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How Girona built a title-contending side for a pittance

Girona broke their transfer record last summer to sign Artem Dovbyk. The Ukraine striker joined for a €7.5 million fee from Dnipro-1. That's around 7% of what Real Madrid paid to bring in Jude Bellingham. It's not even 5% of the €160m transfer fee Barcelona forked out to make Philippe Coutinho their record signing in 2018.

Dovbyk is one of the exceptions in the Girona squad, too. Many regular starters either arrived on free transfers or joined on loan for the season. Yet coach Míchel's team of youngsters, journeymen and castoffs are taking the fight to LaLiga's biggest spenders. They have already beaten Barça and Atlético Madrid, and they have their eye on European qualification for the first time in the club's history. If their form continues into the spring, it will become increasingly difficult for Míchel to play down their chances of qualifying for the Champions League or pushing for the title.

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Girona's unexpected rise is a victory for recruitment and coaching. Sporting director Quique Cárcel admitted to ESPN that being part-owned by the City Football Group (CFG) affords them a certain advantage in the transfer market, but this is not a team built on outspending the opposition. Their LaLiga-imposed annual budget ranks 14th in the league; instead, they have borrowed players from other CFG clubs, targeted out-of-contract, experienced professionals and spent a little bit to complement the squad with players in the peak years of their careers, with notable success in the Ukrainian market.

Above all, they have signed footballers who can do what Míchel wants: carry the ball, provide passing lanes, adapt their position in-game, press high and play on the front foot. There is so much player rotation and shape shifting within matches that it is impossible to nail down one formation. The versatility of certain players allows them to switch effortlessly between 4-5-1, 4-4-2, 3-5-2 and other systems depending on the state of any given game.

This is how Girona built their title-challenging team.

Coach

Míchel, 48: A specialist in getting teams out of the second division, Míchel was appointed by Cárcel upon Girona's relegation from LaLiga in 2021. There were calls for Míchel to be sacked after a poor start in terms of results, but Cárcel told ESPN last year that the style of play convinced him things would turn around. That proved true, with Girona promoted back to the top flight that same 2021-22 season -- Míchel's third promotion after doing the same with both hometown club Rayo Vallecano and Huesca. He didn't manage to complete a LaLiga season with Rayo or Huesca, with both sacking him before the year was out, but led Girona into the top 10 last season and now has them on the verge of something special.

Goalkeeper

Paulo Gazzaniga, 32, free transfer: The 6-foot-5 Argentine has spent the bulk of his career as a No. 2 in England, with Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham. Girona saw a goalkeeper capable of much more than bench warming, though, and signed him initially on loan in 2022 -- the deal became permanent last year when Fulham released him.

Defenders

Eric García, 23, loan (Barcelona): After dropping to fifth-choice centre-back at Barça, the former Manchester City defender begged manager Xavi Hernández to let him join Girona on loan last summer. Xavi reluctantly agreed and García immediately became a key player for Míchel. He has played as one of two centre-backs, on the right of a back three and as an auxiliary right-back. His physicality has often been questioned, but his performances this season show why Pep Guardiola at City, Luis Enrique with Spain, Xavi and now Míchel all rate him so highly.

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David López, 34, free transfer: After his contract with Espanyol expired in 2022, López wondered if he still had a career in the top flight. Míchel and Cárcel had no such doubts. Both were key, López has explained, in convincing him to join Girona.

After making his name as a defensive midfielder, López has reinvented himself as a centre-back since returning to Spain in 2018 following a spell with Napoli. For Girona, he often sits in the middle of García and Daley Blind, providing a safety net and experience at the base of the team.

Daley Blind, 33, free transfer: Girona first tried to sign the Netherlands international last January, but he opted for Bayern Munich. After Blind found a lack of minutes in Bavaria, Girona were once again on the phone last summer. This time, the defender said yes. Once again, Míchel played a big role. "We had some good talks about how he sees football," Blind told ESPN. "I was intrigued by that. It felt good. They showed a lot of confidence in me, which was something I was looking for."

The former Ajax and Manchester United defender is perfect for Míchel. Capable of playing as a centre-back or on the left, his ball-playing ability from the back is vital to the team's style of play.

Miguel Gutiérrez, 22, €4m transfer fee: One of the most intriguing players at Girona for two reasons. Firstly, because of how he plays. Miguel is nominally the team's left-back but he takes on several roles throughout a game. He can drop in as a traditional full-back, invert to strengthen the midfield -- as he did to great effect in the thrilling win over Barça in December -- or go outside to allow the left winger to come inside. He's the epitome of a contemporary left-back.

That leads to the second intriguing thing about Miguel: his future. His form has naturally led to interest from Europe's biggest clubs, and both Man City and Real Madrid will feel they will be at the front of the queue should he leave. City because of CFG's involvement in Girona; Madrid because of an option they included in the deal that saw their academy graduate join Girona in 2022.

Yan Couto, 21, loan (Manchester City): Couto picked Man City over Barça when he left Brazil in 2020 because of a phone call from Guardiola. He has since spent more time with Girona than City, though, and is one of the prime examples of the advantage of CFG's involvement. The right-back is in his third season on loan at Girona -- with another spent at Braga in the middle -- and his displays this term have earned him international recognition with Brazil. His attacking quality means Míchel often uses him as a winger, too.

Midfielders

Yangel Herrera, 26, €5m transfer fee: Herrera is another CFG graduate. The Venezuela international joined Girona permanently from Man City, where he never played a single competitive game, last summer after impressing on loan. The rangy midfielder has added goals to his game this year and is a key component in the middle of the pitch alongside Aleix García and Ivan Martín.

Aleix García, 26, free transfer: García has been linked with Barça but there were not many clubs pushing to sign him when he left Eibar in 2021. He dropped down to LaLiga 2 to join Girona, helping them earn promotion to LaLiga, where he has looked at home ever since. Oriol Romeu's departure to Barça has forced García to play a deeper role this season, but his range of passing and industry has allowed him to excel nonetheless. This is his second spell at Girona and he is now showing the promise that saw Man City sign him from Villarreal as a teenager.

City twice loaned him to Girona and later to Belgian side Mouscron. Stints at Dinamo Bucharest and Eibar followed after his release from City as his career threatened to drift before being rescued by Girona.

Aleix Garcia, right, joined Girona on a free transfer and his performances with the Catalan club have reportedly attracted the eye of Barcelona. PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images

Ivan Martín, 24, €2m transfer fee: After scoring a dramatic last-minute winner against Atlético in January, it was suggested to Míchel that not many football fans know much about Martín. "He may be unknown, but he's valued in the dressing room and that's what matters," the coach said.

Martín perhaps represents the best example of Cárcel's eye for talent and Míchel's coaching. After coming through the academy at Villarreal, he was never given a proper chance and, after two loan spells with Girona, starting in the second division in 2022, was allowed to join the Catalan club permanently for just €2m last summer. It looks like a shrewd piece of business right now.

"He's an incredible trainer," Míchel added. "He makes other players better, he always offers a passing lane, he presses well, he wants the ball in difficult moments ... his teammates know [how good he is]."

Viktor Tsygankov, 26, €5m transfer fee: Another clever piece of recruitment, the Ukraine international was picked up for a reasonable fee from Dynamo Kyiv last January and settled quickly. Capable of playing wide, through the middle or off the striker, Tsygankov is one of the team's biggest sources of goals, both in terms of scoring and creating them.

Sávio, 19, loan (Troyes): The Brazilian winger has been one of the revelations of the season in Spain. He brings supporters to their feet when he runs at opponents, while he also backs up those moments with goals and assists.

In theory, his arrival at Girona is another CFG perk, but there is more to his loan move from CFG-owned Troyes. He was initially put on CFG's radar by Cárcel and, after an injury-disrupted loan spell with PSV Eindhoven last year, the sporting director's continued interest and confidence in Sávio paved the way for him to head to Montilivi this season.

Man City and Barça are among the clubs taking note of his performances.

Forward

Artem Dovbyk, 26, €7.5m transfer fee: Buoyed by Tsygankov's success, Cárcel returned to Ukraine last summer to sign the Ukrainian Premier League's top scorer. Dovbyk managed 24 goals for Dnipro-1 in 2022-23, nine more than anyone else in the league. His goals -- he is already into double figures for the campaign -- and hold-up play have singled him out as one of the signings of the season in LaLiga.

Capable of keeping the ball with his back to goal, he is the focal point of Girona's attack and ensures opposition defenders will always have their hands full.

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Other key contributors

Arnau Martínez, 20, free transfer: The versatile young defender spent time in Barça's La Masia academy before joining Girona as a 15-year-old in 2018. This season, following the arrival of García, his role has been more secondary, but he remains one of the club's big hopes for the future. He can play as a centre-back, right-back or a wing-back and is a Spain under-21 international.

Valery Fernández, 24, free transfer: Another player who spent time at La Masia as a kid, Valery has emerged as the perfect squad player for Míchel after plying his trade in the Catalan local leagues as a teenager. Part of Girona's first team since 2018, he plays where needed, which is usually as a full-back or a winger. He's not just making up the numbers, either, as his brilliant goal in the Atlético win proved.

Pablo Torre, 20, loan (Barcelona): Torre was one of the most talented teenagers in Spain at Racing Santander, which led to a transfer to Barcelona in 2022. A lack of minutes under Xavi saw him join Girona on loan this season. His playing time was limited earlier in the campaign, but he has featured more recently and has shown glimpses of his ingenuity as a creative midfielder.

Portu, 31, €3m transfer fee: One of the star players in his first spell with Girona between 2016 and 2019 before leaving for Real Sociedad for a €10m fee, Portu has adapted well to a new role off the bench since re-joining the club last summer from Getafe. He adds depth to the attack and is still worshipped by supporters.

Cristhian Stuani, 37, €2.5m transfer fee: No player is more loved at Girona than Stuani, who has been nothing short of remarkable since signing for the club in 2017. The veteran Uruguay striker represents another win for Cárcel, who saw his potential as a No. 9 despite the fact he was being used out wide by Middlesbrough. Stuani struck a stunning 40 goals in his first two seasons with Girona in LaLiga and then stuck around after relegation to the second division, earning him hero status in the city.

In total, he has amassed more than 120 goals for the club and is still popping up in key moments as a replacement for Dovbyk, netting twice in a late comeback win over Valencia and the clincher against Barça.

Juanpe, 32, free transfer: The defender has been a great servant to Girona since joining in 2016, amassing more than 200 appearances for the Blanquivermells, but he is now very much a backup option who is only used in the case of injuries or suspensions.

Jhon Solis, 19, €6m transfer fee: Perhaps the one signing that has not quite worked out, given €6m is quite a big outlay for Girona. That said, Solis is as much a bet for the future as he is for the present, and he has slowly begun to display signs of the midfielder he could become for the club. The former Colombia youth international will be shown plenty of patience.

    

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