There’s plenty of subtext behind Girona’s performances this season, both as a team and as a club. The fact that they are in contention for direct Europa League qualification – battling with the more seasoned Sevilla and Villarreal, while steering clear of the perennial inhabitants, Celta Vigo, Athletic Club, and Real Sociedad – adds to the mystique. What makes Girona an unusual, yet intriguing club extends beyond surface analysis: that they are Manchester City’s strongest European allies has been the focal point of most ‘stories’ this season. And, yes, it is true that City Football Group control 44% of the club, with Pep Guardiola’s brother Pere controlling an equal stake. But Girona have used this to their benefit.
Not many clubs can take the league by storm immediately after promotion, but yet, that is what Girona has done. The club is in an interesting position; they are a small club, overshadowed by their Catalan neighbours Barcelona and Espanyol, but they have used their status to great effect. It’s a classic example of maximizing assets, as well as opportunities: they have used the City tie-up to rope in some of the club’s young talents, rather than splurge money on big signings. Their summer outlay was just €4.5 million as per Transfermarkt, all spent on Bernardo Espinosa. Discounting the undisclosed fees for Cristhian Stuani, their key goalscorer, and the unimpressive Farid Boulaya, there were eight loans and three free transfers. It was a squad overhaul in line with the step-up from the second tier, but it was calculated.
It is churlish to assume Girona’s performances are solely in part to Manchester City’s five loanees, for only one (Pablo Maffeo) has been a cog of the first-choice XI. He’s been impressive too, shackling high-quality attackers, the best example of which was his man-marking of Lionel Messi. But he has been the only real positive – Aleix Garcia, Douglas Luiz, and Marlos Moreno have been only bit-part players, either not good enough for the team or just too inexperienced. The last, Olarenwaju Kayode, has been since recalled by City and shipped off to Shakhtar Donetsk due to minimal impact. Facts like these go a long way towards dispelling the notion that City are the driving force behind Girona’s successes: their connection has provided them with stability and direction, but there has been little investment, while loanees haven’t done the job. It’s allowed Girona to retain more than just a modicum of their identity.
The majority of the side that plays regularly for Girona now were also there when the club was in the second tier, and have all been impressive. A few of them were rejects from the bigger clubs’ academies, trickling down to Girona, while Pere Pons is a Girona academy graduate. When you look at the players with most minutes, eight were there last season – Portu, Garcia, Juanpe, Granell, Pons, Ramalho, Bono, and Aday. This leaves just Maffeo, Espinosa, Stuani, and Johan Mojica, the latter three of whom are stable, medium-stature players who arrived with little to no hype. But they have all been part of the Girona train, with Stuani in particular proving a revelation. It’s rare that success can be this instant after a squad overhaul, but Girona have managed it smartly with astute business. Stability was always going to be the bone they would be judged against, and they passed the test with flying colours.
At the heart of the revolution lies manager Pablo Machín, who has relied on his own ingenuity to lead the side to previously uncharted heights of success. He joined Girona in March 2014, leading them to the promised land of promotion, and has not looked back since. Part of the reason for this is his 3-4-2-1 formation – simple yet unconventional in a usually tactically rigid La Liga, at least amongst the smaller teams. With the second smallest budget in the league, Machín has relied on available personnel to outsmart opposition.
The three centre-backs are flanked by two hard-working wing-backs, two men in the middle, and two attacking midfielders that supplant the striker, incorporating the previously mentioned personnel. These tactics make it tougher to break Girona down, as they can shuffle players from defence to attack and back quickly. It requires specific skillsets, all under the disposal of Machín, which may also explain the lack of major rotation. The system helps to counter the standard 4-4-2 employed in Spain, and considering the general lack of three-man defences in Spain and Europe, Machín has his men in their own sphere.
Girona held Atlético Madrid twice, beat Real Madrid at home, and tried to match up to a superior Barcelona. Their bravery and fearlessness sets them apart from the crowd. It’s anybody’s guess where the Girona ship will set sail next season, especially if they make it to European football against the odds. Stability will again be key, as will holding on to their key players (and Machín). But for now, let’s get behind them this season, donning our hipster hats. They’re fully deserving of the praise coming at them. Girona are an example in every sense to all clubs of similar stature, with an identity that makes it hard for fans to dislike them. One hopes they can keep it going.
By Rahul Warrier.