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.

twitter: @licencetoroam


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As Asier Illarramendi left the field following his splendid return to his beloved Real Sociedad, in a match against Sporting Gijon, he knew he was home. Trudging off the pitch, the man they simply refer to as “Illarra” received a very generous ovation from La Real’s loyal supporters. They know what a special part of Sociedad’s fabric he is.

The club’s new €16 million record signing, who endured an unsatisfactory stint at Real Madrid, was only too happy to return the favour – giving the fans a gratuitous clap to all corners of the Anoeta. David Moyes, his manager, embraced him too, greeting him with a firm handshake and a pat on the back for his solid outpouring of effort.

Illarramendi would’ve certainly been thinking how nice it is to be home.

His Scottish manager was especially delighted to have him back in the Basque country. When Moyes recently spoke of how vital a signing the 25-year-old is for his side, it’s obvious to see what a key component Moyes intends on him becoming for La Real this season.

“He can help everybody in the team, solve problems from central midfield,” said Moyes.

“He’ll also give me alternatives to play two or three in central midfield. Illarramendi and his return is very good for the club. Big signings like these make the difference.”

Illarramendi himself is very pleased to have made the move to the club where he spent his formative years as a footballer, but upon listening to him speak, it’s hard not to notice a part of him that wished he could’ve succeeded in Madrid.

“Things did not go as well as I would have liked,” he recalled.

“You learn from everything, the good and the bad. It was not so bad, though. In two years I won four trophies [the Copa del Rey, Champions League, European Supercup and Spanish Supercopa, although he played only eight minutes across those finals].”

With competition in the midfield spots relentlessly fierce in the Spanish capital, as well as the fact that he never seemed to fully gain the trust of Carlo Ancelotti, it’s nice to see him back at a club where he’ll be an undisputed starter and where he’ll well and truly have the faith of the manager.

Sociedad will be hoping the aforementioned conditions will be the perfect breeding ground for the player, who cost Los Merengues a staggering €38.8 million, to regain his shorn confidence.

Judging from his exhibits against Gijon, while he wasn’t at his absolute best, he appeared well on his way to getting back to playing like the Illarramendi we all know and love watching.

Right from the outset Illarramendi was the pivotal instigator in so many of Sociedad’s attacking phases. From his deep-lying midfield role, he’d drop in between the two centre backs (Diego Reyes and Inigo Martinez) and look to orchestrate his team’s forward forays. From these positions he showcased that superb range of passing of his. He’d unleash 50-yard aerial balls, play precise vertical passes into the feet of his attackers (often disguising them by looking away when he made them) and add some additional slickness to Sociedad’s work by playing some delightful one-touch passes.

His role could be compared suitably to the one Andrea Pirlo made famous. He facilitated from deep with intelligent passing, never needing to venture too far forward to impact. Plus by staying deep, he could actively cover Inigo Martinez, who enjoyed motoring forward (much like Giorgio Chiellini does for Juventus) from his central defensive post.

Key to Illarramendi being able to execute his role so effectively was unquestionably his masterful decision making. He never attempted any unnecessarily risky passes, but that wasn’t to say he played things entirely safely, though. He just got the balance spot on, only playing expansive passes if he knew he could complete them.

Obtaining such a thoughtful midfielder, who astutely processes every situation he’s confronted with and who adds so much finesse, guile and experience in central areas, will surely be a huge weapon in La Real’s quest to enjoy a better campaign than the last.

It’s all about being disciplined and never doing anything rash for Illarra, and that’s what makes him such a magnificent player for Moyes to have at his disposal in this position.

With Moyes’ boys having not scored in their opening two fixtures, once he completely readjusts to life back in San Sebastian, he should really begin to get this talented side ticking offensively. The likes of Bruma, Jonathas and Carlos Vela will be licking their lips at the prospect of receiving such brilliant service from Illarramendi throughout the season.

Back at a club who trusts him wholly should do wonders for his form this season. After all, if history is anything to go by, it would appear having a manager and a club that supports him is crucial for him to suceed. When he first broke through under Philippe Montanier’s expert guidance at Sociedad, he noted how grateful he was to the Frenchman for giving him a chance, saying: “I have to give very much thanks to Philippe Montanier, who has put a lot of trust in me.”

A similar belief was shown in him by his former Spain under-21 boss, Julen Lopetegui, who now coaches FC Porto.

“He [Illarramendi] is a guy who tactically understands everything you pose him and that, apart from the technical quality that is, the component of understanding the game that way, it helps you to be better still,” Lopetegui explained following the U-21 Euros of 2013, which Spain emphatically won.

He also went on to say that his charge was “fantastically furnished” for further progression in the profession.

There was no great surprise when Lopetegui tried to bring the man who he believes is the heir to Xabi Alonso in on loan, albeit unsuccessfully, to Porto last term, such is his adulation for the player.

Whereas Illarramendi ultimately failed to gain the trust of Ancelotti, which definitely played a major role in his underwhelming time at Madrid, he’ll have no issues with Moyes. The Scot knows what incredible gifts he possesses, and clearly intends to utilise those gifts by making him the focal point of his side.

Now back at Sociedad, all the components are there for him to suceed and get back to his best. Over the coming campaign there’s no reason to suggest why we won’t see him achieve just that.

What a difference simply being trusted and feeling wanted can make.

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.



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