Darko Kovacevic has always been an idol of Imanol Agirretxe’s. When he first began to train with Real Sociedad’s first team back in 2005 as a fresh faced 18-year-old, Agirretxe would closely watch the Serbian maestro, eager to learn as much as possible from him.
It must be said that Kovacevic clearly had an overwhelmingly positive influence in the development of Agirretxe over the two years they enjoyed together, with the Spaniard being the owner of a highly polished, well-rounded game.
Upon hearing Kovacevic speak on the burly centre-forward, it’s easy to see the affection and adulation he holds for his former teammate.
“He has everything,” he said.
“He is a striker who loved me since I met him, and although people say that he’s not the best scorer, whenever he’s given minutes, he’s replied with goals.
If Agirretxe has continuity, he scores goals.”
And with the continuity of spearheading La Real’s attack this season, he’s been unquestionably living up to his old mentor’s billing. He’s already scored eight goals this campaign, more than he did throughout the whole of last season, and finds himself only 3 goals off Neymar in the Pichichi race.
It’s staggering really, and a testament to how outstanding the 28-year-old year has been so far, for he’s played 190 less minutes than the Brazilian. Plus, the fact he’s achieved all this by playing within David Moyes’ stuttering side makes his goal scoring feats all the more impressive.
Last weekend, against high flying Celta Vigo, Agirretxe shone brightly yet again, but unfortunately his brilliant brace wasn’t enough to secure any points on the night, as La Real eventually succumbed to Pablo Hernandez’s late screamer, which delivered a 3-2 win for the Galicians.
Despite the result, the Sociedad striker led the line commandingly, in a match where his craft, experience and physicality combined to make him a hugely challenging proposition for the Celta backline.
Whenever dropping deep to link midfield and attack, Agirretxe oozed class and polish with his back-to-goal combination play. Using his astute one and two touch passing qualities, in tandem with his strength to hold off his opponent, he provided an ideal reference point for Sociedad to generate much of their attacking momentum through.
Crucially, if bypassed or not used in the build-up, the crafty veteran’s intelligent, well angled runs in behind added an additional layer of menace for Eduardo Berizzo’s men to manage.
In situations where the ball was being delivered into the box, his cunning striking instincts shone through emphatically. While the term “fox in the box” is often bandied about with abandon, the phrase certainly rings true for Agirretxe, who’s a real genius at anticipating where to position himself, and how to precisely time his runs, inside the 18 yard box.
The two goals he scored vs. Celta both unsurprisingly came from his masterful know-how inside the area.
Firstly, upon realising David Zurutuza in space out on the left, Agirretxe raised his arm to signal to his teammate that he wanted to be the recipient of an impending delivery into the box. Zurutuza duly obliged Agirretxe’s demand, and whipped in a delightful cross that the forward read perfectly. An accomplished headed finish from Agirretxe followed to cap off the passage fittingly. Celta centre-back, Andreu Fontas, had no chance. The combination of Agirretxe’s superbly timed run and Zurutuza’s cross proved too great an obstacle for the usually solid Fontas to overcome.
Interestingly, this was the third time this term that Zurutuza has supplied an assist for the Sociedad hitman. Having played together for so many years, it comes as no real surprise how well accustomed to each other’s tendencies they are.
His second arrived after a blistering run from left-back, Yuri Berchiche, who scorched past many challengers to find himself in a left of centre location that afforded him an ideal opportunity to pick out his forward. And he did just that, sliding the ball beautifully into the path of Agirretxe, who once again timed his run wonderfully. Even though Berchiche’s pass was travelling at pace across the turf, Agirretxe’s class saw him confidently, cleanly and powerfully dispatch his first-time finish beyond the hapless Sergio Alvarez.
Two goals and two supremely executed finishes from Agirretxe showcased his predatory traits, but that wasn’t all he offered, though.
To further demonstrate his footballing IQ, he’d cunningly drift onto the Celta fullbacks, Jonny and Hugo Mallo, whenever a goal kick arose. By doing so, he ensured he gave himself a major advantage in winning his aerial duels over the smaller fullbacks, as opposed to slugging it out with the bigger centre-backs. Knocking the ball down and flicking it on to the likes of Xabi Prieto, another man he also shares an almost telepathic understanding with, and Carlos Vela, who were timing their runs in the expectation of Agirretxe winning his headers, gave Sociedad another dangerous avenue in which to get at Celta.
Despite losing the contest in heartbreaking fashion, there could be no doubting what a crucial component of David Moyes’ team Agirretxe was. He’s shown this to be the case pretty much all season in truth.
The fact he’s been able to keep exciting summer signing Jonathas and Alfred Finngobason, men who cost the club in excess of €15 million, out of the side is a real testament to how invaluable he’s been for Moyes’ boys.
Although it’s unlikely he’ll go on and beat the likes of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to win the coveted Pichichi, you know he’ll give absolutely everything for his beloved Real Sociedad, the club where he progressed through the youth system.
Agirretxe’s magnificent start to the season has even seen him break his old mentor’s Sociedad record of scoring seven goals from the first 10 games of a season (which he achieved 13 years ago). With Agirretxe on eight, there’d be no one more proud of his amazing feat than Kovacevic.
It’s a perfect tribute to show his old friend and tutor how far he’s come as a player since those early days learning from the Serbian dynamo.
About the author – Edward Stratmann
Edward Stratmann writes regularly about the on-field aspects of the game, with a particular focus on tactics and analysis. In addition to featuring on These Football Times, Inside Spanish Football, Anfield Index, Just Football, The Eagles Beak, Think Football Ideas and JuveFC, you can also find Edward’s work at Licence to Roam, a football blog he started with his brother in 2013.