Not many expected Girona to qualify for the UEFA Champions League this season, but they’ve done it against the odds. The next question is, where do they go from here?

In the end, Girona couldn’t ‘pull off a Leicester’ as they chased an unlikely La Liga title. Leicester City, of course, shocked the football world with an incredible Premier League title victory eight years ago under Claudio Ranieri. Girona were likened to the Italian’s squad of upstarts.

The comparisons never quite fit exactly to measure even if the broadest contours of their seasons looked similar. The similarities are obvious but the differences are just as stark.

If Leicester’s team structure was rigid, simple and opportunistic, Girona are bold, brave and ambitious. If Leicester were monochrome, Girona are technicolor.

It always felt like Leicester’s victory was the culmination of something, the reward at the end of an incredible season, an achievement that could never be repeated — even to speak of it as something that might become habitual was daft.

Girona, with their links to City Football Group and the style of football they play, might be just getting started. The question now is where they go from here, how they manage their summer transfer business and the likelihood of keeping their place at the table where only the most illustrious of clubs dine.

It All Starts with Míchel

Quique Cárcel, the sporting director behind Girona’s rise, said hiring Míchel is the best footballing decision he has ever made.

The unassuming 48-year-old, who played more times for Rayo Vallecano than anyone else in the club’s history, had managed several teams before arriving at the Catalan club. He got them promoted through the Segunda play-offs and many thought his work was done. He had become an expert of promotion into Spain’s top flight and he was also starting to develop an expertise for getting teams relegated from the top division.

Míchel’s tactics worked for teams at the top of any given league but weren’t worth the whiteboard they were drawn up on in a relegation scrap. Those same tactics catapulted Girona into European contention last season but their effort fell short and they finished 10th in the end. A noble if doomed effort. But Girona’s board believed they needed to lean more into the manager’s style, not shy away from it.

“We get data from City Football Group weekly and last season the data, which is very powerful, told us we should have been in the top half of the table, not the bottom half,” he recently told Albert Blaya Sensat in relation to Girona’s slow start last year. “They told me not to change anything because it would come good.”

What exactly was Míchel doing that his bosses liked so much?

In an interview with El Pais recently, Míchel said: “Pep [Guardiola] is classical music, [Jürgen] Klopp is rock and roll. What I’m saying is that Pep stifles the opponent, avoids them doing damage while Klopp accepts that your opponent can hurt you when you go out there to devour them.”

“If you can combine the two…,” he went on to say.

That chaos his teams create means they can win big against almost anyone, including beating Real Madrid 4-2 last season and beating Barcelona twice this term by the same scoreline. They beat Atlético Madrid 4-3 this season too. They can also get beaten well on occasion with no remedy other than to be even more brave on the ball.

That’s not to say they bombard the opponent’s goal with shots. Míchel’s Girona are a quality over quantity attacking side — they don’t create an overwhelming amount of chances, but they do big damage with what they generate. They have the highest expected goals (xG) per non-penalty shot attempt (0.14) across Europe’s big five leagues despite lying well down the rankings in non-penalty shots per game (12.0, 58th in rank).

Girona Goals La Liga 2023-24

Those big chances alone condition games, forcing the opponent to respect them. How they create those chances can also neutralise opponents, controlling games with the ball but with the end goal always being to move forward fast when the opportunity arises. Míchel laid out his entire philosophy with an impassioned in-game speech during the season, which was picked up by pitch-side cameras.

“Play vertically,” he shouted. “But minimum of two touches per player. Keep it, keep it, keep the ball. Fake the pass, fake the pass, play like you would on the street.”

“But play vertically.”

A contradiction perhaps? Or a combination of two different styles?

They try to suck you in and then hurt you with vertical passes – the goal isn’t to control games with sideways passing. The goal is, well, the goal. They have the most build-up goals (the number of open play sequences that contains 10+ passes and end in a goal scored) in Europe’s top five leagues this season (13), ahead of Bayern Munich (12) and Man City (10).

This isn’t a Pep’s death by a thousand cuts or Klopp’s dagger to the heart. This is constantly living in the fear that Girona can do either.

But above all, Míchel has implanted this squad with the personality to believe they can win these games and the freedom to play beyond themselves. Girona have the fourth-best goals per game average across Europe’s big five leagues this season in home matches (2.71). It’s even slightly better than Man City at the Etihad Stadium (2.67).

They don’t know when they’re beaten either. The personality they play with might see them trailing in games but they are never out of a fight given the quality of the chances they create. Across Europe’s big five leagues, only Liverpool (28) have recovered more points from losing positions than Girona (25) in 2023-24.

The good news for Girona is that even if the big teams come knocking in search of their newest signing, Míchel is staying put. You can’t transfer an idea, a philosophy of play on the transfer market. And Girona have proven, as a place where footballers can go to realise the best version of themselves, that they can survive the squad turnover.

Last summer, they lost Santiago Bueno, Oriol Romeu and Taty Castellanos, three of their four most used players in the league last year. The players who have replaced them — Daley Blind, Aleix García and Artem Dovbyk — are all among the very best in their respective positions this season and some of Girona’s most used.

The Inevitable Summer Turnover

The rumour mill has already started to turn. Girona players are being linked to moves all around Europe. Xabi Alonso has reportedly asked Bayer Leverkusen bosses for Aleix García in the summer. Sávio looks destined to end up at Manchester City.

The bigger names will likely make the headlines this summer but Girona’s success next season will come from how they manage the rest of their squad. Míchel has a proven track record of successfully reigniting careers and unexpected player development.

Daley Blind, at 33 years old at the end of 2022-23, was unwanted by Bayern. Those who were paying attention last summer looked askance at the signing and others laughed it off as some sort of novelty. With four games to play and with 2,612 minutes already played this season in the league, he will likely play more league minutes this season than he has in almost a decade. Eric García was looking for a change of scenery too having come in for some heavy criticism during his time at Barcelona. His reputation has never been as high.

Yangel Herrera had bounced around from loan spell to loan spell, which saw him play for New York City FC, Huesca, Granada, Espanyol and Girona. He never truly made a name for himself but has been outstanding this season as the muscle that has allowed García become one of the most wanted midfielders in Europe; only Mikel Merino and Eduardo Camavinga win more duels per 90 than the Venezuelan among midfielders in La Liga (min. 900 minutes played).

Iván Martin had stagnated as a promising young midfielder. Now, he might be, in a team filled with underrated footballers, the most underrated of them all. He has played everywhere in midfield for Girona this season, playing 2,387 minutes having featured for just north of 1,500 last season. He has scored five goals and provided three assists including the winning goal in the 4-3 epic against Atlético Madrid.

Finaly, Portu is another player who looked as though he was on the descent slope of a very respectable career. Instead, at 32, he is coming off his best season ever. He leads all players in La Liga (at least 1,000 minutes) in goals and assists per 90 with 1.05 ahead of some massive names in Dovbyk (1.04), Raphinha (1.03), Vinícius Júnior (0.96), Alexander Sørloth (0.94) and Jude Bellingham (0.92).

And these are just the players currently in the squad.

Ilyas Chaira has played 34 times scoring five with another four assists for Mirandés on loan – the de facto club in Spain you send a player when you want him to be immersed in a possession-based football philosophy. Gabri Martínez is there too and he has scored eight times with four assists. Pau Víctor is at Barça Atlètic under Rafa Márquez, where he has scored 17 times with four assists.

Jhon Solís has only played 384 minutes this season but at 19 looks like he could be a player ready to break out. Twenty-year-old Jastin García made his debut this season after impressing during the pre-season and in any normal campaign probably would have played more often.

Míchel hasn’t somehow made the players mentioned above into Champions League footballers but he has found a system that allows these players to shine. The smart bet is that he will do the same again this summer.

The big sky blue elephant in the room is the connection to City Football Group and have their network of football scouts to rely on. The involvement of the group hasn’t been overt and they haven’t spent like a club with billionaire owners, La Liga’s spending limits will ensure they don’t do the same this season.

But there is every chance they unearth at least one future superstar this summer. They have form for this sort of thing too.

Míchel says when he first saw Sávio train he knew Girona would play in Europe. “He’s the best player I’ve had,” he said of the Brazilian. Most people had never heard of the 20-year-old on loan from Troyes, another club in the City Football Group collection.

Sávio has completed 94 dribbles in La Liga this season (a league-high) and with four games to go, it’s likely he’ll be the first player to hit 100+ in a single campaign while aged under 21 since Lionel Messi in 2008-09.

Savio Dribbling La Liga

Another hit in the transfer market was Dovbyk, who arrived from obscurity in the summer from SK Dnipro-1 and has scored more goals than any other player in La Liga this season (20).

Dovbyk is also the player who averages the fewest touches per 90 outside of the penalty area (16.6) in Europe’s big five leagues, even fewer than Erling Haaland (17.6), who he has been compared to. He’s another player clubs will be falling over themselves to negotiate for when the transfer market opens.

The biggest summer in the history of Girona Futbol Club is on the horizon. Their spending limit will have increased thanks to their qualification for the Champions League, their track record in developing players is evident and the system is in place for players to exceed the limits of their own imagined ability.

The questions now are can they navigate through a transfer market where several top clubs will be eyeing their best players? What will be left of this historic Girona squad?

Whatever they look like come August when the 2024-25 season kicks off, they’ll still be playing bold and brave football. Football from the street… except this time in the Champions League.

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