Aritz Elustondo is another component of Real Sociedad’s Zubieta-based Cantera as he has been deployed at centre-back and fullback. He has shown glimpses of being a high-level centre-back as he is reminiscent of the classic Spanish centre-back, with his ball-playing ability and his qualities in defending in a high-line. Hector Moreno and Diego Llorente are the Basque side’s first choice centre-back partnership as Elustondo has found his opportunities at centre-back limited until recently. He has still put together some impressive performances after having a fine 2017/18 season for his club.
Diego Llorente and Elustondo thrived as a centre-back partnership with Asier Illaramendi in midfield - at home to Villareal in the 2017/18 season - dropping deep to ease the ball out of pressure as the latter thrived at playing the ball through the lines. Elustondo stood over a free-kick in the Real Sociedad half to chip the ball over the Villareal defensive line to former Malaga and Southampton striker, Juanmi who trapped the ball, dribbled the keeper and scored. Elustondo thrives at playing chipped passes over the first line of pressure and into midfield while he also has the ability to play switch balls to change the point of attacks.
The Basque centre-back also has the ability to dribble past attackers and thread passes into the midfield line. The defender is exceptionally strong at controlling and distributing possession with his right foot. Elustondo’s performances became more pivotal after the departure of Inigo Martinez to Athletic Bilbao. In the week of Martinez’ departure, Elustondo’s performance against Deportivo La Coruna allayed fears as he started vertical passing moves to Illaramendi before smashing in a strike from a corner in a 4-0 win.
Moreno’s arrival forced Elustondo to deputise at right-back where his athleticism allowed him to burst forward, engage in passing combinations while also shouldering his defensive responsibilities expertly. His ability in one-on-ones also allowed him to mark opponents effectively but against Real Madrid, he was poor in a match where he was forced to close down the Brazilian pairing of Vinicius Junior and Marcelo. He struggled with the close control and quick feet of the young Brazilian winger while the fullback overlapped to create 2v1 situations against the Real Sociedad defender.
Elustondo’s athleticism is a pivotal facet of his ability as a centre-back as his anticipatory skills allow him to defend in a high line. Real Sociedad’s Cantera do an extraordinary job of preparing players to play in their high-pressing and possessive style of play. The 25-year-old defender is adept at dropping next to the goalkeeper and receiving possession while he shows impeccable calm to manoeuvre out of opposition pressure. Elustondo also pushes up to press the ball with valour as he executes well-timed challenges in the higher areas of the field while also engaging in aerial duels to win possession in counter-pressure. Once he wins possession, he cleverly recycles play with an innate passing sense in higher positions.
The 25-year-old’s experience at fullback has aided his development as a centre-back, especially the dribbling ability which has become an integral facet of his play in the centre of defence. Against Barcelona, he tackled Luis Suarez to spin past the Uruguayan, deftly flick the ball past Sergio Busquets and then surge into midfield and play a ball into midfield while Arturo Vidal stretched to tackle him. Elustondo is able to drive the ball into space and play through balls and vertical passes in between the lines while he can also dribble past markers to create space in the opposition defensive structure which allows him to be a poised press resistant centre-back.
“I started playing central in the preseason, and when he put me on the sideline the first time at first you hesitate a bit or you do not look so comfortable, but as the minutes passed that happens. And I feel good in both positions. That's the good thing I can have, that I can play in both positions, and what matters to me is to be in the eleven, I do not care,” said Elustondo in an interview with Cadena Ser when asked about playing at right-back or at centre-back in November last year.
Elustondo’s performance against Barcelona and particularly his matchups against Suarez were impressive in what was an accomplished performance. He frequently pushed up against the Uruguayan to recover possession as he limited the influence of one of the world’s best strikers. Real Sociedad sought to play in a high and compact 4-3-3 where Elustondo showed sound positional sense to continuously win possession in the higher areas of the pitch. There was an instance where Vidal played a long ball over the Basque side’s counter-press to Suarez who outmuscled Elustondo in the first duel to control the ball with his chest before Elustondo quickly lunged to nudge the ball out of the predatory striker’s grasp.
The 25-year-old’s anticipatory skills allow him to intercept balls into the channels as he always maintains a strong vertical body shape to burst into short spaces. Elustondo is undeterred by lunging attackers as he commits himself in challenges to win loose balls as he is deceptively quick in short spaces. This also allows him to be gifted at defending in the wide areas as he holds no qualms about leaving his position to close down a winger by showing him to the by-line or making a clean and calm challenge. The fans in the Anoeta have taken to calling him ‘Puyol de Beasain’ in reference to the legendary Barcelona defender and the town that he was born in.
“I do not do many cases to those things. I have already been told. But I am Aritz Elustondo. I would like to have the trajectory of Puyol in Barcelona. It is a compliment that they tell me that, that they compare me to him. Now I'm fine, I'm happy, but I must be prepared for things to go wrong,” said Elustondo when asked about his nickname by Cadena Ser.
Elustondo is currently Real Sociedad’s third choice defender and is on a contract until 2022 which he signed last year. Murmurs of a return to Mexico for Hector Moreno have been touted but the Basque defender has shown potential of developing into an elite and well-rounded modern-day centre-back. He could be a bargain for clubs scouring the market for cheaper centre-back options while if given the opportunity, he could develop into a centre-back on par with the departed Martinez for Real Sociedad. Either way, Elustondo is yet another gem from Real Sociedad’s prolific academy.