Brais Méndez, pick of the Panda Team, takes Real Sociedad to new heights | La Liga


They been waitin’ for this shit for a long time, didn’t they?”

There was once a gang of best mates who spent pretty much all day, every day hanging about together and were really quite good at football. A bunch of kids who reached the playoffs for the country’s senior, professional second division, they played for Celta de Vigo B but called themselves The Panda Team after the track by Desiigner that begins with that line above and became their song, an anthem for another Galician generation that was going places. All sorts of places. Andorra, Morocco, Poland, Cyprus, Greece, Portugal the Netherlands, Nottingham Forest and even out the game entirely.

Six years on from their finest season together, the culmination of a journey they mostly spent cracking up on the bus, only one is left in the first team in Vigo – and Kevin Vázquez hasn’t appeared yet this season – but look near the top of primera or glance at the goalscoring charts, and although they too had to move, two more are still there tearing it up. The only two to have played in Spain’s top flight. Everyone knows about Borja Iglesias, the now-Betis striker who was the oldest and took the Panda nickname with him, but he always insists he does so in honour of all of them and if only Robert Lewandowski has scored more than him, he only has one more than former teammate Brais Méndez.

And Brais is a midfielder.

On Sunday evening, Brais slid in to steer the ball through Gero Rulli’s legs and give Real Sociedad a 1-0 victory over Villarreal that took them to a fifth consecutive win – three in La Liga, two in Europe – and level with the Champions League positions. Eight weeks into a new season at a new club, it was also his fourth game scoring in a row and took him to five league goals plus another at Old Trafford in the Europa League – “revenge”, he says, for Celta’s semi-final elimination in May 2017. Already more than in the whole of last season, just three off his best-ever campaign.

Take away the penalties and even Borja doesn’t have as many as Brais. No one in Spain has, except Lewandowski. So much for having to settle in. Asked if Brais would break his personal best, teammate Alex Remiro laughed. “Bloody hell,” he replied. “If he carries on like this, for sure. He has a level and a quality that’s brutal. He’s flying. We’re so happy he’s here.”

The feeling’s mutual. Born in Mos, a place of 15,000 people alongside Vigo, the way he tells it, Brais’s parents bought the house he grew up in because he, aged five at the time, liked the look of the pitch across the road. His dad Modesto was a winger who played for Deportivo de La Coruña, but only once – in 1984 when Spain’s professional footballers went on strike – and for Juventud Cambados, the club owned by notorious narco Sito Minanco. He was good, they said, but Brais was better, blessed with something special.

Brais joined Villarreal’s youth system at 13, but was too far from home and soon returned, joining Celta instead. There, he said, they had “a great time”. A left-footed No 10, he was the first of the Panda Team to get a senior debut. He had played only five full games – fewer than 30 in total – when he got a Spain call-up, scoring on his debut in a 1-0 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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Yet while he has played more than 30 games a season for four years, his personal progression was uneven. He sought psychological support when he felt himself struggling to climb out of the “well”, admitting: “You get in a rut and your head doesn’t stop.” The arrival of Chaco Coudet as coach in 2020 helped pull him from that and he still talks to his therapist, although the accusation he was cold, a little soft lingered. He lacked his father’s fight. There had been “ups and downs” with the fans, Brais admitted. This summer, when Real Sociedad offered €14m for him, it suited Celta. Or so it goes.

Although he said that departing “hurt”, it suited him even more. Living just outside Donosti with two gigantic dogs, this is the perfect place, a team that feels made for him. Real Sociedad fit “like a ring on a finger”, he said: a club quietly getting on with doing pretty much everything well, a team already playing good football. “What the manager wants and what the club is like is very close to what I like as a footballer. I don’t think I’ll need a big period of adaptation,” he said. “You analyse, see the plans, the style, the players and think: this is made for me to land on my feet.”

Turns out the Brais is right. Imanol Alguacil has (re)constructed a side around left footers, a sort of 4-1-3-2 or 4-1-3-1-1. Or, as Martín Zubimendi puts it, “a kind of diamond inside where we play the ball a lot”: one that has him at at the base, David Silva at the top and Brais and Mikel Merino either side. Plus, just in front of them, Take Kubo. Signed from Real Madrid after loans at Getafe, Villarreal and Mallorca, Kubo has a freedom and the teammates that allow him to be the player he was always supposed to be. As smooth as ever, Silva looks swifter, fitter. While it’s an old, inevitable line, to liken Zubimendi to Xabi Alonso is not entirely correct. Alonso himself says so. And last season, Imanol claimed Merino was the best midfielder in Spain; this season, he has provided more assists than anyone.

All of which helps explain why now Brais looks even better – a bit like he’s been waiting for this, and a lot like the signing of the season. “Playing alongside Silva, Merino and Kubo is easy,” he says. There’s more to it, but three particular passes from Sunday offer a portrait: Silva’s superb ball to send Alex Sorloth through, denied Rulli; Kubo’s delivery just evading Silva and then Sorloth; and the goal. Seeing the ball fall to Merino, Brais pointed to where he wanted it but it’s one thing to be told, another to drop it right there. Merino’s delivery, on the turn, clipped and curled is absurd. It was also enough to defeat Villarreal.

It was the only goal, it’s true. It’s also true that Villarreal are not right – “very poor the last three games,” Rulli admitted – and that Real Sociedad dropped in the final 15 minutes. And it’s also true that Aritz Elustondo had to stop José Luis Morales and Remiro needed to make a sharp save from him very late. But that resilience matters – “we have played very well and we have great players but the defensive work is what I take with me,” Imanol insisted – and the reaction showed what this meant: victory over a direct rival for a European place, maybe for the final Champions League slot left open by Sevilla’s crisis, and the club with possibly the strongest squad in primera after the big two.

Besides, 1-0 flattered Villarreal, the match report on Real Sociedad’s own website summing it up nicely: “Superior.” A tally of 17-5 in shots told a story, but only part of it. “This was a great performance in every way,” Imanol insisted. Brais called it “completisimo”, a game they “dominated”. “This team enamours, plays and doesn’t stop winning … what a joy to watch la Real,” wrote El Diario Vasco. “Every action is pure poetry. We’re going to have to wear pelotari gloves or we’ll hurt our fingers clapping so much.”

David Silva.
David Silva is still showing masterful passing ability at the age of 36. Photograph: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

They had done it having travelled back from Moldova on Thursday night – where all 16 fans who made it got a player’s shirt – and with injuries. Mikel Oyarzabal is only now making his first steps back. Umar Sadiq, signed to replace Alex Isak, played a total of 90 minutes before he suffered serious injury. And they had done it in style, Brais standing there grinning as 32,689 stood to applaud. This was the shit he been waitin’ for.

Nor is it just Sunday, or even just this season. These may be Real Sociedad’s best days since the 1980s. They’re level with the Champions League places, having already faced Barcelona, Atlético and Villarreal, and top of their Europa League group. Only Madrid and Barcelona have completed more passes. No one has made more tackles or committed more fouls. In fact, they are miles ahead – and, yes, that’s part of it, another twist on their identity, another contribution from the new man, another list for him to lead. So much for being soft: he has been penalised more than any other player. He has directly provided more more points than any other player in La Liga, level with Borja, the Panda Team out on top once again.





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