Coach: Eusebio Sacristan
Key signings: Gero Rulli, Juanmi, Willian Jose
Key sales: Jonathas, Alfred Finnbogason, Alberto de la Bella
Last season: 9th
This season (predicted finish): 10th
Real Sociedad have rung the changes over the summer, overhauling an attack that delivered only 45 goals in 38 La Liga games in 2015-16, fewer than four of the teams in last season’s bottom half, including relegated Rayo Vallecano, Jonathas leaving for Rubin Kazan and Juanmi and Willian Jose coming in.
Juanmi’s unsuccessful spell in the Premier League with Southampton shouldn’t hide his quality – and at 23 his best years are most definitely ahead of him. Willian Jose, meanwhile, caught the eye while at Las Palmas, on loan from holding club Deportivo Maldonado, the same outfit on whose books was Gero Rulli. If the Brazilian is half as creditable a signing as the goalkeeper has proven to be, it will be a very good piece of business.
Rulli was meanwhile subject to one of the strangest transfers of the summer. The Argentine was bought by Manchester City – nothing too unusual for a player of his capability and, at 24, potential. But City then loaned Rulli immediately back to La Real for six months, and he’s expected to sign permanently in January, with the Premier League side holding a buy-back option. It’s a convoluted way of arranging things, and Rulli hasn’t sounded too happy about it, but most importantly for the club, their goal is again secure.
The presence of Rulli, Juanmi, Willian Jose and young stalwarts Inigo Martinez and Asier Illaramendi provides Coach Eusebio Sacristan with a solid backbone, one that could grow together unless the bigger fish in the Primera pond intervene. There’s also a sprinkling of experience with Esteban Granero, Imanol Agirretxe and veteran captain Xabi Prieto, so it’s not a case of young guns with no one to guide them. Sergio Canales is recovering from a knee injury as well and when he’s fit, La Real could be among the most intriguing sides to watch. And to top it all off, teenage talent Mikel Oyarzabal has signed a new contract, reportedly rejecting arch-rivals Athletic Bilbao in the process.
But La Real find themselves among a clutch of sides for whom the first target is to ensure relegation doesn’t become an issue, and the second is to see how far up the table they can push. The drop won’t, barring an unforeseen calamity, be much of an issue at Anoeta. The Champions League, though, looks out of reach – three places are sown up before a ball is kicked, and the fourth is between the likes of Sevilla, Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao. A Europa League tilt is more realistic.
That would, however, depend on key players staying injury-free, Juanmi and Willian Jose finding their form and Inigo continuing to marshal the defence in the manner he has for a few years without international recognition. New Spain Coach Julen Lopetegui did at least mention the 25-year-old in a recent interview, so Inigo might soon get his just desserts.
Yet with a first Spain cap since 2013 could come more attention from elsewhere, a double-edged sword for a club rightly proud of their home-grown hero. All of that is for the future – possibly next summer if La Real have a strong campaign led by Inigo et al.