When people discuss the recent success of Real Sociedad, under both Philippe Montanier and Jagoba Arrasate, the names that roll off the tongue are those of: Antoine Griezmann, Carlos Vela, Iñigo Martínez, Claudio Bravo and (before his move to Real Madrid) Asier Illarramendi. There isn’t much love for Imanol Agirretxe but a closer look at La Real’s number nine in their 4-3 defeat to Almeria show just how important he is in their current 4-2-3-1 system.Despite losing the game, Agirretxe was extremely impressive and was a catalyst for most of Sociedad’s most impressive attacking play.
Occupying two center backs as a lone forward is a thankless task in modern day football as it sees little goal return and doesn’t make for impressive statistics. However in the Sociedad system, the job Agirretxe does is crucial in opening the space for the trio behind (Griezmann, Canales & Vela vs Almeria) to cause problems.
Agirretxe is a big physical presence and can use his power to protect the ball both on the ground and in the air; against Almeria he was again effective in both respect but it was aerially that he caused most problems particularly when Sociedad looked to break quickly. Almeria were very slow transitioning from defense to attack and La Real looked to take advantage using Agirretxe as the focal point; several times throughout the game Claudio Bravo quickly kicked long targeting Agirretxe who was already running towards the Almeria goal in order to force both Almeria central defenders back. Agirretxe didn’t always win the ball but his presence ensured that the Almeria defense was unable to sufficiently clear and ,with their midfield slow to return to their defensive positions, the ball was dropping in dangerous areas for Griezmann, Canales and Vela to attack.
When Agirretxe did win the aerial battle however he showed his class; once releasing Antoine Griezmann through one-on-one with a brilliantly weighted through ball. Another occasion was the goal that put Sociedad 2-1up; having been inside his own box defending a corner, which saw Almeria have a goal wrongly disallowed, Agirretxe quickly made his way up field to latch onto Bravo’s long kick and exquisitely chip Esteban in the Almeria goal.
At times, during the first half in particular against Almeria, Real Sociedad enjoy good control over games and are able to push both defensive midfielders (Bergara and Zurutuza vs Almeria) to press higher up the pitch and it becomes increasingly important for Agirretxe to ensure that the middle of the pitch doesn’t become too congested. Against Almeria it was noticeable that Sociedad had isolated Verza as the weaker passer in midfield and looked to press quickly in midfield when he was in possession; this tactic appeared to work forcing Verza into 8 long balls but only completing 3 of them. As both Zurutuza and Bergara pressed, Agirretxe was already dropping off the shoulder of the left center back, ensuring that he couldn’t push forward to close the space if Sociedad had won the ball; this movement was also keeping the attention of the Almeria left back leaving the Sociedad right-sided attacking midfielder to drift infield, having started with three left-footed attacking midfielders this was a preferable move for Arrasate.
Another key component of Agirretxe’s game is his link-up with Antoine Griezmann that has
helped the Frenchman to an impressive 15 La Liga goals this season; although often not directly involved in the move Agirretxe’s willingness to run channels or drop deeper in order to create space, either centrally or in behind for Griezmann, has been a huge factor when the two play together. This is shown by Griezmann scoring 10 of his 15 La Liga goals when Agirretxe has started the match. Griezmann’s goals against Elche and Valencia illustrate perfectly how the two link-up; the strike against Valencia sees Agirretxe drop into space, bringing the right center back with him and allowing the space in that channel for Griezmann to break into, off of Zurutuza’s well controlled header. The 2nd goal (vs Elche) sees Agirretxe run the right hand channel allowing Griezmann to be left 1v1 at the far post, the cross isn’t great but with the help of a midfield runner the ball does find it’s way to Griezmann to finish.
(Goal vs Valencia) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1adjYRptAE
(Goal vs Elche) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Bs3xK0DeKk
I’d liken the job Agirretxe does for the Real Sociedad to the job Olivier Giroud does for Arsenal; may not score the goals they could in a Manuel Pellegrini style 4-4-2 but are both key in creating space for the most dangerous part of both sides – their attacking midfielders. When Theo Walcott has been fit since Giroud’s arrival at Arsenal he has been in incredible goalscoring form and the same can be said for Griezmann with Agirretxe, he may not get the plaudits but i’m sure his teammates are extremely thankful for the job done by La Real’s number nine.