Girona Is Thriving On The Edge Of A Knife

The top four of Spain’s La Liga table holds a surprise. Real Madrid is in first, sure, and both Atlético Madrid and Barcelona are in striking distance, as is tradition. The club closest to the league-leading Real, however, wasn’t expected to be here, a third of the way into the season. That would be Girona, who after 14 matches sits tied with the Spanish giants at the tippy-top of the standings, 35 points already in hand and only second thanks to a negative head-to-head record. What’s perhaps most surprising is how close Girona was to retaining its outright first-place lead heading into Monday’s hosting of Athletic Bilbao, a match that perfectly represented why the Catalonian side is reaching such great heights, but also one that showed why they are likely not actual contenders to do a madness of title-winning proportions.

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There’s a cause-and-effect question at the heart of Girona’s season, more specifically about its gameplan: Does Girona play free-flowing, end-to-end games because of how offensive-minded the side is, or does it play so offensively because its defense is not so good? The answer to that question wasn’t answered on Monday, because both extremes were on full display. Girona’s offense functions similarly to how its Catalan neighbors in Barcelona’s does at its most philosophical: It’s not exactly tiki-taka, but manager Míchel does demand possession and smart, intricate passing combinations from his side.

This is how Girona ended up with 61 percent possession over Bilbao, and how the club sits in fourth on possession percentage for the season, trailing only Barcelona, Las Palmas (who is not very good, but who is committed to possession to an even more demanding degree), and Real Madrid. At the Estadi Montilivi Monday night, that possession was predicated on wide movement, and this is both where Girona’s best strength and biggest weakness came into play. By spreading the field, often with diagonal long balls to summer wonderteen signing Sávio, Girona consistently pushed Bilbao back with a flurry of low crosses into the box, giving the Basque side no chance to set up a consistent backline.

This first almost paid off in the 27th minute, when a long ball from Daley Blind (yes, that Daley Blind) found Sávio ahead of Bilbao right wingback Óscar de Marcos. The 19-year-old Brazilian drove directly on goal before flicking a cross over to Venezuela’s own Yangel Herrera, one of Girona’s best players this season, who floated a header into the goal. Though Sávio was found to be not insignificantly offside on the initial diagonal, this was the blueprint, and Girona went to it over and over, including immediately after.

It was not surprising, then, that the team’s opener came from the left on the other side of halftime: In the 55th minute, a give-and-go allowed left back Miguel Gutiérrez to slot a low ball into the box, one that Bilbao failed to deal with until it fell to Viktor Tsyhankov, and the Ukranian slotted a perfect near-post shot to give Girona a 1-0 lead:

Now, that’s all fine and dandy, but up until the goal, Bilbao was actually the more dangerous team, and this is where Girona’s potential weaknesses come into play. By spreading the play so well, and pushing its whole team forward in possession, Girona also opens itself up to counter-attacks, and Bilbao was mostly fine to settle for that. It helps that the Basques have brothers Iñaki and Nico Williams, both of whom are great at driving directly at backpedaling defenses from the wings. In the first half, Girona had no answer for the elder Iñaki, who drifted in from the right wing to set up chance after chance. For the game, Bilbao had the same amount of shots as Girona—13 total—but the shots were better and more dangerous, and led to a 6-2 advantage for shots on target.

That the Bilbao equalizer came from both a counter and the foot of Iñaki Williams, then, was expected: In the 67th minute, Bilbao recovered the ball at midfield via Oihan Sancet, who spotted Williams making a run outside of the left back, and slotted a through ball perfectly weighted to allow the winger to cut inside onto his left foot. Williams then hit a dribbler of a near-post shot, counter to his momentum, and that was enough to fool former Spurs goalie Paulo Gazzaniga—who was excellent in keeping a clean sheet to that moment, I should mention—and tie the match up.

The rest of the match was, thankfully, not a slog for one point, as both sides kept pushing and pushing for the winner. As a neutral observer, Girona’s inability to settle into a match and defend is delightful, because it leads to flurries on both sides. It’s not the most consistent of strategies, though, and it’s why the team has scored the most goals in La Liga this season (Tsyhankov’s was the 32nd for the side, one ahead of the high-flying Real) and has allowed the second-most of any top-seven side (only Bilbao, coincidentally, has given up more).

To go back to my original question, the answer for Girona is that everything is connected. It can bring the game to opponents, but any form of organized counter-attack can shred the defense with relative ease. This is the state of existence for a side that probably should not be in this peak form. After all, Girona only finished 10th in La Liga last year, and lost some key performers over the summer in midfielder Oriol Romeu, winger Rodrigo Riquelme, striker Taty Castellanos, and especially center-back Santi Bueno. While its ownership status helps it bounce back better than other mid-table sides could—Girona is owned by City Football Group, who also own a little club called Manchester City—none of the incoming talents from the transfer window seemed like game-changers on paper.

It turns out that Sávio (four goals, four assists), Artem Dovbyk (seven goals, four assists), Iván Martín (three goals from midfield) fit in better than expected, though, and so Girona has been able to throw caution to the wind and just let its players cook. (Herrera also made his move from City official, after bouncing around Spain on loan for the last half decade; he has four goals after only scoring two last season.) The side has been helped by a somewhat favorable schedule to date, too; the match against Bilbao has only its third against top six opposition, and the results of those matches haven’t been great. Girona drew Real Sociedad in the first match of the season—a 1-1 away draw is pretty good, though, Sociedad is legit—and then got steamrolled by Real at home in September. That means that only two of Girona’s now 35 points have come against what could be called top opponents.

The test is coming, though: Between now and Jan. 3, Girona will host Valencia (ninth place), travel to Barcelona (fourth), travel to Real Betis (seventh), and host Atlético (third). Just on the other side of the new year, the club will be in something closer to its real position on the table. Put another way, it’s time for this free-flowing, exceedingly entertaining side to figure out who it is going to be. Steamrolling through this next stretch of matches with anything resembling top form could define Girona as contenders for the Champions League, if not more, but a fall back to Earth wouldn’t insult the side’s quality. Girona is already overachieving to levels that no one could have seen coming, and if its leaky defense lets in more goals than its sterling offense can score, so be it. For now, Girona has been the best surprise in a La Liga season that has mostly gone to par, and even a 1-1 draw can feel like the most exciting game taking place in Spain on any given matchday.

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