There are fast starts, and there are season-defining starts.
As time goes on, and as Girona keep winning, it is becoming harder to tell which this is.
Even just 12 games in, this is the first time in 20 years that a team other than Barcelona, Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid have topped the table at this stage of a season.
Girona are also just the fifth team in La Liga’s 94-year history to win 10 of their opening 12 matches — alongside the ‘big three’, and Real Betis back in 1934.
All of this, in just their fourth-ever season in Spain’s top flight. Seventeen years ago, they were as far down as the fourth tier, alongside 364 other regional teams.
Girona aren’t just defying the odds, they are doing it in style — winning games as convincingly as any other league leader of any La Liga campaign.
Aside from the unbelievable results, this top-level limelight has felt like a long time coming for so many involved in this project.
Michel, the manager of the moment, had twice been fired by Spanish clubs within months of leading them to promotion to La Liga. This is now the longest managerial stint of his career.
Three years ago, Aleix Garcia, following his release from Manchester City, struggled for minutes at Dinamo Bucuresti, a side that finished two points off the bottom of Liga I in Romania. He now makes a strong case to be La Liga’s best midfielder.
And even the club itself, relegated on the final day of the 2018-19 season, before losing two consecutive play-off finals (in 2020 and 2021) — the first to a 96th-minute winner, and the second after blowing a 2-1 away win in the first leg — has overcome setback after setback to be where they are today.
They are a team of big characters, driven by a desire to prove that they belong at the highest level.
Girona’s relationship with Manchester City also cannot be overlooked, but it should not completely take away from what has been a true footballing triumph for the players and staff involved.
City Football Group’s (CFG) involvement with the club has facilitated loan-singings: Valentin Castellanos, now of Lazio, scored 13 La Liga goals last season following his arrival from New York City FC, while both Yangel Herrera (now a permanent signing) and Yan Couto came directly from City.
Otherwise, Girona’s transfer dealings have not been flashy, with a net spend of just under €3million (£2m; $3.2m) since CFG acquired their stake in the club six years ago. Every signing has fit the profile of a Girona (and indeed a City player): unerringly confident with the ball and able to adapt to an array of different positions across the pitch.
This season, for example, Eric Garcia joined on a loan deal from Barcelona, while Daley Blind arrived on a free transfer from Bayern Munich. Those two along with Arnau Martinez and Miguel Gutierrez — young full-backs who are extremely comfortable inverting into midfield to knit together patterns of play — create an ultra-flexible, ball-playing back-four that has been assembled for a cut-price fee.
Further up the pitch, a creative forward with Champions League experience and 49 caps for Ukraine, Viktor Tsygankov, joined for under €5million, while the beating heart of the midfield, Garcia, came in for free.
A clear identity, working hand-in-hand with astute recruitment and meticulous management, has accelerated a fledgling project a long way up its development timeline.
Since their promotion to La Liga last season, only four teams have completed more passes than Girona, while only Barcelona, Madrid and Atletico have made more in their own half.
Michel demands personality on the ball. When his side were 1-0 up and under pressure from Sevilla earlier this season, he called on his side to play “street football” in order to tempt their opponents out of their defensive structure.
“Keep the ball for longer,” he says in the video clip below. “Two touches minimum… feint one way then go the other.”
— LALIGA (@LaLiga) August 26, 2023
As with most successful sides in today’s footballing landscape, Michel’s system relies on confidence and creating overloads, wrestling control of the game before committing up to six players across the opposition’s defensive line.
It is a process that begins from the back, with a goalkeeper willing to patrol swathes of space outside his area while his defenders push beyond the halfway line to squeeze the game and maintain the pressure.
Here, against Cadiz, for example, just 23 minutes into the game the back three advances as Blind carries the ball forward and looks to fire a pass into a swirling front six. Throughout the contest, Girona’s centre-backs completed 89 passes that ended in the attacking third, with a success rate of 91.8 per cent.
The pressure was relentless, and eventually told in a gritty 1-0 win.
Blind has been particularly crucial in a pressure-sustaining sense, proving one of the best progressive passers in the division and someone who can also step into midfield with ease.
Only Toni Kroos has averaged more than his 31.8 forward passes per game so far this season, while Jules Kounde is the only defensive player to carry the ball further than his 305 metres each game.
At home to Mallorca — another match that Girona were able to dominate territorially — Blind’s touch map illustrates just how far forward he gets to help with the build-up play, even as one of the side’s most important defensive cogs.
It is an attacking mantra that they maintain through thick and thin, even during their only defeat of the season to Real Madrid, a game in which they missed three big chances and hit the post.
Looking at their pass network below, both full-backs are extremely high, with all of Blind, Gutierrez and Couto operating ahead of the deepest-lying midfielder Garcia.
Girona don’t cave for anybody; an approach that is likely to see them continue scoring and conceding at exhilarating rates.
Not only are they La Liga’s top scorers (29), no side in Europe’s top five leagues has come back from losing positions to pick up more than their 13 points, storming from behind to 5-3, 5-2 and 4-2 wins in their last seven games alone.
Their commitment to their identity is total, and they don’t know when they are beaten.
Within this possessional approach, however, Girona have multiple tools in their armoury that allow them to keep churning out points.
Away at Osasuna, for example, an ability to switch their attacking speed gave them a foothold in a notoriously tricky fixture, with the electrifying Savio leading a perfect counter-charge that allows Ivan Martin to give Girona the lead in the clip below.
First came Blind’s instinctive movement out of the defensive line, offering a pass for Savio to escape pressure in his own corner flag. Positional fluidity and bravery got the team out of a tricky spot. The Dutchman’s punched forward ball was a perfect example of his incisive passing, while Dovbyk’s hold-up play was neat, allowing Savio to get his team up the pitch.
Still just 19 years old, the Brazilian is the wildcard amid the control, capable of bursting through defensive structures all on his own. Only four La Liga players have completed more than his four one-v-one take-ons per game this season. His forward carry map below illustrates just how often he drives his team into dangerous areas from the left flank.
On the opposite side, Couto is another destructive dribbler, with more take-ons per game than any full-back in La Liga this season, providing a different option to the more reserved profile of Martinez.
Girona prefer control — but can embrace the chaos when the game demands it.
Then there are set pieces, orchestrated by Garcia and his right boot.
Few players in world football can deliver a dead ball quite like the 26-year-old, who crafts chance after chance with his curious technique. Leaning back as he strikes the ball, and often flinging his leg out to the side after the first contact, his crosses are floated in, but packed with curl.
The 5-2 win over Almeria showed his delivery at its devilish best, creating not one…
… not two…
… not even three…
… but four clear goalscoring opportunities from set pieces — all within 13 minutes of each other, from four different areas of the pitch.
Thanks in part to his remarkable consistency, Girona have scored the most set-piece goals of any La Liga side since their promotion in 2022, with 39.3 per cent of their set-pieces ending in a shot, the highest proportion.
Their 12 goals from free-kick crosses is also double that of any other Spanish team across the time, helping them to almost six goals per 100 set pieces. It’s yet another string to their bow.
Girona can compete in the air too, having scored more headed goals (19) than any other team since their promotion.
Artem Dovbyk and Cristhian Stuani give them a target to hit should they need it — both are towering strikers who have shown their clever box movement to combine for 37 shots from inside the area this season.
Midfield duo Herrera and Garcia have mastered the art of the late run; the former flinging himself at a cross in the opening minutes last weekend against Osasuna, and the latter arriving to sweep home a cut-back to seal the 4-2 win.
The team can nick the ball up high as well, having scored seven goals after regaining possession in the final third since the start of last season — only Celta Vigo, with eight, have scored more.
Girona have so many ways to carve out chances, giving them every opportunity to claw back games if plan A does not work. They are adaptable and multi-faceted. It allows them to keep on pulling the rabbit out of the hat.
More so than usual in concerning early-season underdog front-runners, Girona’s goalscoring flexibility points to sustainability — although surely not enough to maintain pole position through the harder months of winter.
Opta still doubts their title credentials, giving them just a 0.6 per cent chance of winning La Liga. However, with a 10-point lead over fifth-placed Athletic Bilbao in the race for Champions League qualification, they have a 62.3 per cent chance of finishing in the top four. It would would be a remarkable achievement.
It is the season of the surprise leaders across Europe, but this team seem to have something extra about them.
At the very least, they have finally proven that they belong.
(Top photo: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)