fourth. His work at both was seen as highly impressive, being well studied by la Real’s senior technical staff.
The decision was made last summer for Arrasate to join up with Philippe Montanier’s first team staff, as they looked to progress the team further. Arrasate’s involvement was seen as instrumental in the dramatic turnaround of form and relationship between technical staff and players.
Apperibay himself confirmed that the coach, still just 35-years-old, had been an important figure over the season; “Arrasate participated in many important decisions this year” the President declared. The majority of those were tactical, including the various methods to improve la Real’s work off the ball.
Despite this contribution and reputation at the club there is still the factor of imposing his authority on the team. Andy Brassell, the esteemed European football writer, made an interesting and valid comparison with that of Victor Pereira of Porto. Pereira contributed much to Andre Villas-Boas’ success but when handed the hot seat himself failed to exert any genuine authority.
Still, la Real is a club who would’ve thought long and hard about this. Players have already expressed their delight that Arrasate will be arriving for instance, while Apperibay insisted he’d spoken to him about the job after the win over Depor.
Apperibay has always had to think ahead and when it became apparent Montanier wasn’t accepting a year with the club other channels were assessed. The best interests of the club were always at heart, as has been the case for so long that la Real now finds itself in a relatively prosperous state despite the deteriorating environment of Spanish football.
Building the foundations of La Real
As recently as 2009/2010 Real Sociedad were in Segunda, and already the austerity measures were kicking. The planning was to build a squad with a base of canteranos, all plucked from the resourceful surroundings of Zubieta. 17 of the 22 members of the first team squad are home-grown products, and this includes Antoine Griezmann who as a child used to cross the border from Bayonne.
Then there is the inseparable pair of Iñigo Martínez and Asier Illarramendi, who had shorter journeys and used to share a taxi together for their first training sessions at the club. The man responsible for several of the recruitments from outside the area, Eric Olharts, used to drive Griezmann to training from school personally – it was a personal touch, a family one.
Each year between €4-5m is pumped into the Zubieta system, making up about 11% of the club’s budget. To put into contrast, their last major signing was Nihat who cost €6m. La Real know they’re never going to be majorly competitive in the transfer market so dedicate a larger than normal amount of their budget towards progressing young players.
They have since tied down all their players to long term deals, inputting high release clauses of €30m all across the board for the most significant. At one point Griezmann did appear a handful, speaking to the media often about a move, but over the last year however the young Frenchman has toned down his icon status; it’s no surprise someone had a word within the walls of Zubieta.
Due to their clever use of the market la Real are in a position of not needing to sell, and have a greater chance of seeing their players develop into stars on their own turf – and not on the fields of Barcelona and Madrid. Only Barça and Real Madrid assign more financial resources to their canteras.
Zubieta itself is made up of 70,000 square metres, boasting four natural grass pitches and three Astroturf pitches all abiding by FIFA guidelines. The main pitch has a stand for 2,500 spectators and there is a recovery room, gym, congress room and press area. Milling about are various technicians, dedicated to producing gold for the club – why dig elsewhere when it’s under your feet?
Another key part of the process is relationships with various teams in the area such as Antiguoko, Kostkas, Sanse, Sporting de Herrera, Basconia, Lehengo, CD Trintxerpe. They have been victims of poaching however, with several players slipping away due to Spain’s lack of laws on the issue. The most vicious predator is not Barça or Real Madrid however, but Athletic Bilbao.
La Real’s clutches are also deep in the French system though, an area they are continuously working on to find the next Griezmann.
Montanier was often taken aback, in awe of both the physical and social aspects la Real bring to their development of young players:
“The Spanish youth players are trained less. Not two or three sessions a day, instead three or four a week. In France, young people have pre-training before training, then training and then more after. It’s very demanding and rigorous. Someone who is 18 years old loses their love for football, because it’s become saturated.”
He also praised the willingness of the young players to remain with the club, something not seen as much elsewhere these days. There was an infamous treble bid from Real Madrid for Iñigo, Illarramendi and Rubén Pardo that the club immediately turned down. Not just the club, but the players also did too.
“There is a greater love for football in Spain. I’ve had players subject of bids by large clubs, who have chosen to stay and importantly, to play. Maybe someday they’ll leave, as did Xabi Alonso, but when their status is bigger. If today came a proposal from Real Madrid for a young Frenchman, I’m not so sure they’d reject it.”
Montanier also touched on the human value of Zubieta’s qualities:
“Here, the player goes out to fight for his club. In France, the player goes out to fight for social recognition.”
Aymeric Laporte of Athletic Bilbao, concurred about the French training methods. He questioned them in no uncertain terms, insisting on the Spanish wish to play with the ball more instead of being overly concerned with physique. It’s worthwhile remembering too, every single top club in France turned down Griezmann for being too small.
The Montanier Way
Montanier’s work at Real Sociedad is well known, charging up the table and improving the collective virtues of the team.
Behind closed doors he was a diligent worker. Starting work two hours before training actually got underway, he’d pre-plan the sessions over the day and week well in advance. Players were guided through video presentations in the day after the morning session too, while it was encouraged for team members to spend time in Zubieta’s facilities.
With 18 rooms there is plenty of scope for rest too, something Montanier encouraged between sessions out on the field and in the media room. The players were handed a strict diet; toast in the mornings with honey or jam, then grilled meat and vegetables later on. Arrasate of course was present, and it’s unlikely he’ll make any radical changes in this regard to a system that’s been so prosperous.
Everything is in its right place in San Sebastian. It’s why we’ve seen over the last 12-18 months various clubs producing directives influenced by la Real’s work; namely the process of having 70% or higher cantera products in the first team squad. It may not gain the spotlight like La Masia does, or the glamour and debate of La Fabrica, but Zubieta is one of the most functional and fruitful systems in Spanish football. It’s therefore no surprise the club has placed its faith in one of its finest teachers.
La Real represent everything beautiful and natural about Spanish football; from the children playing on the beach with their regional teams like Mikel Arteta and Xabi Alonso used to (also Zubieta products), then the journeying together in a taxi to training like Iñigo and Illarra, to the stepping out onto Anoeta’s turf for the first time and now this, Champions League.
This all a world away from the dark arts of the Spanish media brainwashing future generations of fans and bickering in public between two clubs desperate to put themselves on a pedestal over the other.
It’s amazing what happens when you believe in something and follow through with it. For la Real, Zubieta happened.
As Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.”
(photo #1 credit: tunelko via Flickr)