La Liga 2019-20: Is Granada the dark horse in this season's Spanish league?
Ask anyone to take a stab in the dark and predict the teams in the mix at the top of the La Liga table, and you will get the usual answers of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. A few braver souls may venture guesses at the likes of Sevilla and Valencia, but one answer you certainly will not get is Granada. Yet, this side finds themselves sitting neat the top of the table in Spain, ahead of all the big sides in the league. Before we figure out how this came to happen, we must delve into their past a bit.
The small club from eastern Andalusia, the same region that is home to the likes of Real Betis, Sevilla, was founded in 1931, 88 years ago but has only played 24 seasons of top-flight football thus far. Peer into the history, and one will see that it is, with all due respect, a frugal club when it comes to silverware. Granada has won just nine trophies since their inception. They have three league titles each in the Segunda Division, Segunda Division B and Tercera Division, with their most recent one coming in 2010, when they won the Segunda Division B, thereby sealing promotion to Spanish football's second tier.
Granada spent six consecutive seasons in Spain's top flight, between 2011 and 2017, before suffering relegation in 2016/17. This coincided with the sale of the club from Italian business tycoon Giampaolo Pozzo to Jiang Lizhang and saw a complete squad overhaul with 26 incoming players and 31 players being sold. They won just four games that season.
In those six seasons in the top flight, Pozzo had adapted the same policy as he has at Watford; changing managers before they could say "Boss, I've settled in nicely." Granada had five different managers in those six seasons. In 2018, when head coach Miguel Angel Portugal failed to secure promotion, finishing tenth in the Segunda Division, he was fired and replaced by Diego Martinez. That is where that trend seemed to hit a wall.
In his first season in charge, Martinez was an instant hit, as Granada finished second in the table and secured a return to the top-flight. His successful campaign in 2018/19 was largely based on keeping things tight at the back, something which has been a consistent feature throughout his management career. Even at previous clubs, Martinez's sides only conceded an average of 0.98 goals per game across 168 games.
At Granada, this record has only improved. In their promotion-winning season, they conceded just 28 goals in 38 games. So far this season, Granada has conceded just 10 goals in 10 games. Overall, Martinez's 53 matches in charge of the side have seen just 40 goals go in against Granada.
His main strength, though, has been obtaining great results at home. Out of 25 home games he has overseen, Granada have won 17, drawn six and lost just two. Away from home, his record is slightly less impressive but he still manages to keep their loss rate at a measly 28.5%. Essentially, he makes sure that his sides win at home, and don't lose when they go on the road, thus helping them consistently garner points.
Coming up from the Segunda Division, no one had really expected Granada to pull up any trees in La Liga, with many predicting that they would in fact go straight back down. However, Martinez and his side have shown that they are no pushovers, as they currently occupy a dizzying second place in the standings. They have already equalled their points tally of the entirety of their most recent season in La Liga, with 20 points from their first 10 games.
Martinez sets his side up in a 4-2-3-1 formation mostly, although has also experimented with a 4-4-2 and a 4-1-4-1, the latter of which ended in a 4-2 defeat to Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. In fact, that match aside, Granada have conceded only six goals in nine games this season, with six clean sheets, including one in a 2-0 home win over Barcelona. This is thanks in no small part to their solid back four, consisting of Victor Diaz, Domingos Duarte, German Sanchez and Carlos Neva and their goalkeeper, Rui Silva.
In midfield, Granada use the double pivot of Angel Montoro and on-loan Manchester City midfielder, Yangel Herrera to provide solidity and a base for the forward players to express themselves.
In front of them is a midfield playmaker, either one of Fede Vico or Ramon Azeez, while the two wingers are usually a combination of two out of Darwin Machis, Antonio Puertas and Alvaro Vadillo and the lone striker is either 23-year old Carlos Fernandez or ex-Spurs forward Roberto Soldado (remember him?). Granada also have useful options off the bench, with the likes of Quini, Maxime Gonalons, Yan Eteki and Adrian Ramos all more than capable of playing a part.
With a quick look at the statistics, it is easy to see that Granada are not excelling in any one area. They rank 12th for both expected goals scored and expected goals conceded, so it is unreasonable to expect them to keep up this sort of form throughout the season.
Their success is built mainly on a supreme sense of team spirit, defending in numbers and sharing the attacking responsibilities. Indeed, they have scored 17 goals so far, but have had 10 different goal scorers, with no player scoring more than Puertas' three.
While it is highly likely that Granada will not finish the league season as champions, despite being dubbed the "Leicester City of Spain," the improvement they have shown over the last four years has been evident and a final league position in the UEFA Europa League spots or the top half would be an immense achievement for this club. If they can keep Martinez at the helm, his tactical nous and focus on keeping things solid will stand them in good stead for years to come.