Roberto Olabe Interview: How Real Sociedad redefined patience to become the most consistent side in Spain

Consistency… it is valued, a quality people seek, and on the whole, a trait that gives people peace of mind. There is something noble about looking for it in a partner, but, inherent is the connotation that you are giving up passion. It might be the thing that makes a business or a personal relationship work, but it isn’t exciting. It’s not sexy. Yet take yourself on a trip to Donostia-San Sebastian, to the Reale Arena. As the Txuri-Urdin belt out their songs, as the stands shift beneath your feet, and the fans bounce, there is concrete evidence that consistency can be pretty exhilarating too.

Real Sociedad are currently sitting 3rd in the table and while that is above expectations, and above their ranking in the salary limit table (6th), in a way it should come as no surprise. Almost without stuttering, La Real have been on a consistent upwards trajectory since Imanol Alguacil took charge. The Txuri-Urdin were 15th, and looking nervously downwards, but La Real would go on to finish 9th that year, then 6th, 5th, 6th, and now they lie 3rd after 22 games. There is plenty of season left, but going into this weekend’s action they have a six-point gap to Real Betis in 5th, and must now be favourites to crack the Champions League places. Mixed in was a Copa del Rey victory, the club’s first trophy in 34 years, and this year they topped Manchester United in their Europa League group.

Was it investment? Sort of, but Real Sociedad have made just under a €41m net profit on transfers over the last five years. Always spoken of in ostentatious terms, what they invested is rarely treated with as much care as money.

“Time is an investment itself,” Sporting Director Roberto Olabe explains to Football Espana during a La Liga-hosted interview. “Of course it is linked to money too, you have to give them the resources, but you have to invest time in the players. And we have the responsibility to give them chances. The demands of the elite are significant, but everyone has the responsibility to open doors for the youngsters.”

The youth academy, Zubieta, has a just claim to be the most successful in Spain over the last few seasons. 16 of the 26 first-team players this season have at least spent time with the B-side, Sanse. Academies are referred to in Spain as la base, but in La Real’s case, it really is the base. Only Athletic Club have more academy products in their squad, and it’s five more than Barcelona.

The key to those figures, and the wider theme behind their continuing rise, is patience. Perhaps not in the traditional sense though. That generally implies putting up with something, often an irritating something or someone, or alternatively a process of tranquil nurture. The latter is more applicable to letting a flower blossom, it’s a passive concept. Real Sociedad understand it differently.

“Patience is not waiting, it is looking for the limits and pushing, it is being persistent and persevering,” says the stern Olabe. It is an idea he comes back to several times, in particular with the academy products. “I always say, not at 12, not at 15, not at 17, not at 18, nor at 20 are you going to know what an architect or a stonemason will be like, so I don’t expect that of a footballer either. Like all professions, you need time to learn, in an aggressive and immediate world, exposed to public opinion, we have to have patience and commit to the development of the youngsters.”

“Patience isn’t folding your arms and waiting to see what happens, patience has to do with committing to their development and ensuring they are ready for the professional world.” The truth is, Olabe doesn’t need to press that first point home, because even after a few minutes, it is becomes nearly impossible to imagine him folding his arms and waiting for much. He’d walk to the next bus stop. You get the impression he would build a house much quicker than most construction companies.

When Olabe came back to the club for the third time in 2018, Alguacil took charge as interim manager for the final nine games of the 2017-18 season to ensure they weren’t relegated, before Asier Garitano arrive in the summer.

“Imanol had one condition, he said ‘I would like to continue my development at Sanse.’ He didn’t feel he had all the tools to work in the elite.”

“We weren’t looking for a name at that time, we were looking for someone that wanted to go on this journey with us, we wanted someone who shared our vision, who wanted to develop the youngsters, who wanted to delve further into different blocks of pressure, it all came from the demands that the game was putting on us.”

After Garitano failed to convince, it was decided that Alguacil was that someone. “It was an important moment, we had just moved into the new stadium and we could see fans were not excited coming to the stadium,” admits Olabe. Ever since, the Reale Arena has become the number one destination for thrillseekers in Guipuzcoa. His iconic Copa del Rey outburst was proof that Real Sociedad are unlikely to find someone to inject more passion into the role. Maybe it is low-hanging fruit to say so of a side with so many youngsters, but the careful and compassionate manner with which Alguacil treats his job does give him a fatherly demeanour.

“Imanol came back, in that moment, five years ago, and we were a young team, we needed time together, we all needed a period of adaptation to the model of play,” recounts Olabe. “We grew, from the model of play, understanding it isn’t just playing one style, but that you can do different things within a model, understanding the versatility of the players, and what the demands of the elite are.”

“I am of the opinion that teams are built and grow not just by signing players every year but also by building year on year. They get better by having patience, giving time to youngsters to develop, giving them time to develop together, but also alongside Imanol.”

Olabe is direct, and commands attention. A business of extraordinary resources, billions are invested in football every year, and yet the results are viciously susceptible to chance. Consistency is no accident though. As impressive as Olabe is, he is absorbing too. When he gets going, Real Sociedad’s success becomes that much easier to understand. You would happily hand your own business to him. Finally though, he allows some of the romance of what he, Alguacil and President Jokin Aperribay have built into the conversation.

“The story of Imanol is very beautiful, with respect to the building of a manager too, who started acknowledging the fact he did not have all the tools. And in the end, he became a manager with more than enough skill to spare, with which to do his job and to use with his players.”

It is fast becoming a saying within Spanish football circles that Real Sociedad are the perfect football club to support. Success makes that easy; stability, consistency and Olabe’s very intense approach to patience have made that possible. The Reale Arena is rocking every second weekend though. On the horizon awaits a mouth-watering tie with Roma in the Europa League, beyond it, La Real are chasing the holy grail of the Champions League. Rival fans look on with envy – Real Sociedad have made consistency exciting.

Tags Europa League Imanol Alguacil Manchester United Real Sociedad Roberto Olabe Roma
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