Real Sociedad are a club on the up thanks to their style of football, results and exemplary and revolutionary running of their academy: 60 per cent of the first team are academy graduates, youth-teamers are given two-year minimum contracts, coaches work with small squads and there are clear lines of succession. This year, for example, 21 homegrown players have already represented the first team.
When former Liverpool and Real Madrid star Xabi Alonso moved into management in 2018, the football world knew that he’d be one of the top-level coaches worth following.
Some clubs in Europe’s top five leagues looked to hire him, but Alonso had always had it clear in his mind that his calling was at Real Sociedad, the club where he began his playing career all those years ago.
Explaining this decision, the 40-year-old said: “I am from San Sebastián and I really feel like I belong here. I wanted to start out at a place where I knew I was going to learn and have the calm approach and support of many people, who have helped me a lot.
"I knew this would benefit me. I wanted to work without rushing, trying to follow the right steps. I try to help the club and the club is supporting me a lot.”
Neither party let the other one down after they decided to join forces. Alonso took over Sanse, the B team, and in his second season he managed to win promotion to LaLiga SmartBank. The club’s B team hadn’t been at that level, Spain’s second division, for 59 years. Now, they are the only B team to have taken part in LaLiga SmartBank since 2018.
Alonso knows that he made the right choice. He said: “I am very relaxed and happy. I have ambition, but I don’t need to rush when it comes to one day trying the top level. Here, we have a very difficult challenge, comparable to many of the challenges coaches find in top-flight football. Here, we have to compete and also support the first team at the same time.
"My position is fundamental because this is the penultimate step before all the work done at Zubieta comes to fruition, as those who started at U-13 level reach the professional level. There is a very clear path: there is a clear project of what we want to do and why. It all has consistency. For me, a homegrown player will come into my team and be very prepared, with very good concepts.
"It’s like an assembly line and we’re there at the point of putting the player into the box for the first team. We need to get that final step right.”
If the process is an assembly line, it’s a very slick one that has seen Real Sociedad become one of the most attractive clubs in all of Spanish and European football over the past few years. This is partly because of their results, as they won the 2019/20 Copa del Rey, defeating neighbours Athletic Bilbao in the final to claim their first trophy in 34 years, while they have reached first position in the LaLiga Santander standings several times over the past three seasons, including the current term.
La Real are also growing in popularity because of their style of football and because of their youth, boasting the youngest first-team squad in the current LaLiga Santander campaign. They also have a perfectly defined identity, combining world-famous stars like Alexander Isak, Mikel Merino or David Silva with a stellar generation of youth-teamers, which has been made possible because of the exemplary work done for many years at Zubieta, the name of the club’s facilities and youth football school.
A unique academy philosophy
Luki Iriarte has been the academy director for 13 years, although he has actually been working for the academy at Real Sociedad since 1999. He knows every inch of the Zubieta facilities inside out. He knows the time of every training session, the names of all the players, their family circumstances, the schedule for each youth team, the changes made with each squad and more.
It’s staggering how easy this comes to Iriarte, given that there are 11 youth teams and 180 players at Zubieta. The secret, surely, is his passion for it, which is contagious. It is often said that a team plays at the rhythm of its main midfielder. Similarly, the excellence of Real Sociedad’s youth football system starts with the energy put into it by its director.
Discussing the recent academy alumni, he said: “Of the players in the current first-team squad, Zubeldia, Aihen, Barrenetxea, Guridi, Illarramendi and Sangalli arrived at U13 level, Zubimendi at U14, Zaldua, Gorosabel, Elustondo and Oyarzabal at U15, Ander Guevara at U16 and Le Normand at U19.”
Iriarte can recite these names by memory and it’s incredible how many have made it to the first team. Their talent stands out, but it’s especially interesting to learn how young they each were when they arrived at Zubieta and how they worked their way up through the various categories. They have gone from the Gorabide Building, the academy base with a Basque name that means “climb upwards”, to the point where they now play at the stunning Reale Arena.
It’s not that this one generation has been especially fruitful. Rather, this is the result of a calculated commitment to a unique philosophy for managing an academy.
“It’s about patience, hard work and perseverance,” explained Iriarte. “We must look at our youngsters’ potential, not their limitations,” added sporting director Roberto Olabe.
This works because these are not empty words. These mantras are central to all decisions. For example, at the Real Sociedad academy they don’t work with contracts of less than two years and, since 2008, there has only been one player who asked to leave before that period, and that was the player’s choice.
As part of this, they construct the teams with a small number of players per squad. There are around 16 in each, meaning that a potential signing of a player at a higher age group can take place without an existing youth teamer having to lose their spot.
Iriarte stated: “We can’t not have space or patience for the players who are already here because the players are signed by us. If we’ve made a mistake then it’s us who’ve made a mistake, but what can’t happen is that the kid is the one to suffer.”
Importantly, there is a measure around which everything is built, as the Real Sociedad academy has a self-imposed ratio for 80 per cent of the players to be from the local province of Gipuzkoa. While Zubieta is open to players from anywhere, they want the base of the academy to be local. This helps build a club culture and identity, which is also a long-term way of competing with the financial power of other clubs.
The other 20 per cent of players are from outside of the region, but normally from other provinces of the Basque Country, from nearby Navarre or even from France. An advantage of San Sebastián’s geographical location is that the transfer rules allow them to sign foreign players even before the usual age limit of 16, so long as they are from a town within 50km of the French border.
That was the case with one of the club’s most famous academy alumni, Antoine Griezmann, who was registered in Bayonne, even if he was from Macôn.
The ladder from U13 to the first team
The main focus when it comes to recruitment is for the Under-13s team, which is logical since this is a squad that needs to be built from scratch every year, since it is the youngest age level at Zubieta. With the academy’s framework, the majority of players from this squad will be promoted year after year into the higher categories.
To make sure they bring in the right players at U13 level, La Real have 85 partner clubs. They work with all the clubs of Gipuzkoa, except for fellow professional club SD Eibar and also Antiguoko, as they have an agreement with Athletic. With all their partner clubs, Real Sociedad work hand in hand.
On this, Iriarte said: “If we put the main focus on the U13 team and then we sign little afterwards, some might think we don’t actually do much scouting, but that’s not the case. On the contrary, we have to scout a lot and well because we should only bring in players at a later age if they will improve on what we have and show results more immediately.”
During this rise through the youth levels, the Txuri-Urdin provide each player with all the facilities they’ll need. Each youth team in the academy has a staff of nine to 10 professionals, just like the first team does. There will be a head coach and assistant coach, a goalkeeping coach, a fitness coach, a psychologist, an analyst and coordinators for personal development and education.
These are some of the best professionals in their field. In fact, just last summer they managed to hire for Sanse the Real Madrid goalkeeping coach Roberto Vázquez, who had helped Thibaut Courtois win the Zamora Trophy in 2020. Hires like this are paying off, with Sanse’s Gaizka Ayesa representing Spain’s U21s.
At Real Sociedad, there is a lot of emphasis placed on academic education and on this being as important as technical or tactical development. “We firmly believe that studies help players to have a more organised mind for what then comes in professional football,” Iriarte said.
There are at least two rotations for each team at Zubieta each day, alternating between team training, individual training and studying. Each team has at least two study sessions per week too, making the most of a school that is located next to Zubieta.
With a culture of learning established at the academy, it’s not a surprise to see a first-team star like Mikel Oyarzabal hold a degree in business administration and management, while Ander Guevara, Martin Zubimendi and Ander Barrenetxea are all currently working through various university courses too.
First-team players spend an average of 8 years at Real Sociedad
The success of the academy’s policies can be seen through some eye-catching statistics, in addition to the talent and results of the first team.
For example, since 2013 there has been at least one academy graduate to debut with the first team each season, while there has been at least one player from each age group to do so, from Asier Illarramendi born in 1990 to Beñat Turrientes and Robert Navarro, each born in 2002. No age group has failed to produce a first-team player.
Furthermore, the first-team players spend an average of eight years at the club and the youth-teamers spend an average of 11. This makes La Real a unique case in European elite football.
Right now, the greatest success story of the Zubieta academy is surely Mikel Oyarzabal, the player who scored the penalty to win them the 2019/20 Copa del Rey final. Aged 24, he is already a regular starter for the Spanish national team and his development perfectly reflects the club’s careful management of their players’ careers.
Discussing the forward, sporting director Olabe said: “He is an extraordinary player and he can still achieve so much in football, having already played so many matches in the top division. Part of his development was a loan to SD Eibar at Juvenil level. The journeys of our players don’t all have to be homogenous.”
Impact on 2021/22 LaLiga Santander campaign
While Real Sociedad want 80 per cent of their academy players to be from Gipuzkoa, they also want 60 per cent of their first-team players to have come through their own football school. This is a rare policy in modern day football.
As Olabe outlined: “The first thing we do is to always look inside, at Zubieta and our region, which gives us many possibilities, although we also have some small limitations. We then work with charts with lines of succession that tell us what is happening today and what we think will happen tomorrow.
"We want decisions on whether to sign or promote a player to the first team to make themselves. If we’re going to sign a left-back, for example, then it’s because we’re seeing that, in the line of succession, there is nobody at Zubieta to solve the problem of this position. If we don’t sign a player in a certain position right now then it’s because we can see in the line of succession that there’s a potential future solution coming through the academy.
"There are times when we must be firm with our 80 per cent and 60 per cent policies. Even if we can make mistakes, this allows us to be stable and means we don’t have to build a whole team every year.”
Of the external players who make up the other 40 per cent of the first team, there are some high-profile names who were carefully selected, such as Alexander Isak, Mikel Merino, David Silva, Nacho Monreal, Adnan Januzaj, Portu or Alexander Sørloth. In the past, there were talents like Sergio Canales or Martin Ødegaard. With examples such as these, it’s easy to see why the Txuri-Urdin’s eye for talent is envied across Spanish football.
Looking at the 60 per cent, there are 12 academy graduates in the current first-team squad. Over the first few months of the 2021/22 season, nine more academy players have featured in an official match, with five of them making their debuts as they did so. These are Jon Pacheco, Beñat Turrientes, Robert Navarro, Jon Ander Olasagasti, Julen Lobete, Jon Karrikaburu, Germán Valera, Jon Bautista and Näis Djouahra.
Without holding a first-team squad number, these players have supported head coach Imanol Alguacil’s side already, especially when his group suffered an injury crisis. The first team’s coach didn’t hesitate to look towards the academy for help, as he was a Zubieta player back in the day too. Many of the other coaches working in the system today also came through it themselves.
On Imanol Alguacil, Olabe said: “For us, Imanol is also doing extraordinary things. We want to be the best team from Monday to Friday too, in training, and Imanol is key to this. I think we’re going through a period where many pieces have fallen into the right place.”
Alonso works closely with his counterpart in the first team and added: “We work closely together and even eat together often. Imanol has worked at Sanse, so he possesses that awareness. He isn’t somebody who is an outsider to what happens with the B team.”
One of the B team players who debuted with the first team earlier this campaign is the forward Julen Lobete, who scored a goal in the very first matchday of this LaLiga Santander season at the Camp Nou. Knowing him well, Alonso said: “He is a very open-minded kid and has a pure heart. When he scored a winning goal at the Reale Arena in a match against RCD Mallorca, a match when the team was down to 10 men, I wanted to jump down there and celebrate with him because he is one of our own and because of what it means for the project.”
The movement also works in the other direction, as there are players who have dropped down a level to represent Sanse this season. That has been the case with Roberto López (who has made 24 official first-team appearances) and with Luca Sangalli (who has made 33).
Discussing the nuances of this, Olabe said: “Being promoted up a level is seen as something natural and going back is seen as a negative, but this is another tool we have, especially for youngsters who are still developing or who have come back from significant injuries, as is the case with these two players.”
With these connections, all of the teams have the same spirit and it isn’t a strange sight to see first-team squad members spending a rainy Friday night supporting the Sanse players in a LaLiga SmartBank fixture.
For Iriarte, this makes perfect sense. He explained: “The thing is that the B team was their team not that long ago, while the B team also has many players who the first-teamers have trained with.”
They’re all part of the same ‘cuadrilla’ (group of friends), thanks to the inclusive spirit in the air at Real Sociedad and at Zubieta.
The football is flowing in San Sebastián and Real Sociedad are the talk of the town as a result of what they’re achieving and how they’re doing it. They look like they’ll keep this up because they’re already working at Zubieta on the future.
There are plans to construct a mini stadium with capacity for 4,000 people in the sporting complex, as well as a new building for women’s football, a sports innovation lab, physical diagnostic facilities and a training centre for digital skills, which will create jobs in sport.
The future is Real Sociedad’s, in every sense.
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