After three months away due to the coronavirus, La Liga finally returned last weekend. The last match of round 28 was an intriguing battle between Real Sociedad and Osasuna, two teams that have shown their beautiful attacking play throughout the season. In this tactical analysis, we will delve into both sides’ tactics, and how Real Sociedad managed to get a draw against Osasuna.
Sociedad (4-2-3-1): Álex Remiro; Nacho Monreal, Robin Le Normand, Aritz Elustondo, Joseba Zaldúa; Mikel Merino, Igor Zubeldía; Mikel Oyarzabal, Martin Ødegaard, Portu; Willian José.
Osasuna (5-3-2): Rubén Martínez; Pervis Estupiñán, David García, Raúl Navas, Unai García, Nacho Vidal; Iñigo Pérez, Oier Sanjurjo, Darko Brašanac; Marc Cardona, Adrián López.
Sociedad in possession
Up until this match, Osasuna have been notorious for their intense pressing, registering an average passes per defensive action (PPDA) of 8.7, which is the 2nd lowest in La Liga this season (only beaten by José Bordalás’s Getafe). In their first match after the three-month break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was understandable that the side hadn’t yet reached their full fitness level. Against a top side in Real Sociedad, Jagoba Arrasate also chose a conservative defensive tactic. Their PPDA in this match was only 21.1, much higher than their usual standard.
As usual, Sociedad attempted to build up from the back. They initially used a 4-1-2-3 in possession, with Zubeldia the pivot. Osasuna defended in a 5-3-2, with the forwards staying close to isolate Zubeldia. When a Sociedad centre-back had the ball, the ball-near forward would step out to press him while still covering the passing lane to Zubeldia.
Osasuna further tried to prevent central progression by having the two central midfielders covering passing lanes towards Merino and Real Madrid loanee Ødegaard, Sociedad’s two pivotal playmakers. The visitors’ back line pushed quite high, meaning Sociedad’s front five had little space to exploit and were usually isolated. Pérez and Darko would also follow and press Merino and Ødegaard when either of them dropped deep – Osasuna only wanted the opponent’s full-backs (and to some extent, the centre-backs) to have time on the ball.
Having three centre-backs meant that they had a 3v3 against the hosts’ front line, and one of them could follow a striker dropping and about to receive the ball. Five at the back helped Osasuna ensure there were always enough men to deal with runs in behind – to be fair, such runs were few and far between. Sociedad should have done better.
When Sociedad tried to progress through either wing, the ball-near wing-back and central midfield would step out to close down space and press, with the more ball-far players also shifting across to maintain compactness. The distances between Osasuna’s three lines were kept small throughout the match, which made things difficult for Sociedad.
Here, ball-near players Vidal and Darko stepped out to close down space, but Osasuna still maintained a compact structure. Navas stepped out to press José, who was dropping to connect with Le Normand. Portu was making a threatening run in behind here but was not picked up.
Unable to progress centrally, Sociedad relied on triangle combinations on the wings, using flexible movements between the ball-near full-back, central mid and winger to disrupt Osasuna’s structure. In the below example, a great combination between Zaldúa, Ødegaard and Portu helped the hosts get past Osasuna’s midfield, and Zaldúa made an impressive bursting underlapping run to get to the byline and send a cutback pass in.
Nevertheless, Sociedad couldn’t progress the ball effectively the way they wanted. After the first cooling break in the 30th minute, they changed their formation to a 3-3-2-2, with Zubeldia the third centre-back, Merino behind Ødegaard and Oyarzabal – another great passer – while the two forwards staying close and in between Osasuna’s back three.
This meant Sociedad now used two forwards instead of three, but could effectively pin back the opponent’s back three, giving Ødegaard and Oyarzabal more space between the lines to operate; in addition, they had an extra man at the back to create a 3-1 structure, which created multiple passing lanes. The opponent’s front two were heavily outnumbered, meaning one Sociedad centre-back would have more time on the ball to attempt line-breaking passes or balls over the top. This change made Sociedad’s build-up more effective.
Here, with Adrián marking Merino, Cardona was alone against Sociedad’s back three. Some simple passes led to Aritz having time on the ball, and the defender sent a quality lobbed through pass towards the run of Oyarzabal, but the striker couldn’t score from the resulting one-on-one.
Merino is a quality playmaker, notable for his line-breaking passes. Playing deeper helped him register more touches and could demonstrate the aforementioned skill from deep. This also contributed to his side’s cleaner possession sequences. While in that position, Zubeldia was more isolated by the opponent’s forwards due to his side playing with a back four; and Zubeldia is not good at passing as Merino. Osasuna’s decrease in pressing intensity in the second half also gave the home side’s playmakers more time on the ball.
Here, no longer pressed by a central mid, Merino was allowed time on the ball and quickly found Portu with a lobbed through ball.
Osasuna in possession
Like Sociedad, Osasuna is a side totally capable of quality short combinations. However, their passing is more vertical, and they attempted long balls more often than the hosts, with 22% of their passes being long (compared to Sociedad’s 10%). Instead of building from the back, Osasuna tried to win second balls after long balls towards a wing-back from keeper Rubén. After that, they tended to circulate the ball quickly from side to side with quick sideways passes or switches of play.
When the ball was played long into a wing, the ball-near sided central midfielder would push high and wide to help win the second ball, as demonstrated by Pérez in the below image.
Sociedad pressed high and defended zonally in a 4-2-3-1, with Zubeldia and Merino the double pivot. When defending, the side tried to stay compact and prevent central progression. In the second half, Osasuna almost never combined in their own half, relying more and more on long balls. We saw Sociedad defend in a 5-4-1, with the back five staying compact. A back five helped them deal better with lobbed passes towards either flank.
Osasuna used a 3-5-2 in possession, with the wing-backs pushing up and hugging the touchline. In the visitors’ direct possession game, they were the main sources of stretching the opposition defence. They and the sided central midfielders were the main receivers of the ball, showing the side’s tendency to overload and progress quickly through the wings. The forwards also moved flexibly to provide good passing outlets. Most of their chances came from these combinations.
Here, due to Sociedad staying narrow and compact, wing-back Vidal became a good passing outlet for the deep players by staying wide.
After wing combinations, Osasuna would attack by crosses, with Estupiñán and Pérez the most prolific crossers of the night, attempting nine and six crosses respectively – while no other player attempted more than two. During such left-wing crosses, right wing-back Vidal and right central midfielder Darko would rush towards the box. Here, they and the forwards were attacking the box to get on the end of Estupiñán’s cross.
This analysis showed that a draw was a rather fair result. Sociedad had the majority of the ball and made changes to build-up effectively, but were not clinical enough when they had the chances. This was surely not the result they wanted, and they need to improve if they want to earn a UEFA Champions League spot.
Meanwhile, Osasuna’s defensive compactness definitely frustrated their opponent, and their wing-backs proved to be quality attacking outlets to help them counter through the wings. Like Sociedad, they didn’t make the most of these promising situations. They would be rather content with this result and their mid-table position.