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Real Sociedad Is Outshining Villarreal Despite Spending $50 Million Less Over The Summer

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Flying high in La Liga, silky Real Sociedad is exciting Spanish soccer fans with an attractive playing style and a healthy points tally. The team is also proving there are other avenues to success than just money. Mid-table Villarreal is learning that the hard way.

One of them is the Europa League holder, and it’s not Sociedad. Yet, since Villarreal won the trophy, qualifying for the Champions League in the process, the squad has not kicked on. La Real, on the other hand, has. That is, despite spending around €2.5 million ($2.9 million) compared to the yellow-clad side managed by Unai Emery, who invested just over €50 million ($57 million) in the summer.

Villarreal has let itself go, unafraid to pay the big bucks while most teams aim to think smartly. Just look at Barcelona, unable to draft in statement signings for a while yet due to spending restrictions imposed by La Liga. Real Madrid is enjoying roughly eight times more purchasing power than the Catalans right now. Barcelona’s yearly budget of €97 million ($113 million) even lags behind traditionally inferior Villarreal and Sociedad, a reality unheard of before this season.

Evaluating the methods of Sociedad and Villarreal may seem random. Their contrasting approaches—despite having similar amounts to invest—provide an intriguing case study, though. The first has opted for continuity and the other change.

Much of Sociedad’s momentum is down to a thriving youth program. The club’s B team, managed by former player and Liverpool favorite Xabi Alonso, plays second division soccer. Currently, no other top-flight club has a second side playing at the same level.

With a solid base to build on, coach Imanol Alguacil—Sociedad through and through—is finally seeing his plan come together, which has never relied solely on market funds. There have been bumps along the way, a chastening 6-1 home defeat against Barcelona earlier this year being the perfect example. Now that former Manchester City star and free transfer David Silva is back playing, the midfield is much sturdier.

No expensive arrivals seem to have benefitted the group thus far. Like its Basque neighbors, Sociedad tends to spend less on new blood, concentrating on the academy instead. The results are clear to see. Tricky midfielder Mikel Oyarzabal would be an automatic starter in many Champions League squads, yet has until now pledged his commitment to the place he feels home.

The club has carefully considered any foreign arrivals. When striker Alexander Sørloth swapped the Bundesliga for Sociedad, it would have been easy to write him off. Many will have seen him score a total of no goals in 16 appearances for Crystal Palace in the Premier League.

Sociedad, however, thought he would be a capable loan option and perhaps recapture the form that saw him once rack up the goals for Trabzonspor in Turkey. So far, a modest $2 million (€2.3 million) investment has yielded a goal against champion Atlético Madrid and reasonable back-up to its other Scandinavian named Alexander—fellow striker Isak.

A dozen points behind Sociedad at the time of writing, Villarreal lacks the same calculated plan. Arnaut Danjuma—bought for €25 million ($28 million) before the campaign—has done well, reportedly attracting interest from Liverpool since joining. That said, his fee was a high fee considering the current landscape, and he has not taken Villarreal to the next level. The remarkable Europa League trophy-win has emboldened the side financed by billionaire Fernando Roig, but there is still room to improve.

With the division lacking an omnipotent Barcelona and Real Madrid, especially the former, upgrading through exciting signings is an understandable approach. It may not prove the order of the day, or even the coming years, however. Even underperforming Barcelona could get it right with a restricted budget in the seasons ahead, with new coach Xavi keen to foster a winning club culture with a selection of exciting youth players.

Now, it seems, Sociedad is succeeding at something similar and without the need to loosen the purse strings.

Villarreal has taken another route and, up to now, has not enjoyed the same success.