Real Sociedad hosted Valencia in this week’s La Liga round 23 fixture. Sociedad had been in great form lately, winning six out of their last seven matches. Their league form had not been as impressive though, which allowed Atletico Madrid and Sevilla to catch up in the table. They needed to win this match to get back into a Champions League spot.
Meanwhile, Valencia seemed to have come back to earth after a series of overperforming results. Difficult fixtures in February saw them lose three of their last four matches, including a 4-1 loss away to Atalanta in the Champions League earlier this week. This was another big test for them if they still wanted to play in this prestigious competition next season.
Real Sociedad (4-2-3-1): Álex Remiro; Nacho Monreal, Robin Le Normand, Aritz Elustondo, Joseba Zaldúa; Mikel Merino, Igor Zubeldia; Mikel Oyarzabal, Martin Ødegaard, Adnan Januzaj; Alexander Isak.
Valencia (4-4-1-1): Jaume Doménech; Jaume Costa, Eliaquim Mangala, Mouctar Diakhaby, Daniel Wass; Denis Cheryshev, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Dani Parejo, Ferrán Torres; Carlos Soler; Kévin Gameiro.
Real Sociedad in possession
Though capable of playing from the back, Sociedad didn’t do so too often in this match. They used a 4-1-2-3 in possession, with Zubeldia as the lone pivot behind Merino and Ødegaard. Merino often dropped deeper to help Zubeldia progress the ball.
Valencia used a 4-2-3-1 out of possession, aiming to press high when possible to disrupt Sociedad’s build-up. The front six tried to get narrow and compact to build a cage around Sociedad’s central midfield three, forcing them to pass through the wings. When a Sociedad full-back received the ball, the ball-near winger would step out to press him, while Soler and Gameiro took care of his nearest passing options. The below image showed the triangle Valencia created to press on the wings.
Each Valencia midfielder was often tasked with following a specific opponent. Soler would mark Zubeldia, Parejo would close down Merino, and Kondogbia would follow Ødegaard. The wingers would look to close down the full-backs as mentioned. Gameiro tried to press either the centre-backs or the keeper, depending on who was having the ball.
Valencia’s midfield five pressed in a horizontally and vertically compact shape and as a unit. This means a Sociedad player with the ball was often pressed from all sides. This pressing scheme was even more effective when the opponent had the ball on the flank, as he had little time and space to play the ball.
Sociedad didn’t have to pass their way through the press too often as they were willing to try long balls down the flanks and were confident in their ability to win second balls with counter-presses.
When having the ball in the opponent’s half, they circulated the ball by short passing and flexible movement towards pockets of space. To break through Valencia’s compact shape, Sociedad tried to overload different areas on the pitch. The aim was to utilise their strength – quick short combinations – to progress the ball. Their play gravitated towards the left, with the likes of Le Normand, Monreal, Oyarzabal and especially Merino, who showed great pressing resistance and often moved wide to facilitate overlaps. These combinations often resulted in a cross into the box.
Overloads could be created easily due to the flexible, half-space movements of Merino, Ødegaard, Oyarzabal and Januzaj, with Isak often dropping and providing a good passing option for his teammates, and the full-backs often the only players keeping width. These players showed great positional awareness. When Sociedad tried to play through the centre, the likes of Ødegaard and Isak smartly positioned themselves between the lines. Zubeldia and Merino had good vision and passing ability to keep finding them with line-breaking passes. Upon receiving the ball, the players would attempt one-twos to get into scoring positions.
In the below example, Merino found Ødegaard with a line-breaking pass. The Norwegian then instantly laid the ball off to Isak.
That was also evident in Sociedad’s third goal. Merino once again found Ødegaard between the lines. Oyarzabal then got the ball and found Januzaj in space, who scored with a powerful long shot.
The proximity between the players in possession allowed Sociedad to counter-press effectively. In the below example, Diakhaby just won the ball back, but Merino and Isak instantly suffocated him. Sociedad quickly recovered possession and immediately created a dangerous attack.
When a Valencia player won the ball back, he and his near passing options would be fiercely closed down. Should a Valencia player get past an opponent on the counter, that Sociedad player would try to foul him to stop the ball progression. Sociedad players constantly used tackles and tactical fouls to disrupt Valencia’s counters.
Valencia in possession
Valencia did build from the back more than Real Sociedad. They used the 4-2-3-1 in possession, relying on the playmaking ability of Parejo and Kondogbia.
Sociedad used a 4-1-4-1 out of possession, with Zubeldia covering Ødegaard and Merino. The wingers tried to stay compact and look to close down the full-backs when either of them received the ball, while Ødegaard and Merino. Isak would not press much until a pressing trigger, which was a Valencia back pass.
Sociedad’s formation often became a 4-4-2, with Ødegaard stepping out to press the centre-backs along with Isak. Ødegaard constantly did so when there was a back pass, showing his great awareness and work rate. In these situations, Zubeldia and Merino would rush at Valencia’s double pivot, with the wingers and full-backs also pushing high to prevent wing progression.
With the back four and double pivot constantly pressured, Valencia often had to go long or lose the ball in its half after trying to pass its way through the press. When a Valencia attacker roamed to provide an escape route to bypass the high press, he would be closely followed and often lost the ball upon receiving it.
In the example below, Ødegaard was pushing high alongside Isak to press the centre-backs. Zubeldia instantly rushed to fill his position and close down Parejo, forcing him to pass back. Ødegaard and Isak now closed down the centre-backs, who had no good passing options and had to go long.
Ødegaard is a smart presser. After pressing a pivot and forced him to pass back to a centre-back, he below would rush at that defender while covering his passing lane towards the aforementioned pivot.
In the example below, he rushed at Diakhaby after forcing a back pass from Kondogbia. With most passing options removed, Diakhaby passed to Wass, who was then closed down by Oyarzabal. Gameiro moved wide to provide an option for Wass, but he was dispossessed upon receiving the ball.
When Valencia controlled the ball in Real Sociedad’s own half, the home side retreated in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, with Merino playing deep alongside Zubeldia to protect the back four. As Sociedad’s wingers came narrow and pressed aggressively, Valencia were reduced to trying through balls down the flanks, but to no avail. Their top passing link in this match was the one on the left-flank between Costa and Cheryshev (26 passes).
Valencia also tried a lot of balls over the top for the likes of Cheryshev and Gameiro, which were often dealt with comfortably by Sociedad’s defenders. In situations which they were unable to do so, keeper Remiro showed his alertness and swept out everything.
With a speedy front four, Valencia tried to launch counter-attacks whenever possible. However, Sociedad’s intense counter-presses with lots of tactical fouls stopped most of their counters.
Januzaj’s goal early in the second half made things comfortable for La Real. They now tried to defend in a low to mid-block and relied on counter-attacks. Their pressing intensity gradually declined, meaning Valencia had more of the ball in the final third. Valencia still tried to combine through the wings to send crosses in, but Gameiro’s aerial prowess was no match for Sociedad’s defender, winning only one out of his seven aerials. Rodrigo Moreno and Maxi Gómez’s absences were clearly a big blow for Celades’ side, whose attacking style depends heavily on crosses. Not much happened in the final 30 minutes, and the match ended 3-0 for the home side.
This analysis showed that Real Sociedad thoroughly deserved to win this match. They completely nullified Valencia’s attacks in the first half, and did enough to score the three goals. They showed that they have enough quality to challenge for a Champions League spot.
For Valencia, this loss was not much of a surprise considering their performances throughout the season. Their build-up was constantly disrupted, and their attack was toothless without the aerial prowess of Rodrigo and Maxi. A realistic goal for them now is playing in the Europa League next season.