Mikel Arteta is on course to guide Arsenal to the Premier League title. His compatriots Julen Lopetegui and Unai Emery have transformed their club’s fortunes since their mid-season appointments. All three are part of a remarkable coaching trend.
Each of that Premier League managerial trio are from the Basque Country but more specifically, the area of Gipuzkoa; geographically the smallest province of Spain. Home to just 720,000 inhabitants and high-flying La Liga outfit Real Sociedad, the beautiful coastal province is producing the highest volume of top-level football coaches in Europe.
Arteta, Lopetegui and Emery all spent part of their playing careers at the club, with the latter two being developed by La Real’s famed youth system. Yet they are not alone in the Gipuzkoan coaching revolution; highly-rated Bayer Leverkusen boss Xabi Alonso and Rayo Vallecano manager Andoni Iraola – whom Leeds unsuccessfully tried to appoint earlier this year – are both from the region.
Leeds failed with their attempts to poach Iraola before appointing Javi Gracia, who spent four years of his playing career at Real Sociedad, while another of La Liga’s brightest managerial talents, Osasuna boss Jagoba Arrasate, coached his way up through Real Sociedad’s teams up to first-team level.
There is little surprise that the club’s current boss Imanol Aguacil is another local lad, spending one decade in San Sebastian – Gipuzkoa’s capital, home of Real Sociedad – as a player and then another as a coach. He guided the club to their Copa del Rey success in 2021 and is currently on course to secure a top four La Liga finish and Champions League qualification this season.
Speaking to a series of senior figures throughout the club, one theme keeps reappearing again and again: their local identity and ties to Gipuzkoa. Held up as a role model of stability and promoting youth-team players, Real Sociedad’s model is for 80 percent of their youth-team players to be from their region. Remarkably, the club has included at least one player of Gipuzkoan origin in every starting line-up in their history and for more than half of their matches, nine or more homegrown players have been involved.
As club director Andoni Iraola (no relation to the Rayo Vallecano boss of the same name) explained: “We are not just a sports project, but a social project. We represent Gipuzkoa and fans want to see their behaviour reflected through the team, showing that we represent them.
“Our link should not be dependent on or related to results, even though strong results will of course be helpful. Anyone who is born in Gipuzkoa and enjoys football, will join Real Sociedad. But we have followers in our community who are not football fans – but who support the club.”
Real Sociedad’s Director of Football Robert Olabe agreed, adding: “Our region and its characteristics are instilled throughout the club. Others who come in will embrace that and feel that they are part of us.”
This is linked directly to the area’s capacity to produce top-level coaches. Real Sociedad do not sign players before the age of 12 – no other La Liga club waits as long – with players often remaining at the club for upwards of a decade. Their B team, then coached by Xabi Alonso, played in Spain’s second-tier last season and were comprised of local players.
That link extends into the first-team too. Of January’s Basque derby clash against local rivals Athletic Club from Bilbao, 21 players on the pitch were Basque while 19 of those players came through one of the two club's youth systems. Arguably, this region does not only produce a greater level of players than anywhere else in Europe, but it has top-tier clubs which are representative of their territory.
The emphasis on coaching and player development runs throughout the club, which not only encourages player improvement but higher coaching standards.
Olabe explained: “We apply a dual development itinerary, not only from their sporting perspective but also through their emotional growth as people. We make sure their family, education and social elements are there, that they are not disrupted.”
“We prioritise stability, patience and perseverance with the kids. These youth development processes need these elements, it needs continuity and long-term thinking.
“Our objective is not extraordinary footballers but extraordinary people – football is a collective sport. Most players do not reach the first-team so we have an ad hoc programme that is adopted to each of our boys and girls to grow.”
Real Sociedad look after their community – providing financial support to all clubs in Gipuzkoa and sharing their knowledge and coaching techniques with them – but are supported by the community too. Demand for season tickets grew after their relegation from La Liga in 2007, as their people rallied round and helped them bounce back stronger.
The club’s recruitment system has also won plenty of plaudits, with Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard and Newcastle striker Alexander Isak among the recent success stories. Yet the true heart of Real Sociedad’s success lies with its own player development and no current star is more indicative of that than Mikel Oyarzabal.
The star forward completed a business degree at university during the first four years of his professional football career. He discovered that he had passed his exams the same day he became an Under-21 champion with Spain.
“Playing for this club makes me feel very happy and real proud,” Oyarzabal – now a full Spain international – explained. “My childhood dream has become a reality.”
“All the youth team players feel supported by the club, not just in developing your football abilities but how to cope with daily life as you grow up. This is a wonderful setting and environment in which to grow.
“You can see how much players here want to stay at this club, you are treated well. That is true not only for those who are born here, but also for those from elsewhere who are signed but stay for many years.”
Real Sociedad’s Anoeta Stadium home was recently renovated, with its capacity increased to just under 40,000 and the old running track that separated the stands from the pitch abolished. The stadium is now more compact and atmospheric.
As per the club’s constitution, no one individual can hold more than two percent of its capital, with 14,000 shares spread among thousands of fans. La Real club director Iraola simply explained: “We want Real Sociedad to belong to everyone.”
They now have 38,000 season ticket holders – 20 percent of the population of San Sebastian – with a further 1,500 on a waiting list. Their Anoeta home is frequently sold out. Real Sociedad are illustrating that successes on the pitch are not only combined with success off it, but the two are dependent upon each other. The Gipuzkoan population are reaping the rewards – and making their mark on elite coaching.2023-03-18T06:36:46Z dg43tfdfdgfd