Ronald Koeman’s side will welcome the La Liga leaders on Wednesday at Camp Nou, nine points from the top after a bad start to the season
Barcelona versus Real Sociedad. A top side of the table, playing exciting football with a team full of technically gifted graduates from their academy. The other mid-table fight, a point or two behind the Europa League places.
The dynamics of this season, however, have been reversed from the norm.
Real last won La Liga in 1982, but are currently at the top of the table, on par with Atletico Madrid with 26 points and nine more than Barca in eighth place, which they meet Wednesday after the worst start of the 26 times champions. season in 25 years.
Imanol Alguacil’s squad is largely made up of home-grown players, with Sociedad spending just a penny while Barcelona have been burning money as if they have been going out of style in recent years.
Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele all cost over 300 million euros. The most expensive player in La Real’s squad is Mikel Merino, who cost € 12 million to sign from Newcastle in 2018.
When the Basque team needs to involve players, they act with care and prudence.
Martin Odegaard was recalled from loan from Real Madrid this summer following his sensational 2019-20 season in San Sebastian, so they caught legendary Manchester City playmaker David Silva on a free transfer. The Spaniard, superb up to a recent injury, returned against Eibar last weekend.
Conversely, Barca goes wild in the transfer market, selling cheap value players to bring down their wages while splashing too much money on goals that don’t fit into any long-term plan.
That left them without advice – which he left after a vote of no confidence in October – and penniless, unable to sign players to support a team that lacked depth.
Further contrasts between the two outfits can be illustrated by the respective attitudes towards emerging young people within their academic structures.
Sociedad regularly turns to their excellent Zubieta academy whenever they need to fill in a gap, and anyone who joins usually does a great job, such as midfielder Martin Zubimendi, who got in smoothly after breaking through last season.
Although La Real broke the tradition of using only Basque players in 1989, the team is still full of local talent, boasting 16 graduates from their youth system.
Meanwhile, Barcelona’s current greatest talent, Riqui Puig, has been ostracized by manager Ronald Koeman and reportedly set an example in front of the locker room for leaking news to the media.
It was once the Blaugrana who were famous for the quality emanating from La Masia and for their ability to reap success with those players. By comparison, the Catalans finished Sunday’s 1-0 win against Levante with only one player on the pitch, captain Lionel Messi.
There is a cohesion and unity to Real’s game that Barcelona currently lacks, no doubt influenced by Alguacil, who coached the club for a decade and took over as the first team in 2018.
He worked with many of the young people who had already joined the “B” team, with that constancy vital for their good start to the season.
His counterpart, Koeman, is operating with a system that some players are unsure of, and may only be temporarily at the club with a new president with his own ideas on the managerial position to be appointed in January.
And while Sociedad’s strong start to the season may have come to a halt in recent weeks after three consecutive draws against Villarreal, Alaves and Eibar, they remain unbeaten in their last nine games. while in the Europa League he deservedly followed Napoli in the second round, where he will face Manchester United.
Their visit to Camp Nou will likely provide a reminder to Griezmann of happier times, with the French international developing at Real while finding his foot in La Liga between 2009 and 2014. It was at Atletico Madrid where he became a household name and a World Cup winner, but the striker owes a lot to his former team.
Now the leader of the attacking team is Mikel Oyarzabal, although he is unlikely to come back from injury to face Barca in a blow to the visitors’ hopes of a positive result.
That said, 18-year-old Ander Barrenetxea benefited from Oyarzabal’s absence and fought with a nice 1-1 shot against Eibar for his first goal of the campaign.
The attacker, included in Goal’s NxGn list of the best teenagers in world football in April, he made his league debut at the age of 16, becoming the first player born in the 21st century to appear in La Liga.
His first professional goal came against Real Madrid, and if he is able to find the net again against Barca, another product of the Sociedad Academy will be well on his way to earning a regular starting spot.
La Real also has the opportunity to confirm their status as a potential challenger to the title.
The last team to win the league that was not Barcelona, Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid was Valencia in 2004. If there has ever been a season where another club has surprised, this is it.