Cogs to the engine of a tactical system in football often go underappreciated. In La Liga, Real Sociedad’s emergence this season has been quite noteworthy for analysts, and, while the likes of Mikel Merino and Mikel Oyarzabal have rightly made the majority of headlines, Igor Zubeldia’s calmness and versatility have provided a solid foundation for La Real’s progress.
Imanol Alguacil’s trust in the team’s youth, in conjunction with his routine squad rotation, reflects the Basque club’s values. Yet, 23-year-old Zubeldia has been in and around the squad for four seasons, and is utilised by Alguacil as a senior player. This can be seen through his exclusive appearances as a centre-back for Real Sociedad this season.
In this scout report, we provide a tactical analysis of Igor Zubeldia and his role in Alguacil’s Real Sociedad. We highlight his strengths and weaknesses in La Real’s defensive tactics. Our analysis adds that Zubeldia’s secondary attributes stand out, and have the potential to manifest into a more eye-catching player later in his career.
Overview in numbers
Zubeldia has a metronomic presence in Real Sociedad’s build-up play. He is especially known for moving the ball quickly. In other words, the majority of his passes are lateral and safe. Zubeldia has a total pass success rate of 87.9%. Moreover, out of the total distance covered by his distribution, only 23% of Zubeldia’s passes are progressive.
Thus, the Spaniard is more responsible than creative in possession. This permeates into his defensive profile as well. Zubeldia is the calmer personality among La Real’s centre-backs. In the league, he has 0.9 tackles per 90, 0.4 interceptions per 90 and 1.4 clearances per 90. These numbers imply that he relies on his off-the-ball positioning and the aggressiveness of his counterparts to ultimately clean up and recycle situations.
However, Zubeldia has adept instincts on when to close in on his attacker. Consider the following position that arose from Napoli bypassing La Real’s pressing trap.
The above image highlights that, although Zubeldia does not engage in a large number of defensive actions, the ones he commits to are of high value. His inch-perfect last-man tackle from behind saved an almost certain goal for his team. This showcases his strength in controlling the distance between him and the opponent’s attackers.
Curiously, then, it is noteworthy that Zubeldia has recorded one of the lowest points per match for his team this season (1.11). In addition, Real Sociedad’s net goals (goals scored minus goals allowed) with Zubeldia on the pitch is -2.57. This reflects a negative presence, even relative to his team’s expected net goals with Zubeldia on the pitch of -1.05.
With the departure of Diego Llorente to Leeds United, Alguacil tasked a versatile Zubeldia with rotating at centre-back alongside Robin Le Normand and Aritz Elustondo. Moreover, he has favoured Martin Zubimendi at the base of Real Sociedad’s midfield this season.
Zubeldia’s 10 appearances at centre-back for his team in the league has coincidently been around the same time as their plateau in form. In the following sections, we dismantle his strengths and weaknesses to investigate why that is.
Zubeldia rarely misplaces a pass. This is due to the fact that he relays and recycles the ball in possession. His primary player role in possession is not to break lines, but to transport the ball to the flanks without risk.
When Real Sociedad play in their opponents’ half, their full-backs get forward. In this scenario, Zubeldia safely plays a long ball on the right.
In the above position, Zubeldia’s role as a recycler of the ball is showcased. His understanding of his teammate’s position relative to the opponent’s left-back prompts him to vocally demand the ball. Subsequently, his perfectly weighted long pass stretches the opposition, allowing La Real to relay the ball into their opponents’ penalty area.
With his teammates being visibly concentrated on the left, Zubeldia realises that relaying the ball into a crossing position from the right would pose serious questions to the opposition.
While Zubeldia provides a foundation for his teammates to be positive in possession, he is a primary agent in initiating positive and potent transitions.
In the above position, Zubeldia noticed a pocket of half-space between the oppositions’ centre-back and right-back. This can be observed through the body positioning of Rijeka’s right-back. Zubeldia’s inch-perfect through ball bypassed the opposition’s defensive lines, leading to a chance on goal.
Before initiating a line-breaking pass, Zubeldia is aware of the opposition’s positioning. This permits him to be quite effective in set-pieces as well. Consider the following position.
In a short corner, Zubeldia is once again positioned deep enough to have every player in his line of sight. Due to the extra short pass made by Real Sociedad in this sequence, the opposing players looked to charge up the field, thus neglecting their defensive line. Zubeldia’s central cross found Alexander Isak in a position to easily convert his shot.
Therefore, despite having a lower volume of line-breaking passes, Zubeldia picks key moments where he tends to implement these without too much risk for his team.
Perhaps Zubeldia’s most distinct quality in defence is his ability to stay on his feet in one-on-one situations. Knowing when to lunge in, backed up by his strength to do so, further favour him in these.
This calmness often agrees with Real Sociedad’s overall style of defending and winning the ball back. La Real defend in a hybrid system that is zonal and man-marking based. Zubeldia is notably tasked with the latter. Consider the following positions, where Zubeldia displays a strong understanding of his opponents’ transitions.
In the above situations, Zubeldia’s body-positioning while running backwards, followed by a well-timed tackle, prevented dangerous situations for his team. While his teammates were occupied with closing distance and getting back into their zones, Zubeldia faced the dribbler and adeptly extended his body shape to block passing lanes.
It is noteworthy that Zubeldia is in different areas of the box when tracking back. Though he has played on both sides of the centre-back position, he routinely tends to drift across and rotate, depending on the situation; Alguacil’s defensive tactics allow him to do so.
This is done through pressing traps, and the retreat of either a full-back or a central midfielder into a back-three. Therefore, for instance, if Zubeldia commits to a one-on-one on the left, it is, by design, followed by the retreat of Real Sociedad’s right-back or number six.
Thus, the Spaniard’s profile is consistent, both offensively and defensively. While he tends to facilitate his teammates into the spotlight, he makes his presence known in transitions.
Weaknesses and future decisions
The above points highlight why the manager decides to trust Zubeldia’s experience and player profile at centre-back. However, the Spaniard suffers from positional and concentration issues.
In the following position, Zubeldia is inclined to approach the situation more like a central midfielder than a centre-back. However, his lack of positional awareness in the last line of defence costs his team.
Zubeldia’s routine one-on-one initiative prompts him to lunge forward. This leaves an ounce of free space in his shadow. Zubeldia’s failure to consider his distance from Sociedad’s other centre-back ultimately cost his team a goal and the game.
Additionally, the Spaniard’s lack of concentration is observable through his aerial duels during set-pieces. Consider the following image.
In the above free-kick, Zubeldia’s relative position to the man he was marking, Mario Hermoso, was the culprit in the set-piece. In addition to not being close enough to his man, he is caught ball-watching as he fails to jump. Hermoso was consequently given a free header.
During the match, it was later revealed that ex Barcelona star Luis Suarez (marked by Willian Jose in the circle) asked Yannick Carrasco to cross it his way. Zubeldia speculatively aimed to preempt this by running towards the Uruguayan, resulting in his own man being unmarked. In this scenario, Zubeldia was in his head, and failed to successfully do his own task in the defence.
So how does Alguacil approach this situation and utilise the Spaniard?
With the caveat of Real Sociedad’s best player in Oyarzabal being out injured, Zubeldia has had a mixed time at centre-back. After being winless in six games, Alguacil may likely bench Zubeldia for the more natural centre-back in Elustondo. If so, Zubeldia would thrive best as a single pivot in the midfield of a 4-3-3.
Alternatively, Alguacil may choose to continue with his double-pivot, favouring a slightly quicker Martin Zubimendi. Zubeldia may well be a squad player in this situation.
The manager tends to rotate often at the back. This makes it harder for analysts to know who his first choice at the centre of defence is. However, Sociedad’s response to this plateau in their form in a title race against the likes of Atletico and Real Madrid may reveal the same in the near future.
While Zubeldia’s role at centre-back may have been less than ideal for the team, it has certainly provided a platform for him to develop. He is still 23, and, in the off-chance that he isn’t in Alguacil’s first-team plans, he has a unique skill set to thrive at another club.
In this scout report, we highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of Igor Zubeldia in the context of Real Sociedad’s surge this season. While he was a rock for their growth at the heart of midfield in 2019/20, his position as a first-teamer moving forward depends on Alguacil’s squad management.
His player profile as a deep-lying recycler of the ball with a penchant for one-on-one situation stands out. In conjunction with his age and versatility, this may ultimately attract interest from clubs aiming to make a value signing.