Xabi Alonso’s success with Bayer Leverkusen and the potential to deliver the German club its first Bundesliga title. Aston Villa finding new levels of success under Unai Emery and challenging for the top four in the Premier League. Real Sociedad winning its UEFA Champions League group to set up a tie with PSG in the round of 16. Even Arsenal’s continued development and prosperity under Mikel Arteta. Each of these things has one common theme, and it comes from the Basque region of Spain, which has become a hotbed for managerial success and progress in Europe.
Real Sociedad has worked to develop talents in the Basque area that have gone on to great heights across Europe. Now, the product of that development is on full display. The two coaches massively exceeding expectations at their respective clubs come from similar upbringings, Xabi Alonso and Unai Emery. Both began their playing careers in the Real Sociedad system. Now, they have taken their career starts across Europe, where their clubs are the beneficiaries.
Unai Emery never broke into the Real Sociedad first team as a player. Yet, comments during his managerial stint in Sevilla indicate that what makes Real Sociedad stand out is the culture of the area. The area leaves a lasting impression on those who come from it.
“I have a txuri-urdin [Euskera for blue and white] feeling, I spent ten years at La Real, I follow it from afar but very closely, because a little piece of my heart will always be txuri-urdin, and I know what La Real means to Guipuzcoa,” Emery said in 2015.
Explaining why Real Sociedad produces great coaching minds
Having a feeling of connection only goes so far tactically on the pitch. Unai Emery and Xabi Alonso are only two of the coaches who came from the upbringing in the Real Sociedad youth system. Current Sociedad boss Imanol Alguacil and Julen Lopetegui laid their roots with Real Sociedad.
One thing each of these managers have in common is diligence. Every small part of a squad or even a player has a major role in the entire machine’s success. Akin to managers like Pep Guardiola, Xabi Alonso and Unai Emery are regularly seen coaching their players after the final whistle.
Tactically, Basque soccer is possession-based, as success often is in Spanish soccer. Real Sociedad regularly ranks toward the top in average possession among LaLiga teams.
Reports connect that to Antiguoko. This is a strictly youth team in San Sebastian, the home city of Real Sociedad. Over the years, it has become a proving ground for top youth players. Antiguoko developed Xabi Alonso, Mikel Arteta, Andoni Iraola and other players who went on to play for Real Sociedad, Athletic Club or other teams in Europe. Significantly, each of those three players is overseeing a club that touts possession. Even Bournemouth, which cannot compete against top clubs’ funding, has around 45% possession of each game.
“I started my playing career there, but also my coaching career,” Iraola said to Sky Sports. “They are doing very good things. It’s amazing that they are even known. They are a really, really small club from San Sebastian. But, among academies, they are a big club.”
Xabi Alonso’s Leverkusen and Unai Emery’s Aston Villa have strong possession figures, and that comes from their upbringing as young players in the Basque country.
Real Sociedad also benefitting in Europe despite graduates elsewhere
Oftentimes, clubs that part ways with managers are left wanting. However, Real Sociedad’s frequency in producing talent has left no issue. As stated, Imanol Alguacil is also a product of the Real Sociedad youth system. What he has been able to do with the San Sebastian side is remarkable.
Alguacil took over a Real Sociedad side that hovered in the middle of the table in 2018/19. Consistent improvement led to LaLiga finishes of ninth, then seventh, then fifth, then sixth. Finally, last season, Real Sociedad finished in the top four to return to the UEFA Champions League for the first time since 2013/14. That season, Real Sociedad picked up one point in a group with Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen and Shakhtar Donetsk.
This year, Sociedad won its Champions League group, advancing to the knockout stage for the first time in 20 years. Three wins and three draws in a group with Inter Milan, Benfica and Red Bull Salzburg is a strong return. The reward for finishing at the top of the group is a meeting with PSG. Kylian Mbappe will play at the Anoeta Stadium, and Real Sociedad’s ability will make it a contender to advance. That is a credit to Alguacil and the Real Sociedad he has developed, but also to the Basque region as a whole and what it has produced.
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