Real Sociedad wrote a classic this past season, in a city renowned for inspired composition (especially if you happen to be a Hemingway aficionado).
Thanks to Antoine Griezmann’s 22nd-minute goal and a defense that held firm in front of Claudio Bravo—helping the Chilean to a ninth clean sheet on the campaign—the San Sebastian side beat Deportivo La Coruna on the final day of the season, ensuring themselves a place in the Champions League playoff round at the expense of Valencia, who lost 4-3 to Sevilla the same day.
Valencia had been in the driver’s seat until the very end, although a 4-2 loss to Real Sociedad in late April set up a grandstand finish—one Los Che proved incapable of stomaching when it came right down to it.
Sociedad, on the other hand, lost just one of their last five matches to end the season and also picked up a vital draw at home to Real Madrid in the penultimate round of the campaign.
The run of results that got the Txuri-urdin into La Liga’s top four began with that victory over Valencia at the Anoeta, and the player who sparked the whole thing was 21-year-old defender Inigo Martinez.
Following a short, attacking corner in the 34th minute—with Valencia already ahead 1-0 through Roberto Soldado—Martinez weaved his way into space near the far post, tracked down Gonzalo Castro’s delivery and volleyed it into the back of the net.
It was the sort of moment that can alter the course of a campaign—which it did—and it also marked the high point of a breakout season for Martinez.
Having recently turned 22, the Spain U-21 international is suddenly the most sought-after defender on the peninsula, the sort of centre-back whose combination of aerial prowess and tactical nous has made him a leading candidate to add some much-needed defensive depth at Primera Division champions Barcelona. (Marca)
That he has been so often compared to Blaugrana captain Carlos Puyol is neither coincidental nor generous. Puyol is 35 and appeared in only 13 matches last season because of injury; Martinez is 13 years his junior, built to a similar stature, blessed with many of the same strengths and cursed with some of the same weaknesses.
Both players, for instance, play an excellent first pass. Martinez completed 80 percent of the 43 passes he attempted in 2012-13; Puyol’s success rate was an incredible 94 percent of 48 passes per match. Martinez, however, managed to complete five long passes per match to Puyol’s two.
Defensively, Martinez is rarely a liability. He does well in set-piece situations and has just enough of a nasty streak for it to be a benefit. If there is one area he could work on it would be his ability to smother a counter-attack, and in that regard he is again similar to Puyol. Neither player is exactly blessed with pace.
In other words, Barcelona have a pretty good idea what they’d be getting in Martinez, and given Puyol’s 14 years at the club, they’re already set up to accommodate an almost like-for-like replacement.
But they’ll have to pay to get him.
Martinez agreed to a contract extension tying him to Real Sociedad until 2017 just last February, and the pact also included a buyout clause of €30 million. (Marca)
It was a good piece of business by Sociedad, albeit one made in the understanding they’d soon be likely to lose one of their best players from a memorable campaign.
But Barcelona just seem such a natural fit for Martinez, and—as far as he’s concerned—you get the feeling there are many more classics yet to be written.