It’s time we talked about Girona. What they are doing is special. And not special in a cute and condescending kind of way but in a ‘could they be about to make history?’ kind of way.
With 19 points from their first seven games of the campaign, they’ve won more points than ever before at this stage of a La Liga season – their previous best tally after seven games was nine in 2018-19 (when they eventually got relegated in 18th place).
Both Barcelona and Real Madrid started last season with exactly the same record after seven matches – six wins, one draw and 19 points on the board. Barcelona eventually won that tussle, finishing ahead of Carlo Ancelotti’s Real side at the end of the season by 10 points. They are two of just 17 occasions that a side have started a La Liga campaign with 19+ points (based on three points for a win) since 1980-81.
As you would expect, those 17 occasions have been dominated by Barcelona (nine times), Real Madrid (three), Atlético Madrid (three) and Valencia (twice). Sporting Gijón started with an impeccable seven wins from seven in 1979-80 but ended that season third. In fact, just one of the last 24 times that a team has won 19+ points from their opening seven games of a La Liga campaign (based on three points for a win) have seen that side finish outside the top three at the end of the season – Valencia in 2008-09 (sixth) were the unlucky party.
A top-three finish would see Girona enter the UEFA Champions League next season, becoming the 14th Spanish club to play in the competition. With such a good start, Girona fans can start dreaming.
But how have they done it?
For years, it felt like Míchel was destined to be stuck between being a really good second division manager and one not good enough to manage in La Liga. He won the second division title with Huesca and Rayo Vallecano but he was sacked the following year of both stints when his sides couldn’t adapt to their new surroundings in the top tier.
If he could just survive that first season in the top flight without succumbing to gravity, he might have the chance to build something. After achieving promotion with Girona and with results not going his way, he received a report from the decision-makers City Football Group – of which Girona are a part – that he needed to just stick to the plan. Data analysis showed a team that was playing very well and the results would reflect that in time. Instead of compromising, Míchel was given licence to double down.
In what was their third ever season in the top flight, Míchel didn’t just survive a rough start, his Girona side made a push for Europe. They finished 10th in the end but captured the imagination of those watching.
Míchel hung up his boots as Rayo Vallecano’s all-time leading appearance-maker in 2012 and became a coach at a time when Paco Jémez was managing Rayo Vallecano to their best ever top-flight finish (8th – since eclipsed by one spot by Andoni Iraola). Jémez was known for his exceptional positional play and was dedicated, or possibly even dominated, by the idea of possession-based football. His sides would go to the Camp Nou and the Santiago Bernabéu and pass Real Madrid and Barcelona off the pitch but he also lost heavily, including a 10-2 reverse at the Bernabéu. Jémez didn’t have a white flag and would never wave it even if he did.
Míchel saw what a lack of pragmatism could do to very clear, positive ideas. Girona don’t dominate possession to the comical degree that Jémez’s side did but they do want the ball and they will hurt you when they have it.
Only Barcelona have more non-penalty expected goals than Girona’s 12.3 after seven games in La Liga and they’re creating the clearest chances in Spain. No La Liga side has averaged better quality shots from non-penalty situations this season than Girona in La Liga (0.15 xG per shot). In fact, across the top five European leagues in 2023-24, only one side can better their average – Strasbourg in Ligue 1 (0.18).
One of the advantages of being a smaller club as part of a multi-club model is that the likes of Girona can tap into the scouting resources provided by City Football Group. Manchester City rarely miss when it comes to player recruitment and Girona are no different. There are a number of examples of this in the last couple of years but two that stand out are Viktor Tsygankov and Artem Dovbyk. Two Ukrainians who were largely unknown but now make up one of the most potent attacking forces in Spain.
Cristhian Stuani is adored by Girona fans but at 36 is starting to wind down at the end of a prolific career. Girona lost Taty Castellanos this summer after he finished as the team’s top scorer (13) last season. They needed a replacement and decided on the 26-year-old from SC Dnipro-1.
Dovbyk is an aggressive, physical striker who can run the channels and is technically adept, linking up with the wide midfielders. He is a false nine in a big man’s body and he’s lethal in front of goal. His 5.1 non-penalty shots per 90 this season is the highest in La Liga among players with at least 225 minutes played.
Tsygankov looks like he could be a superstar. He is 25 and has everything needed to play at the highest level in club football. He doesn’t do one specific thing extremely well but he is the glue that binds this attack together with his technical ability, work rate, smart movement and eye for a pass.
In terms of loan deals, they have brought in Yan Couto, Yangel Herrera and Taty Castellanos from City Football Group and its stable of clubs in recent years. Sávio, who has been one of the standout players this season, also arrived in the summer from Troyes on loan. Even Aleix García and Douglas Luiz were once City loanees who came to Catalonia in search of regular playing time. As much of a fairytale as this might sound, it doesn’t happen without the influence of the City Football Group, but that’s not to say Girona are simply spending their way to the top of the ladder.
Míchel has also proven capable of successful reformation projects too.
Eric García was often the butt of the joke when he played for Barcelona and many criticised his inclusion with Spain’s national team even as Luis Enrique backed him to the hilt as a “spectacular player”. He moved from Manchester City to the Camp Nou and then on to Girona when it was widely accepted that he had the ball-playing ability but needed to regain his confidence at a club where the spotlight wasn’t so bright. Pablo Torre also arrived from Barcelona and while he hasn’t played significant minutes this season, that speaks more to the form of the players ahead of him, rather than any weakness in his own game. He will contribute at some point this season.
Girona sit at the top of the league with the fifth-youngest team on average in Spain at 26 years and 244 days. Only Valencia, Almería, Real Sociedad and Celta Vigo have rolled out average starting XI’s younger than Míchel.
They have players boasting experience with Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Manchester City littered throughout the squad. Asked after Girona had taken the top spot on Wednesday night, Xavi said “it’s a project with a very clear style of play and they have a manager they need to implement it.”
They are playing a 4-1-4-1 formation this season but that warps into something much more fluid in possession. They have only had 52.7% possession this season but the essence of their brilliance comes from what they do with the ball. Every signing is made with technical ability as the most important factor.
Aside from the very specifics of how Girona are playing, Míchel has improved, almost to a man, the players he is coaching. And he has done all of this with a lot of squad turnover. Some of the players in the chart above have been on loan at the club but Sávio, Dovbyk and García are all brand new signings bought for a specific reason.
Another summer signing, one that exemplifies the clarity of Girona’s decision-making is Daley Blind.
Daley Blind is 33 now and was considered slow a decade ago. He signed for Bayern Munich last January but didn’t play a minute and his arrival in Girona was looked at with bemusement. What can he possibly offer? Girona and Míchel always had a plan for the left-footed defender who has always been considered, while not gifted athletically, one of the best ball-playing defenders in Europe. He plays on the left of a back three alongside David López and García when Girona have the ball.
Blind understands what Míchel needs and didn’t take long to adapt to his new home and what was happening at the Estadio Montilivi. With López as the deepest defender, García and Blind step up to join Aleix García in the middle. With Sávio out wide, Iván Martín, Herrera and Tsygankov roaming further ahead of them, Dovbyk as an option over the top and Blind’s ability to execute a pass, opposition teams are left with crucial decisions to make every time he touches the ball.
Blind leads the team in forward passes (159). He decides when Girona move forward. Watch one game and you’ll see from his hand gestures and gesticulations that he is the quarterback of this team. He doesn’t quite play as an inverted centre-back, he just steps up as far as he sees fit to play alongside Aleix García.
Meanwhile, Viktor Tsygankov is an inverted winger on the right who also has the freedom to roam, switch with Sávio if necessary and generally wreak havoc on opposition defences. As mentioned, they play a 4-1-4-1 and the beauty lies in the movement of those four midfielders – Sávio and Tsygankov out wide and Martín and Yangel Herrera, who mix between attacking midfielders and coming inside. Blind can find the passes he needs to if given time and has the freedom of the entire left side of the field. But if you press him, he can also go long to Dovbyk, who is constantly available and willing to make runs in behind.
Replacing Romeu, Rebuilding Midfield
Míchel lost a key figure in central midfield when Barcelona came looking for a Sergio Busquets replacement in Oriol Romeu during the summer.
They had no natural replacement for him but Aleix García has done a fine job after stepping in. It’s a role not natural to him but Míchel has put measures in place to hide Garcia’s defensive weaknesses. His attacking output is down across the board but his touches are up and his general influence on play has climbed, too.
Somehow Girona have improved despite this role not coming naturally to Aleix García. He was once the creator of chances but now he is the man who makes the pass just before the chance is created.
Yangel Herrera spent last season being moved around the field and became a victim of his own perceived versatility. As you can see in the graphic below, he played in a variety of positions last season, and he did so different formations. He was quietly effective but struggled through injuries and the general lack of rhythm that comes from so much moving around.
The Colombian has benefitted most from the departure of Romeu. He is now a pure central midfielder who can play as an all-rounder but does everything from a fixed position – 100% of his minutes this season have come as a central midfielder. He had been squeezed out of his favourite role because of Aleix García but is one of the most pleasant of unintended consequences after Romeu left for Barcelona.
We have spoken a lot about various positions, but not yet mentioned two of the most important players and positions on the field: the full-backs. There is no better right-back tandem than Yan Couto and Arnau Martínez in Spain and in terms of potential, they might be the best in Europe.
If Blind doesn’t act as an inverted full-back, Arnau certainly does. With the addition of Eric García and Blind, there is not as much of a burden on the 20-year-old as in seasons past. He is sharing time this season with Couto, who offers something similar but slightly more direct than his Spanish teammate. Miguel Gutiérrez plays as the left-back in a supporting but no less important role. Girona’s brilliance comes from the depth they have at every position and how those roles feed into the ultimate goal: finding ways to hurt the opposition.
They have no individual star of the stature of a Jude Bellingham, Robert Lewandowski or Antoine Griezmann. What they have is technical excellence all over the field. Full-backs who can play as interiors and central defenders who can play as midfielders. Wingers who also play as wide midfielders and drift inside with ease and purpose.
They have had 11 different scorers so far this season and that leads La Liga. They did the same last season when they had 19 different scorers, which also led the league. Herrera and Dovbyk have three each while López, Sávio and Stuani have scored two apiece.
They create clear-cut chances despite not creating as many opportunities as some of their La Liga competitors.
They also have the highest set-piece xG in La Liga and some of the best deliverers of the ball in Europe. Only Almería and Sevilla have created more shots from set-pieces and four of Girona’s goals have come from dead balls, which also leads the league.
Míchel said “not even in my dreams” could he have imagined sitting atop La Liga looking down. But he also wouldn’t say their current position was temporary, because this is where Girona want to be. This is all just part of the long-term plan.
They welcome Madrid to the Estadio Montilivi on Saturday and face the biggest challenge of their season. The spotlight’s on and the pressure is ramping up. Are they ready?
The Opta Power Rankings are a global team ranking system that assigns an ability score to over 13,000 domestic football teams on a scale between zero and 100, where zero is the worst-ranked team in the world and 100 is the best team in the world.
Ahead of kick-off this weekend, here is the Opta Power Ranking for Girona and their opponents Real Madrid.