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How Girona Are Challenging For The La Liga Title

How Girona Are Challenging For The La Liga Title

Surprise packages and amazing underdog stories are a huge part of what makes football great. When Leicester City romped their way to the Premier League title in 2016/17, everyone in England was stunned, not least the Foxes' diehard supporters. A few years later on the other side of the channel, Lille shocked everyone by storming past heavy favourites PSG to win the 2020/21 Ligue 1 title.

This season, La Liga has been flipped on its head by a similarly unexpected arrival at the very top of the Spanish game, and if the team in question goes all the way, it will arguably surpass both those achievements.

We're talking, of course, about Girona. A small city in the region of Catalonia, located roughly 100km north of Barcelona, Girona has a population of just 100,000 people and has never challenged the elites of Spanish football in the past. However, that has changed emphatically this season. Followers of La Liga will know that after an incredible start, the club has fallen away slightly from league leaders Real Madrid, in part due to a massive Jude Bellingham-led Madrid victory over Girona at the Bernabeu in February.

However, this small club, which has spent most of its history in the lower divisions, is still Los Blancos' closest challengers for the 2023/24 La Liga title. The club has stunned Spanish football this campaign. How have they done it?

In this article, we'll be explaining Girona's meteoric rise and diving into the key factors that have allowed them to compete so admirably at the top of the Spanish game. Considering tactics, coaching, and recruitment, while also providing a little information about the club's history, we'll be giving you an in-depth guide to the rise of Girona FC.

A Brief History of Girona

At the time of writing, Girona is second in La Liga, trailing Real Madrid by seven points (with 59 points to Madrid's 66). The men's first team had an absolutely blistering start to the season, winning 11 of their first 13 games and surpassing the start-of-season records held by iconic La Liga coaches like Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone. However, after leading the pack for a large chunk of the campaign, the team has experienced a slight drop-off in form recently.

This will frustrate some supporters, who know exactly what the team is capable of; still, when you compare this campaign to the rest of the club's history, the difference is staggering.

2023/24 is only Girona's fourth ever season in the top flight; they reached La Liga in 2017 for the first time in their history, but were relegated back to the Segunda Division (also known as LaLiga 2) two seasons later. After three agonising play-off final defeats, they eventually clawed their way back to the top flight of Spanish football in 2021, and they've remained there ever since. 

But just 17 years ago, Girona were playing their football in the fourth tier. In fact, this is where they've spent the largest portion of their history; since being founded in 1930, the club has played 44 seasons in Tercera Division (the fourth tier), 13 seasons in Segunda Division B (the third tier), 24 seasons in Segunda Division, and just 4 seasons in La Liga.

Girona's home ground, the 14,624-capacity multi-use stadium Estadi Montilivi (built in 1970), reflects these humble roots. But it's fair to say that they've transcended this backdrop in recent times, and managed to reach up to some pretty dizzying heights. How have they done it?


The issue of ownership is an important consideration when discussing Girona. Some people have waved away their remarkable title challenge by flagging their association with the riches of the City Football Group (a multi-club ownership group that controls flagship club Manchester City as well as Melbourne City, New York City, Troyes and more), but that link doesn't tell the whole story. 

In reality, the club has experienced some difficult times in recent years; around a decade ago while playing in the Segunda Division, FC Girona was threatened with insolvency, eventually being saved largely thanks to the work of Pere Guardiola, Pep Guardiola's agent brother, who acted as an intermediary between Girona and French group TVSE Futbol, who then took over the club.

At this point, Guardiola became the new ownership's chairman and key decision maker, and in 2017, the majority shareholding ended up passing to City Football Group, after they bought 44% of the club.

Since this point, Girona has benefited from the kind of vast scouting network, huge global player pool and stable finances that only a multi-club ownership group like CFG can have. The list of players they've signed from fellow CFG clubs includes Florian Lejeune, Pablo Mari, Pablo Moreno and Aleix Garcia. However, despite these useful connections, at no point in their history has Girona had bags of money, and ultimately, they're pursuing the 2023/24 La Liga title with a very modest budget.

Yes, they benefited from ties to other CFG clubs and shown just how powerful a multi-club ownership model can be in the modern day; however, the majority of Girona's squad have been signed on free transfers and loan deals, and to this day their record signing is Artem Dovbyk, who cost just €7.5m. In order to show exactly what Girona have done right, it's worth diving into their transfer dealings in a little more detail.

Clever Squad Building

The La Liga player salary cap has put serious constraints on Girona; while league leaders Real Madrid can spend up to €727m on player wages this season, their title rivals are only permitted a budget of €52m, the 12th-highest salary limit in the division. As a result, they've had to be inventive when it comes to recruiting players; the brightest, most promising talents in Europe simply aren't an option for the club. 

Given these limitations, the way Girona went about their business last summer was extremely impressive. They strengthened their back line immensely with the signing of experienced Dutchman Daley Blind on a free transfer, accompanying him at the back with the young Spanish defender Eric Garcia on loan from Barca.

In goal they brought in ex-Spurs and Southampton shotstopper Paolo Gazzaniga, a free transfer who has performed excellently throughout the season, and up top the Ukrainian striker Artem Dovbyk has been an absolute revelation, scoring 14 goals in 25 La Liga matches to date, after signing for around €7m in the summer. This clever recruitment has been essential to their surprise performance in the Spanish top flight this season.

Excellent Management

It would be remiss of us to discuss Girona without spotlighting the excellent work of manager Miguel Angel Sanchez Munoz. The 48-year-old was born in Madrid, and spent most of his playing career in the city with Rayo Vallecano, before becoming the club's head coach and taking them up to the top flight.

He was eventually sacked due to underwhelming results (harshly, in many people's eyes), and the same thing happened when he got Huesca promoted up to La Liga in his next job. But at Girona, things would be different. 

Known simply as Michel, the Girona manager's attacking style of play appealed to fans of the club from the very beginning. In their first season back in the top flight, only the top five clubs in the division scored more goals than Girona, and their prolific rate of scoring has continued to this day. Michel is known for playing attractive, possession-based football inspired partly by Catalan boss Pep Guardiola, and he's also known for operating with a similar level of intensity, passion and personality to the Manchester City boss. Without Michel, there's no way Girona would be in the La Liga title race, having been top of the league at the midway point of the season.

Innovative Tactics

Tactical strategies inevitably play a massive role in any prospective title bid, and Girona is no exception — they've impressed plenty of neutrals this season with the innovative way they've approached setting up their XI and making their mark on each game.

Michel's team has been playing a model of football that can be closely linked to Guardiola's trademark brand, an intricate possession-based style that focuses on keeping hold of the ball, moving the opposition around the pitch and creating overloads in key areas.

In terms of shape, injuries and performances have caused Michel to shuffle things around a little, but much of Girona's success has come using a fluid 3-5-2 system with inverted full-backs who shift into midfield areas when building forward in possession, and have plenty of license to roam forward. The two wide centre-backs in this shape (Blind and Garcia) also have the responsibility of stepping forward into midfield and playing penetrative passes to break through the opposition lines.

Throughout the season, the team has conceded a fair amount of goals (33 in 27 games, 15 more than their rivals Madrid). However, they generally have plenty of confidence in their own ability to continue carving out chances and simply out-scoring their opposition; as such, they've scored 57 goals and have been arguably the league's most entertaining team.

They've also been able to consistently add to their goal threat with the use of set pieces; with well-worked corner and free kick routines, 2023/24 has seen Girona become one of Europe's most effective sides when it comes to set plays.

Whatever happens in the La Liga title race throughout the rest of the campaign, no one can deny that Girona have done so far is remarkable. The club has showed innovation in tactics, recruitment, and coaching, and the way they've competed with much richer, better-resourced clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona can provide some hope for other underdog sides across Europe.

If you'd like to find out more about football is being transformed by multi-club ownership models, check out our guide to the umbrella group that Girona operate under: City Football Group.