COLUMN: How to interpret Girona’s three-game skid and a crackdown on the underdogs | OneFootball

COLUMN: How to interpret Girona’s three-game skid and a crackdown on the underdogs | OneFootball

Icon: Football Espana

Football Espana

·20 February 2024

COLUMN: How to interpret Girona’s three-game skid and a crackdown on the underdogs

Article image:COLUMN: How to interpret Girona’s three-game skid and a crackdown on the underdogs

Barcelona and Real Madrid have been at the summit for years – allowing for brief flag-planting authored by Diego Simeone. Ultimately, it feels inevitable that they will win it, and even with Atletico Madrid’s interruptions, since Simeone arrived the big two have succeeded 82% of the time. Fans are tired of it, and it shows. The fans want, well, something different.

One would assume that a majority of the fandom in La Liga is composed of Barcelona and Real Madrid. And to some extent, that is true. Particularly abroad, clubs below the stature of the ordinary giants do not get much love. But La Liga has shown that its fans have arrived in an era where they would welcome with open arms a new leader. For many, this year’s highlight has been CFG-owned Girona, under the guidance of Michel Sanchez. Other underdogs have been getting some love, despite not heading the leaderboard – this is the case of Athletic Club and Las Palmas.

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These newcomers play differently. Gone are the days of the old-fashioned block, La Liga is now full of teams that vary, according to the players, in terms of style. Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic are not the typical underdog. They have been around longer than anyone else in La Liga, save the big three they have more titles than anyone else, and a stadium that houses over 53,000 fans, but nobody expected them to be temporarily third or fourth with their squad. A squad that is not mediocre by any means, but the critique that they cannot compete with their Basque-only policy continues to be thrown at them. The reality is, they can. On Monday they put the breaks on a Girona (3-2) side that until that point had only been beaten by Real Madrid in La Liga with a press that is characteristic of exceptional athleticism and intensity throughout the game.

Girona, to a certain extent, are also very similar. Intensity has also been a major asset – and why they are involved in what seemed to be a title race. Unfortunately for many, this also means that their finite resources in the squad are showing – leading us to one of our talking points. The January-February season. Every recent La Liga newcomer that imposed itself as of late, from a promoted or bottom-half side to a more serious midtable, top-eight candidate has played at an intensity their competition struggles to match (this is how Andoni Iraola’s Rayo Vallecano also took La Liga by storm). But this also carries a risk, which explains why none of these sides could successfully cement themselves ahead of the top three/four elite: It is rarely sustainable for an entire season.

Girona are the obvious example, placed freshly in the mind by their winless streak of three, having dropped points just five times previously, Sevilla (when they used to be a serious side), or Rayo Vallecano. These were sides that did well – until December. Past January, few of these plucky upstarts could continue what they showed in the first half of the campaign. A mix of injuries and mental fatigue is what has been preventing a major upset in these title races for so long. Girona seemed just fine, but the draw against Almeria, and the defeats against Real Madrid (4-0) and Athletic Club show how important is it to have a deeper squad of players available. Not purely due to quality, but out of fatigue – mental and physical. Where Girona play every game with everything on the line, Real Madrid can often afford to cruise through a game or two here and there.

It also could be a point of reflection for upcoming underdogs. A starting XI that combines well is great, but what happens past one or two injuries? In the case of Girona, the absence of Daley Blind proved to be problematic, more than most would expect. Whether clubs focus on academies (like Real Sociedad or Athletic Club), or if they prefer to instead focus on scouting, does not matter. What all these underdogs lack is squad depth, for players to rest, to keep that hunger. For Girona, what made them the best may also be a major factor in their downfall – this self-belief that allowed them to chase goals also means that past that smokescreen, the wounds will likely bleed out their title challenge.

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