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When it comes to the playing staff, signings are a great way to improve the squad, both in terms of quality and depth, and indeed, are becoming the most common way. However, onlookers, especially fans of a club tend to derive great joy when a product of the club’s academy makes it through to the first team, and gains importance in it. With this in mind, we will look at some of the best youth academies across the world of football.
This part of the series looks at the best players to emerge from the academy at Real Sociedad.
While Athletic Bilbao may get the headlines for their Basque-only philosophy, Real Sociedad’s academy should not be overlooked. They have the sixth most academy graduates playing in Europe’s top five leagues, which is equal with Bilbao, and Sociedad also has fifteen academy graduates currently at the club’s first team, which is tied with Bilbao and French club Lyon for the most in Europe. These statistics are a testament to the dedication to the development of young players that has been engrained into Sociedad’s DNA. All of these graduates are also one of the main reasons that the Basque club is currently sitting sixth in the La Liga table.
Without their academy, Sociedad would be in a much worse place both financially and in terms of their league position. Sociedad does not have the financial resources to keep up with the big clubs in La Liga, so their academy has proven vital in catching up with the big spenders in Spain.
Note that these are professional footballers who have played in or after 2000.
One of the most recognizable graduates of the Sociedad academy, Frenchman Griezmann has become a world superstar since scoring on his debut against Huesca in the Spanish second tier. In only five years at the club, Griezmann amassed 198 appearances in all competitions, scoring forty-six times. While at Sociedad, Griezmann primarily played wide left and even earned a call up to the French national team. Griezmann became a crucial member of France’s 2014 World Cup team, and took over Franck Ribery’s starting position when he was injured in Les Bleus’ first game of the tournament.
After the 2014 World Cup, Griezmann’s release clause was triggered by Atletico Madrid, and Griezmann has flourished under the watchful eye of Diego Simeone. In 98 appearances with Atletico, Griezmann has already scored fifty-three goals, which is more than he got for Sociedad in 100 more games. The Frenchman has become the focal point of the Atletico attack, and has gathered the interest of some of Europe’s biggest clubs in the process. Griezmann was also named the EURO 2016 player of the tournament as a result of his six-goal haul.
While Etxeberria may have only made seven first team appearances for Real Sociedad, he had one of the most decorated careers of any Sociedad academy graduate in recent memory. Etxeberria appeared 445 times for Athletic Bilbao, scoring eighty-eight times from various wide positions. He also appeared 53 times for the Spanish senior side, scoring twelve times for them. Etxeberria is also an extremely revered figure in the Bilbao community for the passion that he felt for the club.
During his last season for Bilbao, Etxeberria decided to play for free and donate all of his wages to the club for their goodwill towards him over the fifteen years that he played at the club. This venerable career at Bilbao was all made possible by Sociedad, though. Etxeberria spent his whole youth career in the Sociedad academy, and his senior career began there as well.
Current Real Sociedad captain Prieto is the embodiment of the Sociedad academy. He was born in San Sebastian and has never represented a club other than Sociedad. At the age of thirty-three, Prieto has made 436 appearances for Sociedad since 2003 and has scored 57 goals in that time, with just under half of those coming from penalties. Prieto is also still a fixture in the starting lineup for Sociedad even though there are players in the squad who are much younger and more athletic than he is.
Prieto is also nearing one of the greatest achievements possible for a player of his caliber. He is currently only 25 league appearances away from equaling Sociedad’s league appearance record. This is quite the accomplishment considering Prieto has never featured for the Spanish senior team.
Currently Sociedad vice captain, Gonzalez has appeared 180 times for Sociedad and has stayed with them through thick and thin since his debut in 2005. Gonzalez was a fixture in the center of defense for many years, and although his role has diminished in recent years, Gonzalez has stayed true to the club and has never played a match for another club.
In the 2012/13 season, Gonzalez started 34 matches, scoring twice and helping Sociedad back into the Champions League after a full decade out of the competition. Without Gonzalez’s steady presence and unwavering loyalty to the club, Sociedad could very well be in a much worse position in the Spanish football ladder than they currently are.
The most recent academy graduate on this list, Martinez is the current face of the Sociedad team and has become one of their best players since his debut in 2011. Martinez has already made 174 appearances in the center back position and has appeared four times for the Spanish national team. This shows just how important Martinez has become to the Sociedad team, and it doesn’t appear that his role will change anytime soon.
Martinez recently extended his contract until 2021, which shows a sign of intent from the player. He wants to follow in the footsteps of some of the great Sociedad academy graduates and become a one-club player who will go down in Sociedad folklore.
Aitor Lopez Rekarte is one of the longest serving players in Sociedad history. His 325 league appearances for the first team give him the third most appearances in Sociedad history. His steady presence in the right back spot ensured that, in his worst season, he made 26 appearances. Rekarte also managed to secure a single cap for the Spanish national team, which is an injustice to a player of his quality.
Rekarte was another member of the squad that was relegated from La Liga, and although Rekarte did depart for Almeria the next season, his reputation within Sociedad will never be diminished.
After being signed from Eraso as an 14-year-old, Agustin Aranzabal became Sociedad’s right back during the late 1990s and early 2000s. He collected 331 total appearances and was a fixture in the starting eleven until his departure to Real Zaragoza in 2004. Aranzabal only featured 31 times for Zaragoza, mostly being used as left back cover or as a substitute.
While he did have very brief stints with amateur sides CD Vera and Kitchee SC, Aranzabal announced his retirement in 2010. His decorated playing career included being named runner up with Sociedad in 2002/03 and appearing for the Spanish national team 28 times.
French midfielder Zurutuza has become one of the modern academy graduates that make up the core of the Sociedad team alongside Inigo Martinez and Xabi Prieto. His impressive passing range makes him perfect for the style of play that Sociedad employs. Zurutuza has also appeared 194 times since an extremely successful loan to Eibar during the 2007/08 season.
While Zurutuza may already be 30, his style of play means that he will be able to maintain relevance in the Sociedad team for many more years. His football IQ means that he is able to read the game, minimizing the amount of excess stress on his body.
With the recent news that Alonso will retire at the end of this season, many football fans around the world have come to recognize just what an amazing career he has had. He began his career at Real Sociedad, making 114 appearances for them and being named club captain at the age of 20. He was then sold to Liverpool for 10 million Euros, and succeeded greatly there. His midfield partnership with Steven Gerrard became vital in the club’s 2005 Champions League triumph. He then went on to play over 100 games for both Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, winning both La Liga and the Bundesliga, respectively. Alonso has also earned 112 Spain caps, winning two European Championships and a World Cup.
Alonso’s footballing ability has never been in question throughout his career, but the thing that really sets him apart from the competition is his ability to think ahead. Alonso has the rare ability to know what is going to happen in the game before it happens, and because of that he has been able to be a key member of the Bayern Munich team at the age of 35.
Left winger by trade, Javi De Pedro was one of the main sources of attacking output for the Sociedad teams of the 1990s and early 2000s. He appeared 304 total times for Sociedad, scoring 45 goals. Pedro also appeared 12 times for the Spanish national team, and represented them at the 2002 World Cup.
While Pedro was on the books for six other clubs, he only managed twelve appearances for all of those clubs combined. Pedro was also a member of the squad that came only two points behind Real Madrid in the 2002/03 season title race. The winger appeared in 29 games that season and was one of the main attacking presences of the team overall.
While many people still think of Athletic Bilbao as the premier Basque team in terms of both on the field success and youth academy production, Sociedad has made a serious case to be the premier Basque team. Their youth academy has been consistent in past years in terms of quality youngsters, and they are also consistently challenging for European places in La Liga.
The academy graduate who currently looks primed to become a future star for Sociedad is Mikel Oyarzabal. The 19-year-old winger is already a fixture in the Sociedad first team and has made 45 first team appearances. While Oyarzabal may not contribute as much in terms of goals, he makes up for it in his creativity while attacking. He completes more key passes per game than Shinji Kagawa, and is also very proficient at keeping his composure in high pressure situations. You can find a comprehensive scout report of Oyarzabal here.
While Oyarzabal is currently the brightest light coming from the Sociedad academy, he is by no means the only one. Other academy players such as winger David Concha and midfielder Igor Zubeldia are also primed to become some of Sociedad’s future stars.
You can read other articles in the series here