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Girona’s La Liga surge quashing upper echelon of Spanish football

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Estadi Montilivi – a football stadium with a modest capacity of 14,624 – is home to Spain’s best team so far this season. With 12 games into the 2023-24 season, Girona Futbol Club sits atop La Liga with 31 points. 

This is the first time in 22 years that a club other than the holy trinity of Spanish football – Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid – has topped the top tier at this stage of a season. 

When Deportivo de La Coruna last did this in the 2001-02 season, the Galicia-based team finished second to Valencia, both traditional mainstays of Spanish football. Valencia is also the last club other than the ‘big three’ to win La Liga in 2003-04.

The three clubs have dominated the Spanish top flight to such an extent that it has undermined the league’s claim to be the best in the world, despite being home to 14 of the last 15 Ballon d’Or winners.

The emergence to prominence of the small club from Catalonia, situated around 99 km away from Barcelona, has not only shaken up the upper echelons of Spanish football, but it has done so in style, scoring more goals than any other team in the league (29).

Promoted to La Liga in the 2022-23 season, Girona is only in its fourth-ever campaign in Spain’s top tier. It is also only the fifth team in La Liga’s 94-year history to win 10 of its opening 12 matches — alongside the ‘big three’, and Real Betis, who did it way back in 1934.

Girona, the surprise package of the season, is dazzling with its attacking brand of football under charismatic coach Michel Sanchez and is currently one of the most exciting teams to watch across Europe. 

Living under the shadow

No team in Europe’s top five leagues has more points than Girona (31) at this stage of the season, a stunning statistic for a club that has flitted mostly between the second-tier and fourth-tier since its inception in 1930. 

Despite being an integral part of Catalan Nationalism, the city of less than a hundred thousand people has been largely overshadowed by its more prominent neighbour and its two iconic clubs, Barcelona and Espanyol. 

Head coach Michel Sanchez has overseen Girona’s transformation.

Head coach Michel Sanchez has overseen Girona’s transformation.
| Photo Credit:
AP

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Head coach Michel Sanchez has overseen Girona’s transformation.
| Photo Credit:
AP

Girona gained some traction after getting promoted to La Liga in 2017-18 and it has subsequently become a part of the City Football Group (CFG) network, the UAE-based parent company of Manchester City. The other majority shareholder of the club is Girona Football Group led by Pere Guardiola, who is the brother of City coach Pep. 

Joining the CFG network didn’t bring immediate success, but it gave the club stability and structure.

Despite relegation in 2018-19, the club stuck to its plan, and in turn, made the city, famous for its Game of Thrones filming locations and restaurants, fall in love with the beautiful game. 

Smart recruitment 

After surprisingly finishing 10th in the 2022-23 season under Michel, Girona lost six of its key players from last season in the summer transfer window. Despite this hammer blow, no team in Europe’s top five leagues has scored more goals than Girona except Bundesliga’s Bayern Munich (38) and Bayer Leverkusen (30) this season. 

With a shoestring budget of less than 20 million pounds, Girona has not only replaced those six players but has made the team even better. Some shrewd signings and a little help from CFG network clubs have transformed the club. 

The free signing of experienced defender Daley Blind, loan moves of Barcelona defender Eric Garcia and Brazilian winger Savio from Troyes (another CFG club) along with permanent moves of midfielder Yangel Herrera from Manchester City, Ukrainian striker Artem Dovbyk from SK Dnipro and defender Paulo Gazzaniga from Fulham among others have all added strength and depth to the squad. 

Style of Play 

Previously, coach Michel led Rayo Vallecano and Huesca back to the top flight in previous seasons, but he failed to keep them in it. However, with Girona, Michel had not only kept it in but made it play with panache. 

Daley Blind in defence has been a key signing for Girona this season.

Daley Blind in defence has been a key signing for Girona this season.
| Photo Credit:
REUTERS

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Daley Blind in defence has been a key signing for Girona this season.
| Photo Credit:
REUTERS

Girona plays an ultra-attacking, possession-based game, averaging 13.3 shots per game with an expected goal (xG) of 1.75. Michel prefers a 4-3-3 formation, with Daley Blind playing left back behind Savio.

In attack, the team adapts to a 2-3-5 formation, with Blind inverting to midfield and Girona overloading the opposition’s right flank. This creates a lot of space for Savio, and Blind’s positional awareness creates ample one-on-one situations for the tricky winger to attack.

However, this ultra-attacking system also has its drawbacks. Girona has conceded 15 goals and has an expected goal against (xGA) of 1.39. Its in-possession tactics leave the team vulnerable to defensive transitions, and midfielders and defenders can be caught out of position.

This season, Girona has lost 3-0 to Real Madrid and drawn against Real Sociedad, the only two teams they have faced so far that are fighting for European spots.

So, can Girona do a Leicester? 

If sports have taught us anything, it is to not write off any possibility. 

However, Girona’s largely favourable set of fixtures so far will soon give way to tougher opponents, but Michel has the experience and skill of Blind and Garcia to help him adapt to a more cohesive defensive structure, especially against stronger in-possession opponents. 

Whether it ends up in the Champions League position for the next season or not, Girona’s surge to the summit of La Liga has surely shaken the established order of Spanish football, and it is all for the better.

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