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How Natalia Arroyo is rebuilding Real Sociedad

Real Sociedad Femenino are one of Spain’s most eye-catching teams, with a fluid, free-flowing style of play, a young squad, and a level of intensity that at times seems like bullying. As Spain heads into its eleventh week of the league, La Real have started to solidify themselves in a Champions League qualification position with no real sign of slowing down.

With the level of quality and chemistry they share, it's hard to imagine the turbulent journey they’ve had since the beginning of 2020. It’s even harder to imagine that they had 10 departures this past summer, many of which were starters and club legends. Their road to recovery hasn’t been an easy one, but under Natalia Arroyo, this new group is prepared to counteract all kinds of adversities that come their way.

Real Sociedad players celebrating a goal against Real Betis Femenino. Photo via @RealSociedadFEM

In May of 2019, La Real made history as they produced a historic comeback to win the Copa de la Reina against Spain’s reigning league champions Atlético Madrid. It was the Basque team’s first-ever major trophy win, which helped them qualify for next season’s Spanish Supercopa Femenina. After beating Levante 1-0 in the semifinals of the Supercopa, a strong and confident Real Sociedad faced Barcelona in the final.

The Barcelona they were meant to face was months off a Champions League final, with a seemingly transformed squad after some quality additions in 2019’s summer transfer window. The Blaugrana showed their newfound level in a previous 6-1 blowout against rivals and reigning league champions Atlético Madrid, but nobody could have predicted the magnitude of a loss that Real Sociedad were about to face.

On February 9, in the final of the first-ever edition of the Supercopa Femenina, Barcelona battered Real Sociedad with a 1-10 scoreline in the Helmántico Stadium. It was one of the few matches in Spain’s domestic competitions that season that attracted international attention because of just how dominant last year’s UWCL finalists played.

On the other side of the scoreline sat a defeated Real Sociedad, who struggled to cope with a loss of that level on that big of a stage. Then-coach Gonzalo Arconada, embarrassed and looking for excuses, proposed “reforms” for Spanish football in order to avoid such scorelines. He lamented the difference between the two sides and asked the Royal Spanish Football Federation “if [that scoreline] was what they wanted.”

Every team [in Spain] feels that we cannot compete with this Barca side. The Federation will have to evaluate if this is what they wanted. It was always going to be a Barca win and we are the team that has suffered this humiliation. Foreign players keep on arriving and the majority of their [Spanish players] are on the bench. Their budget is much bigger.

Based on his comments, you’d think Barcelona fielded a United Nations conference. However, followers of Spanish women’s football were quick to point out that Barcelona had just fielded 3 foreign players. The other 8 were Spaniards. Barcelona’s substitutes? 3 out of 7 of them were foreign players, contrary to his claims about the Spaniards being relegated to the bench.

Arconada’s comments claiming it was “impossible” to win against Barcelona came across as defeatist, a mentality that seemed to translate over to his team. La Real, previously on a streak of 6 wins in 8 matches, won just once out of their next 5 league matches following the Supercopa final. They ended the truncated 2019-20 season with 33 points in 6th place. By the end of the season, Real Sociedad parted ways with coach Gonzalo Arconada as well as some key players in Marta Cardona, Carla Bautista, and Claudia Blanco.

In Arconda’s place arrived Natalia Arroyo, who was appointed as Real Sociedad’s coach on May 30th, 2020. Given the squad at her disposal and her amount of experience, Arroyo’s appointment came with some rather high expectations. Before being appointed as the coach of Real Sociedad, Arroyo worked as the coach of various age categories of the Catalonia National Team. In Catalonia, she oversaw the development of some of Spain’s best young players and did so alongside future Barcelona managers Jonatan Giráldez and Lluís Cortés.

That same summer, the women's football section joined the club's general football management. Arroyo’s appointment was something that Roberto Olabe- Real Sociedad's director- did to improve the women’s team as a result of their integration.

Upon her arrival, Natalia brought along with her some of the best talents in Spain, including Nuria Rábano, Gemma Gili, Amaiur Sarriegi, and Maitane Lopez Milan. In addition, she promoted Cecilia Marcos, Lete, and Nanclares to the first team, some of Real Sociedad’s breakout young players. Her team was a good mix of experienced veterans and young talents, assembled with the ultimate goal of ​​being able to compete for the Champions League spot.

This new project with Natalia Arroyo at the helm started with 6 victories from 9 matches, results that generated a lot of confidence. Arroyo brought something new into the team- a new identity, a higher intensity, a new vigor, a team in which you see each player giving their all. She quickly proved herself to be capable of giving La Real’s players a stage for their talent to explode. She gave them a spirit that allowed the team to play very well, transmitting that her way of playing is not negotiable. Real Sociedad finished 5th at the end of the season, their best finish in the Primera Iberdrola since 2016. The debut season of Natalia Arroyo was not always easy, but she has managed to form a very recognizable team with very clear ideas.

Before the 20-21 season even started, rumors began springing up surrounding the future of their striker Nahikari Garcia. Nahikari Garcia, a 'txuri-urdin' legend, spent a lot of time recovering from an injury that halted her involvement in Real Sociedad’s preseason. Despite the absence of their star player, Arroyo was adamant about her game model and stated that Real Sociedad will play with a positive outlook on the game with or without their star player. Such a bold statement from Arroyo was a preview of her plan for Nahikari’s absence. From that moment, Arroyo oversaw the emergence of two young players- Nerea Eizagirre and Amaiur Sarriegi.

20-year-old Nerea Eizagirre went on to be one of La Real’s mainstays in their new and ambitious project. Her playmaking and goals were decisive for Real Sociedad, and Eizagirre ended her season as the top goal contributor for the 'txuri-urdin' with a total of 13 goals and 4 assists. Her play and leadership seemed to be that of a veteran player. Arroyo has given her a system that works for her and fits for her.

Photo via @RealSociedadFEM

Her career, spanning over 100 Primera División matches at just 21, represents a player who has gone from being a prospect to one that has fully blossomed into one of the best in Spanish football. This past season, Arroyo rightfully named Nerea as La Real's first captain, as well as extending her contract with the club until 2023.

The other member of the deadly duo, Amaiur Sarriegi, is arguably the best signing Real Sociedad have made in years. After developing at La Real's rivals Athletic Club, the striker returned to her hometown of San Sebastían. Since then, she has effectively replaced striker Nahikari García both at Real Sociedad and in the Spanish national team. Amaiur scored thirteen goals and gave 2 assists in her first senior season in the Primera División, easing into unstoppable form near the end of the 2020-21 season. In her first two national team matches, she scored 6 goals between the Faroe Islands and Hungary. More than anyone else, her progress bears the Arroyo seal.

Arroyo had a lot of patience with Amaiur at the beginning. She brought out the best in the striker by overseeing her passage to the first team. Arroyo considered her a player who could be La Real's no. 9 because she is demanding and professional, and she wants to take advantage of the opportunity that Real is giving her. Two gems were discovered in Nerea and Amaiur, which could very well give a platform for Real Sociedad for the years to come.

Summer after summer in Spain, the biggest league clubs pick the best players from the smaller teams. In the summer of 2021- Real Sociedad were on the side of the smaller club and saw a large turnover of their players.

Natalia Arroyo on October 20, 2021, about the locker room of 20-21 season:

It was not easy. Neither the summer nor the end of the season, because you could see that there was going to be movement. There are people who did not think the same as us and looked at other projects. Not all the moments were wonderful.

In the summer, a revolution took place in the ranks of Real Sociedad. The club had to deal with a mass exodus of players, where 9 players did not renew their contract with the club. The biggest one? Team captain and Real Sociedad's all-time top scorer, Nahikari García. The departure of right-back Lucía Rodríguez was also a big loss, as she played an excellent season and from the very beginning was a very strong point in the defensive formation of the San Sebastian team. Rodríguez is probably the most desirable type of full-back in modern football - confident in the defense, but also very active when it comes to joining offensive actions. Of the other departures, Maitane López and Bárbara Latorre decided to join Atlético Madrid, Kiana Palacios returned to her native Mexico, Nuria Mendoza and Leire Baños moved to Levante, and Itxaso Uriarte and Quinones both joined rivals Athletic Club. Many began to wonder if Real Sociedad would be able to repeat the successes from the previous season- even Nerea.

Nerea Eizagirre in Noticias de Gipuzkoa, July 21, 2021

“Players with a lot of weight in the locker room and outside have left. It is not the junior or infantile category. We are talking about the Primera, the elite and we have to win every match. The team is young, they are enthusiastic and want to progress. With young people, you talk a lot but for this kind of competition, there is a need for experience. This year, with the group that we have, we will miss it ”

Fortunately, Real Sociedad didn't falter after the mass exodus. The intention of the club was to look towards their youth teams, as they knew there were many players from the B-team and academy who were performing very well. This situation was not something new to Natalia Arroyo. She has a proven record with scouting and coaching young players. During her time as the coach of the Catalonia National Team, she managed the likes of Aitana Bonmatí, Clàudia Pina, Ona Batlle, Laia Aleixandri, Laia Codina, and Bruna Vilamala, just to name a few. With her as manager, it was just a matter of time for us to see Real Sociedad's young ones explode onto the scene. La Real has found the perfect coach who can work with the club's preference in developing players from the Basque Country.

With these many significant player departures, Arroyo was forced to adapt, and adapt she did. Sitting comfortably in second place, La Real shows great confidence in the combinational and possession game. This type of dominance helps the team to be competitive and to become strong with the ball in its possession. In the front, they have players like Nerea Eizaguirre, Sanni Franssi, and Amaiur Sarriegi who are more than capable of creating danger. In the midfield, they have a group with a good blend of experience and youth with players like Gemma Gili, Iris Arnaiz, and Clare Pleuler. In addition, both the midfielders and defenders of the team improved their performance with the possession of their side. Another noteworthy player is Mirari Uria, who was promoted to the first team.

This season, some players have been able to reposition themselves due to the departure of teammates, and have discovered themselves occupying spaces that were previously reserved for players who are no longer at the club.

Natalia Arroyo about the future at La Real:

I have not done everything I want to do yet at Real. The support I feel from the club and the city positions me to want to continue being part of this. I feel identify with what the club proposes, I feel comfortable in this environment, and it is not easy to be in something so competitive.

For this team to achieve their ultimate goal in qualifying for the UEFA Women's Champions League, they must continue with their regular displays of superiority and competitiveness. Real Sociedad, a well-balanced team, solid in defense, and also able to rely on young talents, is preparing to go for gold this year, especially under the watchful eye of Natalia Arroyo.


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