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Girona FC: Rise of the Albirrojos

James Kelly takes a look at Spanish side Girona FC, examining their ascension through the leagues and challenge for promotion to La Liga

Much has been made of the underwhelming season of Barcelona. With Luis Enrique deciding to walk at the end of the season amid the disastrous Champions League performances against Juventus and first leg against PSG. Despite winning El Clásico last weekend and being in the Copa del Rey final, by their standards it has been a disappointing campaign. There is however a Catalan team that have been achieving remarkable success this season. That club are Girona FC, who after three near misses are on the verge of an historic first promotion to La Liga.

Girona FC have certainly not enjoyed a spectacular existence. Founded in 1930, they spent the early part of their history in the second division but the majority of their life has been spent bouncing between the third and fourth divisions. Our story begins in 2007 when they won promotion from the Tercera (fourth division). The following season ended with a return to the Segunda after 49 years away, following a 1-0 win in the 2aB promotion playoff with Ceuta.

They started off inconspicuously with four consecutive mid table finishes, however in 2012/13 surprised massively to occupy 2nd place with just four matches left. Unfortunately, they then lost two of those games, to fellow promotion chasers Villarreal and Almería whilst drawing with Real Madrid Castilla to end in 4th. They reached the playoff final after overcoming Alcorcón, but then lost 4-0 to Almería. It seemed that was the end of the dream, as in the post season, coach Rubi departed for Tito Vilanova’s team at Barça, and in the following season they only avoided relegation on the final day.

The 2014/15 season though was again played out at the right end of the table, although they missed promotion on a dramatic final day. Leading 1-0 at home to Lugo with 93 minutes on the clock, they conceded to Pablo Caballero’s header and dropped below Sporting Gijón on goal difference. Girona subsequently missed out on promotion by two goals, going on to lose in the play-off semis to Real Zaragoza. Meanwhile last season they again made the play-offs before losing in the final to Osasuna. How can it be then that a team who have never played in the Primera and possess such an underwhelming history are able to consistently mount challenges for promotion?

One can certainly not point to financial backing. Compared to the traditional big teams in the Segunda, Girona do not possess a big budget. In 2013 the club entered administration, and in May 2015 were in debt by over €4.5 million. They are however now more secure financially thanks to a takeover that year. 80% of the club was sold in June to Jaume Roures, president of TV company Mediapro, and Pere Guardiola, a successful agent who acts for the likes of Andrés Iniesta and Luis Suárez alongside his older brother Pep. They took over the debt and a few weeks later established an unofficial link with Manchester City. This involved City buying Girona’s main target, striker Rubén Sobrino from Ponferradina, whilst they paid £250,000 for Florian Lejuene before loaning both players to Girona for the upcoming season.

Arguably the reasoning behind this was City looked to sweeten the deal with Guardiola’s agent in the hope of securing Pep as their manager. Fast forward to the present, and of course he is in the hotseat at the Etihad, although it’s highly debatable how much the Girona connection helped. Commenting last summer chairman Ignasi Mas-Bagà stated “I think the relationship will grow in the short term”. Indeed, this seems to be the case, with Pablo Marí joined by Pablo Maffeo and Angeliño in January, although the latter has since moved to Mallorca instead. It doesn’t however look like Girona will become “Girona City” any time soon, with Mas-Bagà adding “we have not spoken about that”. It’s more likely the relationship will be similar to the one in place with Dutch side NAC Breda or existing between Chelsea and Vitesse Arnhem. If Girona do get promotion though it is highly likely City will continue to loan players here for first team experience.

To put Girona’s success purely down to this link however would be naive. Girona were achieving prior to the takeover, and have a smart recruitment policy of their own in place. This includes snapping up several first team regulars from smaller Catalan sides, such as Pedro Alcalá (Llagostera), Kiko Olivas (Sabadell) and Álex Granell (Prat). Meanwhile others such as former Spain U-19 internationals Jonás Ramalho and Borja García, alongside Moroccan international goalkeeper Bono, have moved to the Montilivi after their contracts expired at some of Spain’s top clubs. There’s also top scorer Samuele Longo, a nomadic Italian striker on loan from Inter Milan, who after five failed loan spells seems to have found a home. Girona facilitate this squad by producing talent of their own, including wing-back Sebas Coris, central midfielder Pere Pons, who earlier this year earned his first cap for the Catalan national team, and the now Eibar defender David Juncà.

Charged with organising these players into a formidable outfit is manager Pablo Machín, a key figure in the rise. He has good pedigree, learning as assistant to Juan Carlos Unzué at Numancia. A man with a large connection to Catalonia, Unzué acted as goalkeeping coach at Barça between 2003 and 2010. Learning from both Guardiola and Frank Rijkaard, he returned as assistant to Luis Enrique in 2014 and is now considered frontrunner for the main job. Machín’s playing style is also derived from his time playing for Numancia, where he was forced to retire at 23 due a serious knee injury, and his manager Miguel Ángel Lotina. Following a successful stint in the main role at Numancia, Machín moved to Catalonia in 2014, bringing with him his influential assistant Jordi Guerrero. All of this has resulted in Machín favouring a 3-5-2 formation, whereby a solid defence is used as the foundation for speedy counter attacking football. This can be seen in the illustration below:

Arguably the most important roles are the two wing backs or “carrileros” of Aday on the left and Pablo Maffeo on the right. They are tasked with bombing forward to attack and stretch play, but also to track back and form a formidable back five when Girona do not have possession. This is heightened by the lack of space opposing strikers are afforded by the defensive trio of Ramalho, Pedro Alcalá and Juanpe. So successful is this formation, that last season a league low of 28 goals were conceded, an average of just two goals in every three games.

In the midfield three, Pere Pons plays an important role as a defensive screen by sitting deep, whilst three midfielders are rotated for the more attacking roles either side of the youth product. These players are all having fantastic seasons, with Borja on 7 goals and 6 assists at the time of writing, Portu 6 goals and 8 assists and vice-captain Alex Granell 2 goals and 6 assists. Added to this firepower up front are the mobile Italian of Longo, scorer of 12 goals, and the more physical Fran Sandaza. The end result is a league best 57 goals scored, and 2nd place in the Segunda.

With 8 matches left at the time of writing, they are comfortably in the automatic promotion spot, 7 points ahead of Tenerife and Getafe. With a record as unlucky as Girona possess though, their ascension to La Liga is not guaranteed. Up until 11th March they had only lost two league matches, but since then have got nothing in 4 of their last 6 games in the league, with tough trips to league leaders Levante and relegation threatened Cordoba still to come. There’s also concern teams are starting to wise up to their style of play, targeting the space vacated when the carrileros go forward. This was evident the recent 2-1 home loss to UCAM Murcia, where both goals and numerous other chances came courtesy of crosses.

Hopefully they can alter these fortunes though and put enough of a run together to get over the line for promotion. Having been 90 minutes away and blowing it in three of the past four seasons, there’s certainly no club more deserving.

James Kelly

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