As small club success stories go, Girona’s tale may not be the most romantic. As part of the powerful City Football Group since 2017, the club’s presence in the Spanish top flight is not universally welcomed in Spain. The ill feeling towards them is understandable to some extent and the resentment only grows stronger amongst sections of the Spanish media and match-going public that takes a more hostile stance on the touchy subject of Catalan independence.
Girona is a proudly Catalan city with strong long links to the pro-independence movement and while match days at Montilivi are not overtly political affairs, the matter, along with the Manchester City links, do go some way to explaining why the club’s impressive rise over the past twelve months has not been more warmly received or commented upon.
Last season, they put together one of the most impressive LaLiga seasons from a newly promoted team this century. Michel’s team finished in 10th place and would have qualified for Europe had they managed to beat Osasuna on the final weekend. They also played one of the most exciting brands of football in Spain, boldly attacking the league on their return to the top flight after three years in the second tier, scoring 58 goals, a tally bettered by only four teams.
Rebuilding last season’s squad
Even before the 2022/23 campaign had concluded, there was already talk of Girona being a strong “second season syndrome” candidate, a term that was coined for clubs who enjoy something of a bounce as a newly promoted team with the excitement of top flight football and momentum from promotion helping spark initial success, before things badly fall apart the following year.
The club knew a number of loanees would not be returning, most notably last season’s top scorer Taty Castellanos and Rodrigo Riquelme, the only Girona player to contribute 4+ goals and assists last term.
That meant they’d need to make big new plans for their forwardline and the midfield situation was potentially just as bleak with Oriol Romeu a target for Catalan neighbours Barcelona while Aleix Garcia, who was outstanding before injuries towards the end of the campaign, was out of contract.
While Romeu did move to Barcelona, Girona managed to convince Garcia to sign a new three year deal in what was surely their most important piece of summer business. They also completed the permanent signings of three of last season’s loanees as first choice goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga, as well as midfielders Yangel Herrera and Ivan Martin signed, ensuring a squad that could have been almost entirely broken up this summer, retained a much greater degree of continuity than might have been the case.
It’s a squad supplemented by two more exciting young loan additions with 19 year old Savio and 20 year old Pablo Torre arriving. However so far at least, that has been the extent of their movements in the loan market, with the additions of Daley Blind and Artem Dovbyk giving a more permanent nature to this Girona squad than was the case last season.
A bright start banishes talk of a second season decline
Girona have hit the ground running in LaLiga with 7 points from their opening 3 games, an outstanding return given they’ve already travelled to both Real Sociedad and Sevilla, teams tipped to push for Champions League qualification this term.
New arrivals Blind and Savio, two players at very different ends of their careers, have both immediately slotted nicely into the eleven, starting all three games. Dovbyk meanwhile came off the bench to score a vital equaliser in Girona’s opening fixture away to La Real with the early signs being that the Catalans may have recruited smartly again.
A 3-0 win over Getafe and a 2-1 win at Sevilla have since followed with Yangel Herrera and veteran striker Cristhian Stuani both netting twice while it was Aleix Garcia who brilliantly fired in the winner at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan on Saturday to send a fearless Girona side into the lofty heights of 2nd place in the early LaLiga 2023/24 standings.
Popular Michel’s growing reputation
Having ultimately suffered the sack in each of his two previous roles at Rayo Vallecano and Huesca, Michel appears to have found a real home for himself in Girona where he is deeply admired and respected.
Having guided Girona to promotion at the first attempt in 2022, Madrid-born Michel has emerged as an unlikely hero in this corner of Catalunya. Only 40 km from the French border, Girona is about as far away as you can get from the Spanish capital without leaving mainland Spain, but it has proved the ideal location for the 47 year old to rebuild his career
His desire to play positive football and take risks has been admirable but not always practical in his previous roles with more limited squads. However at Girona, with a host of exciting, young players at his disposal who are full of running, Michel has been better able to execute a style of play that he describes as combining “energy and verticality”.
Michel has also adhered himself to the Girona fanbase by learning and giving interviews in Catalan, something which is far from the norm with non-Catalan coaches in these parts. The Madrileño is certainly winning hearts and minds in Catalunya and it may not be long before he starts to receive attention from further afield.
Why it’s not all about the City link
Had Michel worked such wonders at another small club in LaLiga, it may have been more than just players that Girona faced a battle to keep hold of this summer. It’s somewhat inevitable though, that any success Girona have is largely attributed to their links to Manchester City and the riches of Abu Dhabi.
It would be false to suggest that Girona’s status within the City Group hasn’t been significant. It not only gives the club access to elite level coaching and scouting methods, but to a network of clubs and a potential pool of players that other smaller Spanish clubs simply don’t have such easy access to.
This summer, Yangel Herrera has arrived from Manchester City while Savio joined from Troyes, one of five European clubs in the City Group including the current European champions. 13-goal Taty Castellanos arrived from New York City last season and there are plenty of other examples of the link-up serving Girona well over the past few years, but the ill-informed perception that Girona are little more than a Man City B team is incredibly wide of the mark.
If anything the club has benefited just as much from its proximity to Barcelona in recent years with the club doing a good job of sweeping up former La Masia prospects such as talented young right back Arnau Martinez and giving them a chance to launch their careers at a club where first team opportunities are easier to come by.
Largely thanks to Michel’s positive style of football, they’ve become an attractive destination for other young players who haven’t quite made the grade at bigger clubs in Spain. Miguel Gutierrez has done well at left back since joining from Real Madrid last summer while Ivan Martín spent more than a decade as a young player on Villarreal’s books without breaking through at the Ceramica, only to fully launch his career in Girona.
The result of their recruitment policy is a squad of hungry young players, supported by the odd experienced figure and a coach that has created an environment which gives those youngsters every possible opportunity to flourish.
Win, lose or draw, Girona look set to serve up some of the best entertainment in LaLiga again this season.