The Insight: Can Girona go the distance in La Liga title race?

 | January 10 | 

7 mins read

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At the halfway stage of the 2023-24 La Liga campaign, the top of the table makes for pretty familiar reading, with Real Madrid (1st) leading Barcelona (3rd) in the title race. But nestled in between Spain’s two most famous clubs is arguably Europe’s biggest surprise package of the season - Girona.

The Catalan club sit in second but are level on points with the leaders and seven clear of Barcelona - who they humbled 4-2 away from home last month - after a stunning first half of the season which saw them defeated only once, a 3-0 reverse to Real Madrid in September.

Atletico Madrid were Girona’s latest victims last week as they fell to a dramatic 4-3 loss at Estadio Municipal de Montilivi, which has become quite the fortress under manager Michel.

Girona’s success has been downplayed in some quarters, though, with people pointing to the ownership of the club - City Football Group (CFG), which boasts a large portfolio of football clubs, has a 47% stake in the Blanquivermells - as the principal factor in the side’s hunt for a first-ever top-tier league title.

But is that doing a huge disservice to Michel and his crop of unheralded players? And do Girona really have the juice to go the distance and wrestle the title away from Spain’s ‘Big Two’?

Girona 2023-24 La Liga Betting Tips:

  • Girona to win La Liga @ 5/1
  • Girona top four finish in La Liga @ 1/10

CFG first acquired a stake (44.3%) in Girona in August 2017, with football agent Pere Guardiola - brother of Manchester City boss Pep - holding another 44.3% stake with Girona Football Group, which previously held a greater share before reducing it to bring CFG on board. Later, CFG increased their stake, with Girona Football Group lowering theirs, but Pere Guardiola has been chairman of the club since 2020, and under his stewardship they earned promotion from the Segunda Division to La Liga in 2022.

It’s fair to say Girona have made use of CFG and their network of clubs around the world, with last season’s 10th-place finish in La Liga spearheaded by Argentine striker Taty Castellanos (now at Lazio), who spent the campaign on loan from American CFG outfit New York City FC. 

The current squad, meanwhile, includes Brazilian full-back Yan Couto - on his third loan from Manchester City - and Venezuelan midfielder Yangel Herrera, who made a permanent switch from the English side last summer after spending the previous season on loan in Girona. Barcelona’s Eric Garcia, who spent four years with Pep Guardiola at City, is in the building as a loanee, as is Savio, whose parent club Troyes are CFG’s French side.

Further links to CFG - whose CEO Ferran Soriano used to be vice-president at Barcelona - can be found in Pablo Torre (on loan from Barcelona) and Aleix Garcia (ex-City). All six - Couto, Herrera, Eric Garcia, Savio, Torre and Aleix Garcia - have played important roles this season, with only Torre - who has started the last two league games - making fewer than 12 starts. Suffice to say, CFG is a talent factory from which Girona has benefited enormously from.

Girona to win 2023-24 La Liga at 5-1

But it would be remiss to overlook the tactical nous and man management of current Girona boss Michel. There are other examples of ownership groups or owners - like the Pozzo family at Watford, Udinese and Granada - hoarding players and loaning or selling them between the sides. The Pozzos’ network is not as vast, nor as expensive, but none of their clubs have enjoyed a season as spectacular as Girona’s so far, and Michel is performing miracles with a group of relatively unknown players.

According to Transfermarkt, Girona paid €22.25m (£19.12m) in transfer fees last summer, with seven La Liga sides spending more. Only three of their signings - Herrera, Jhon Solis and Artem Dobvyk - cost €5m or more, with the latter the most expensive at €7.75m (£6.66m). Taking departures into account, the Blanquivermells ended the window €4.35m (£3.74m) in the red, putting them 10th for net spend. The impact of their signings, though, has been monumental.

Ukrainian striker Dobvyk had never played in one of Europe’s ‘Top 5’ leagues before, previously failing to make the grade in Denmark, the only country he had played in outside of his homeland. But the 26-year-old has enjoyed a stunning first half of the season in La Liga, scoring 11 goals - which puts him behind only Jude Bellingham (13), Borja Mayoral and Alvaro Morata (both 12) - in the running for the Pichichi Trophy. Dobvyk also has five assists, with only Real Madrid maestro Toni Kroos (6) registering more. As highlighted on The Coaches’ Voice in November, Dobvyk is a dangerous runner in behind, with the Ukraine international able to exploit the space created by teammates in the half-spaces. 

Girona often line up - on the ball, at least - in a 3-1-3-3 formation, with Aleix Garcia positioned as the pivot in front of three central defenders - Daley Blind, David Lopez and Eric Garcia. The quartet are crucial to the build-up, with their comfort on the ball highlighted in the fact that they all reside within the top 30 most accurate passers in the division (minimum ten 90s played - fbref). Midfielder Ivan Martin, who generally operates higher than Aleix Garcia, is actually eighth on that list.

Keeping the ball is an important part of the structure, not just at Girona - who are fourth in the Liga possession charts - but in the CFG model as a whole, as is most evident at Manchester City. It’s not passing for passing’s sake, though - Blind and Aleix Garcia are among the league’s most progressive passers, alongside the likes of Kroos - with Girona well out in front on 46 league goals this term, six ahead of the next-best Real Madrid (40).

Whether their current rate of scoring is sustainable, though, remains to be seen.

Girona top 4 finish in 2023-24 La Liga at 1-10

Girona only rank sixth for shots per game and require the fewest shots to score a goal (5.7 before last Wednesday) in La Liga. They lead the Understat xG overperformance charts by a landslide (+6.36 compared to Real Sociedad, who are second on +2.62), with Dobvyk overperforming his tally by 2.21 and Savio by 1.94.

The Blanquivermells have also conceded 7.75 fewer goals than expected, with only Las Palmas and Real Madrid above them in that metric. Goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga has been a net positive for his side this season, with a PSxG-GA90 (Post-Shot Expected Goals minus Goals Allowed per 90 minutes) of +0.14 and a save percentage of 76.1%, which puts him sixth in the league.

But, like many of his teammates, this hasn’t been the norm for Gazzaniga’s career, which has been mostly spent as a reserve shot-stopper in England. So, can we expect Girona to fall by the wayside sooner or later?

Even at this stage, with Girona in the new year level on points at the top and seven clear of Barcelona, it feels fanciful to suggest they can win La Liga. Second is certainly achievable, with reigning champions Barca looking sub-par this season, but overcoming Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid, boasting arguably the world’s greatest player at the moment - Bellingham - over the course of a full campaign, is another matter.

Regardless, last week’s thrilling victory over Atletico should give Michel and his players another shot of confidence heading into three winnable league fixtures against Almeria, Sevilla and Celta Vigo this month.

Tougher tests lie in wait in February as Girona tackle Real Sociedad, Real Madrid and Athletic Club, and those games will be the true indicator of whether they can go the distance. It will certainly be an entertaining watch either way as Girona prove they are more than just a pawn in the CFG model.

Check out the rest of our Football Betting Tips here.

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