Why letting Sørloth join Villarreal could be Real Sociedad’s biggest mistake

Over the next couple of weeks there’ll be many Spanish football pundits and fans puzzling over whether or not to include Villarreal’s brilliant Norwegian striker Alexander Sørloth in their LaLiga team of the year.

Whatever choice they make, the consequences will be around €80 million less serious than for the men who couldn’t make their mind up about including the wonderful 28-year-old in their actual team last summer. Those men are Roberto Olabe and Jokin Aperribay, the director of football and president of Real Sociedad. They had first option to sign Sørloth (whom RB Leipzig were willing to move on) because he’d played for La Real over the previous two seasons racking up 90 matches, 24 goals and five assists.

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They key thing was that the Norway international’s five goal contributions in the final nine matches of the 2022-23 campaign ensured they, rather than Villarreal, qualified for this season’s Champions League.

The total financial returns from La Real’s performance in Europe this season won’t be fully calculated for a handful of months but, it’s safe to say, it will be in the region of €85m. In other words, the single biggest yearly revenue in the club’s 115-year history.

Absolutely massive money.

Sørloth’s reward was that La Real hummed and hawed all through June into July, treating their on-loan star like an unimportant, irrelevant “we’ll sign you if we have to” option.

Understandably enough, Sørloth got sick and tired of being treated like an afterthought, and Villarreal — the side he and La Real had relegated into fifth place — pounced and persuaded him that he wasn’t properly appreciated.

Exactly nine months later, the consequences of Real Sociedad’s dithering are plain to see.

By matchday 36, nobody except Artem Dovbyk at Girona (20 goals, seven assists) had produced more goal contributions in LaLiga this season than Sørloth for Villarreal (19 goals, six assists). Pound for pound, to use the boxing expression, the Norwegian has been by far the best-performing striker in Spain — none of his competitors (Dovbyk, Vinícius Júnior, Jude Bellingham, Robert Lewandowski, Gorka Guruzeta, Antoine Griezmann or Ante Budimir) were in a team which needed four managers this season or spent several weeks within touching distance of relegation.

That’s the side in which Sørloth has been absolutely shining: brilliant stats plus spellbinding demonstrations of skill, vision, technique and creativity.

Meanwhile, let’s get back to the pair of otherwise eminently successful, smart and effective men at Real Sociedad whose nonsensical-looking decision will cost them anywhere between €80m-€100m.

While they were showing Sørloth a lack of respect, and failing to do the deal that would allow him to stay in San Sebastián — a deal that ended up costing Villarreal an unbelievably meagre €10m — Real Sociedad put their faith in Umar Sadiq and new signing André Silva.

The former was still finding his feet after a year-long ACL injury and looked a bad bet to become suddenly prolific, and duly went on to score three times this season, with one assist. The latter, a talented enough forward, spent nearly three months injured, didn’t start a match until December, and has scored twice so far, with zero assists.

Sørloth has 25 goal contributions this season; Sadiq and Silva, by matchday 36, a total of six between them. No one at La Real has hit double figures in LaLiga. And Mikel Oyarzabal, a winger converted to central striker, has top scored with nine.

The Sørloth affair was just an awful error by those in charge and one which, in the world of “what could have been,” where we all look at our decisions and express regret, probably cost them Champions League qualification and a tilt at earning somewhere between €80m-€100m in the revamped, more lucrative competition that starts next season.

La Real are in a fight to elevate themselves out of the low prize money Europa Conference League qualification spots and into the Europa League, but they’re significantly out of touch for the final Champions League qualifying spot — something that wouldn’t be true had Sørloth been knocking in 19 goals and six assists for them instead of the Yellow Submarine.

Earlier this season Sørloth admitted: “It was a strange sensation with La Real last summer. I thought to myself: ‘How long are they going to wait to formalise my move?’ I’d been there two years and, okay, the first season wasn’t so, so good, because I was injured, but my second season was massively better. I thought it would be odd not to be convinced of what I had to offer.

“The coach always told me he wanted me to stay but the club were taking so much time, with everything being put off and put off, so I went to Villarreal instead. If they’d made a concrete offer then I’d probably have stayed because I really enjoyed my time with Real Sociedad. But Villarreal were clear and quick. They told me they were going to sell Nicolas Jackson [to Chelsea] and then sign me … that’s exactly what happened.”

His agents were called by half of European football, clubs expressing interest, but Villarreal had tried for him a year earlier, Sørloth’s wife was pregnant and the family wanted security and certainty. They chose Spain’s eastern Mediterranean coast and the Yellow Submarine. Once Villarreal were in touch with RB Leipzig everything was tied up in two hurricane days; remarkably quick business.

Sørloth also told Relevo: “At Villarreal I’m playing the same way as I did in for La Real. I think the difference is simply that when you don’t score as many goals people don’t recognise your work or value the quality of your play as much. There are a number of factors why I’m scoring more this season but the principle one is that I’m playing almost every match. It’s a simple fact: play more, score more. At Real Sociedad I had very good teammates but here, at Villarreal, I have fantastic ones.

“I’ve moved around in my career [England, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Turkey, Denmark] because I’m impatient. When I don’t play, when I feel that the coach doesn’t believe in me, then I have to leave. I’ve known my own potential all my career and it’s high potential. I’ve got very good qualities. Look at my career — I’ve scored or played well everywhere I’ve been. That’s why impatience burns at me … if I’m not wanted or trusted then I’m off.”

The heartburn this must be giving Real Sociedad has the potential to recur. Competition for the top four will be just as fierce next season, and just as lucrative.

On their second half of the season alone, Villarreal are fifth on performance, having been four points off relegation after the first half of 2023-24. Things are looking up, they are brilliantly coached by Marcelino, and Sørloth now has the summer off because Norway didn’t qualify for the European Championship.

It’s all in place for the Yellow Submarine to leapfrog La Real next season, with Sørloth leading the charge.

Big mistake chaps; big, big mistake.

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