How Girona earned their win at Barcelona and why you need to take them seriously

If you were scanning the director’s box at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona as Girona ripped Spain’s champions to shreds on Sunday night, winning 4-2, you’d have seen a shrewd, grinning face in the front row, three seats along from Blaugrana president Joan Laporta. His extravagant, zebra-striped beard is something you might see in an Irish folk band: dark either side of a white-grey streak down the middle, the facial hair couldn’t hide the fact that it was Pere (pronounced Perra) Guardiola, Pep’s little brother.

What delicious salt to rub in Barcelona’s wounds, if you are of the Girona persuasion at least.

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Pere’s presence in that director’s box was poetic. A reminder of the glory years under the coaching of his elder sibling (14 trophies from 2008-12), and a reminder that when this extremely smart, unbelievably energetic and well-connected entrepreneur was looking to unleash his vision upon Spanish football in 2017, it was to Girona he turned, not Barça.

The 47-year-old took over in northern Catalunya over six years ago with Girona finding it hard to meet their wage bill on time and fighting the threat of bankruptcy. Since then, he’s persuaded the City Football Group to become major investors, he’s argued for — and won — the decision to appoint current coach Míchel (Míguel Angel Sánchez), he’s been a driving force behind Girona’s new €20 million training facility, and was the persuasive element that brought Ukraine winger Viktor Tsygankov to the club from Dynamo Kyiv.

Pere was, again, the main reason the owners agreed to loan super-exciting Brazilian winger Sávio to Girona, he was the main reason the club could back up Tsygankov’s arrival with that of his Ukraine international strike-partner, Artem Dovbyk and, now, it looks certain that the latest feather in the cap for Girona and Guardiola Jr. will be qualification for Europe for the first time in the club’s history at the end of the season.

Could — or rather should — Barcelona have been benefitting from the astute, internationally honed expertise this man has brought to their near neighbours? After all, Girona are now top of LaLiga by a point over Real Madrid while, during those same 2017-23 years, the Camp Nou club has sunk to ruinous debt (over €1 billion), become a cautionary tale for how not to run a successful club, and have repeatedly allowed transfer fees and wages to run stratospherically out of control.

Answers on a postcard, please.

Anyway, there he sat on Sunday night, undoubtedly feeling Laporta squirming uncomfortably a couple of seats away while Girona laid on an exquisite Pep Guardiola-esque performance in thrashing Barcelona 4-2, their first-ever away win against the Blaugrana, and all the more kudos to Míchel for that.

If you didn’t watch the match live then, for heaven’s sake I hope you were doing something absolutely vital. Come on: I told you here a few weeks ago, to always watch Girona!

Need a reminder as to why? If, for example, you’d sat down to follow every match Míchel’s team has played this season, in LaLiga and the Copa del Rey, you’d have witnessed not only dashing, fun, stimulating football, but a grand total of 68 goals: 45 scored and 23 conceded. Anyway, if you didn’t see this Catalan epic live then stream the ESPN+ replay or, at worst, some highlights.

What you’ll enjoy is one of those brutal, scalpel-like tactical performances that unerringly (and rather nastily) zoom in on a rival’s weak points and then pummel them, without remorse, until they groan, fall apart and surrender. It’s the type of thing Guardiola Sr. has been doing with Barcelona, Bayern and Manchester City over the past 15 years.

The goals will need to stand as evidence for my argument here, and the first definitely set the theme.

Míchel evidently thought that Barça playing a right-back at left-back/left wing (João Cancelo), especially when his attacking excursions weren’t going to be covered by a naturally left-footed centre back (Iñigo Martínez is injured), would leave Cancelo and Barcelona exposed. And so the opening goal happens like this: Cancelo is chasing a ball down the left wing, high up the pitch, Yan Couto beats him to it, sees that Cancelo isn’t chasing back and sets off on a run that, with the Portugal international still picking himself up and deciding how slowly to trot back towards his own goal, is unopposed.

Couto, just 21 years old, launches a straight, probing pass that Andreas Christensen struggles to intercept on his weaker (left) foot, having been left exposed by the absence of his left-back. Christensen falls over, Tsygankov (no doubt with Guardiola Jr. calculating the vast upward change in the Ukrainian’s transfer market value as he charged forward) squares for Dovbyk and that’s Girona ahead, 1-0.

Goal No. 2 (making it 2-1 Girona) is another piece of tactical excellence from Michel. All night long, their Real Madrid-trained left back (Miguel Gutiérrez) was given liberty to attack midfield, to find space as the “extra” or “free” man, and he caused Barcelona absolute chaos. Even though he played a predominantly “inside attack” role from left-wing-back, Barcelona: a) never managed to get their attacking players in behind Gutierrez where only Daley Blind, Girona’s slowest player, was supposed to be covering and b) perpetually failed to work out who, if anyone, was marking the rampaging 22-year-old when Girona had possession.

Michel clearly believed that Barcelona were undisciplined positionally, that their midfield three played too tightly together and that if Savio occupied Jules Koundé, Barca’s right-back, there would be oceans of space for Gutierrez to enjoy. So it proved. When Gutierrez is given the ball before making it 2-1, Raphinha has dozed off, is woefully out of position and the ex-Madrid man runs a good 30 metres, with both Kounde and Frenkie de Jong distracted by Savio on Girona’s left touchline, before blasting a great shot past Iñaki Peña.

One team was looking well-planned, slick and ambitious on Sunday night — and it wasn’t the Spanish champions.

Meanwhile, the third and fourth goals would have had Pep Guardiola purring. Seriously, how often do you see a goalkeeper at an elite, league-leading club boot the ball the length of the pitch from his hands? It looks like a prehistoric tactic from the 1980s; in fact, when he was at Barcelona and Bayern, it was a tactic Guardiola pretty much prohibited. But, of course, smart tactical minds wait until everyone thinks that they have “understood” and can predict them. Then they change.

For several seasons now, Éderson at Man City is totally allowed to seek out the long ball, whether kicked from hands or thrown, if the opponents are up high, committing to the press while clearly not being ready to combat this direct, old-fashioned tactic.

So it was with Girona. Their goalkeeper, Paulo Gazzaniga, has spotted that because Xavi’s team is pressing high, his long kick can isolate three attackers against three defenders. Dream territory. As Gazzaniga’s long punt drops, Cancelo is either lazy or lacking in understanding of the consequences to run with his direct opponent, Valery Fernández, so that when Cristhian Stuani beats Ronald Araujo to the initial header, Valery is one-on-one against a late arriving Kounde, beats him and slots home a beautiful right-footed drive.

Barcelona 1-3 Girona.



Why Girona feel invincible after Barcelona win

Julien Laurens thinks that Girona should feel invincible after their 4-2 win over Barcelona on Sunday

It was an artful call-back to Michel’s idea that Cancelo, out of position at left-back and prone to positional and decisional errors because he’s asked to run all night as both a defender and out-and-out attacker, needed to be exposed.

The coup de grace is equally magnificent. It’s 3-2 to Girona and the match has mere seconds left: 99 teams out of 100 would try to protect possession, kill the game and take a smaller slice of history. Not Michel’s Girona.

Aleix García, recently criticised for stating the simple truth in answer to a midweek question when he admitted that he one day aspires to playing for Barcelona, is over the set-piece on the halfway line. Gutierrez, a thorn in Xavi’s side all night, is screaming — and I mean screaming — for the ball, some 50 metres up the pitch, just outside Barcelona’s penalty area.

No-one in the Spanish champions’ XI on the pitch thinks it’s a good idea either to pay attention or to mark him. Talk about slow learners. And so Garcia passes to Gutierrez — the latter backheels a ball to Savio and at the far post, Cancelo again has decided that with only a goal between the sides and a few seconds left, defending is even less important than he’s made it look all night.

Cancelo wanders towards his keeper, Stuani is left all alone and Savio’s chip allows Girona’s veteran Uruguayan to finish the scoring, finish their night of glory and finish their record of never having beaten Barcelona away. A victory watched by the younger Guardiola brother, a victory played and planned in the style of the older Guardiola brother and a victory that puts Girona ahead in the title race.

For the Cassandras who want to join me in saying ‘it ain’t gonna happen, Girona aren’t going to win this title,’ a key set of fixtures is just around the corner: Betis away, Atletico at home, Sevilla at home, Celta away, Real Sociedad at home, Madrid away, then Athletic Club away. If they cope with that, let’s chat again.

Finally, for those rooting for this ultimate underdog story, Girona’s propensity for shipping a ton of goals doesn’t quite rule them out. LaLiga’s title winners with the most goals conceded ever were Barcelona (starring Pep Guardiola in midfield) in 1998. They conceded 56 by the end of a victorious season, with 19 allowed at this stage of the season 25 years ago; one fewer than Girona have right now.

It’s one hell of a story, no matter how it ends, but in conclusion? Always, always watch Girona!

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