Levante superior for most of the game but unable to stop Real Sociedad in the end (1-3)
Real Sociedad are back to winning ways after a game where they were awful for seventy minutes before Garitano’s astute adjustments helped them to an unexpected but ultimately deserved turnaround. Levante remain a fun offensive team to watch, but their defensive frailties were exposed by the most unlikely of adversaries.
Levante and Real Sociedad opened matchday twelve of LaLiga and arrived at the Ciutat de Valencia in pretty opposite situations. Levante were in really good form, undefeated in their last six matches while Real Sociedad were winless in their last four. Levante surprisingly had the sixth highest expected goals The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. created in the league, but also the fourth most expected goals conceded. A feat that would come back to bite them.
Real Sociedad, on the other hand, had the opposite problem – a decent defense (seventh best expected goals conceded) but struggling to find goals. La Real were scoreless for 287 minutes and were on the brink of beating their worst record since their last promotion: 324 minutes without scoring in 2011/12. A clash of opposites.
Levante’s manager Paco López started with the 5-3-2 formation that was introduced in the game against Alavés and had been credited as the reason behind the form improvement. López surprised by leaving his pichichi Roger on the bench and playing “El Comandante” José Morales as a left wing back, preferring Emmanuel Boateng and Borja Mayoral to lead the attack. Antonio Luna, Armando Sadiku and Rubén Rochina were unavailable while Nikola Vukčević was supposedly recovered but Levante didn’t want to risk him again after he aggravated his injury for returning too quickly during the last international break.
Asier Garitano’s choice of formation was even more surprising, switching to a 5-2-2-1 with Adnan Januzaj and Mikel Oyarzábal supporting Willian José ahead of double pivot Igor Zubeldia and Asier Illarramendi. Andoni Gorosabel was brought in to play as a right wing back with Aritz Elustondo tucking in to play on the right of a back three. Mikel Merino and Joseba Zaldua were out injured.
Levante’s 5-3-2 formation in possession against Real Sociedad’s 5-2-2-1 shape.
Quick goal and Levante cruise
If the two teams already started the game with very different confidence levels, that was further accentuated as Levante practically started the game winning. The hosts worked well on the right flank, attracting La Real’s defenders to that side before finding Chema Rodríguez centrally outside the box. The central defender was fortunate as his shot deflected off Diego Llorente and deceived Miguel Ángel Moyá.
If the goal was fortunate, it quickly became deserved. Real Sociedad looked uncomfortable in the new system and Levante had ten to fifteen high quality minutes. Januzaj and Oyarzábal were both attracted to press Levante’s center backs, which meant neither was tasked to mark Sanjin Prcić. That meant Levante had a three-against-two superiority in midfield, which coupled with Boateng as the outball and Mayoral dropping meant that Levante could reach the final third in good conditions with ease.
Boateng’s work with his back to goal was fantastic and he could then find and serve a free supporting midfielder – or Mayoral – facing forwards, with Prcić, the deepest of them, having the perfect conditions to play his game. Levante seemed to be able to get forward in any way: overloading or combinating, wide or centrally, individual runs by the wing backs or vertical passes, aerial or not, to Boateng, it all seemed to work.
Garitano’s surprising switch of system had the misfortune of pitching Gorosabel, La Real’s weakest link on paper, against Levante’s star Morales, whose role was a surprise itself. It was as if López knew about Real Sociedad’s plans and adjusted accordingly. El Comandante twice dribbled past the youngster to create danger in the first half.
It is fair to say, however, this superiority rarely materialized into any end product, Moyá was rarely in real danger. The tempo dropped somewhat after the first ten to fifteen minutes, although Levante continued to be the most dangerous team. La Real only threatened on the counter. That was their main strategy, of course, but it was almost embarrassing how toothless they were when not in transition. The lack of ideas was such that they might as well have just given the ball away in the hope of hitting Levante in the next transition.
Garitano adjusts and La Real are reborn
This trend continued well into the second half and Levante looked to be in control, but Garitano had other ideas. He started by abandoning the 5-2-3 formation by bringing David Zurutuza on for Gorosabel at half time and switching to a 4-2-3-1 with Aritz moving to the right back position and Zurutuza occupying the number ten position.
Ten minutes into the second half, he was even more ambitious replacing Igor Zubeldia with Juanmi. Willian José, invisible until then, was moved to the left to get the Levante center backs’ chains off him. Oyarzábal and Juanmi operated centrally to give La Real’s attack more mobility and unpredictability while Zurutuza was moved to the double pivot. Shortly after, in the 62nd minute, the visitors created their most dangerous situation in the game up to that point.
Real Sociedad were growing offensively and Levante were relaxing a bit too much. The visitors were now playing with four attacking units plus a very offensive Theo Hernández – who had a very good game – and Zurutuza appearing late, while Levante’s discipline levels were dropping. José Campaña, for instance, was becoming complacent in the defensive phase.
This led to Levante’s usual up and down game at a time they should be looking for control. Levante’s quick and vertical offensive style is exciting, but they have a weakness in defensive transition as they lack compactness for too long and allow the opponents too much depth. The narrative has been that the switch to 5-3-2 formation helped solve Levante’s defensive problems, but the underlying numbers in their recent games suggest a different story. While an extra center back is helpful in dealing with counter attacks, it is more like a patch than a real solution as there is still too much space for too long.
Still, it was not in transition that Real Sociedad turned the score around, but thanks to good mobility and combination play. But, dramatically, not before Levante had a big chance to put the game to bed. Bardhi played a fantastic ball in behind for a Jason run who seemingly had everything to make it 2-0, but ultimately failed to capitalize.
Then, Real Sociedad’s show started. The equalizer came from a beautiful play between three lefties. Theo Hernández picked up the ball in the left half space, combined with Januzaj who had come inside to the semicircle, the Belgian international lobbed to Oyarzábal behind the defense who touched the ball back to Theo who continued his run and finished coolly.
The second goal came from poor defending by the hosts. Too much space between Chema Rodríguez and Sergio Postigo allowed Januzaj to assist Juanmi who made a smart run and finished well. The third came from a counter, with Levante committing men forward, Oyarzábal carried the ball forward, played a one-two with Juanmi and scored to secure the win. Too easy.
Levante’s short-lived moment of form was too good to be true. While there is a lot to like about them offensively, they have defensive weaknesses that would be exploited sooner or later. It is just surprising that this happened against Real Sociedad, who themselves had struggled to score for so long – and did break the aforementioned negative record. Levante’s defense remains something that needs to be worked on, but they’re certainly a fun team to watch.
Real Sociedad got the goals and the three points they desperately needed. Garitano keeps experimenting and trying to find the right system. The 5-2-3 system was a disaster, but his changes in the second half were spot on. The last twenty minutes showed what La Real can do offensively if just given the chance. Garitano already made the team strong defensively, he needs to work on the offensive phase. The talent is there, it will probably just take some time.
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