Pablo Picasso once said that good artists copy and great artists steal. Yet the most creative tactical artist of the 2017/18 LaLiga season hasn’t seen his design copied or stolen. That artist is Pablo Machín and, given how well his newly promoted Girona side are doing, this is quite bizarre.
Girona have been the revelation of this season and have already amassed 40 points after just 27 rounds, something no LaLiga debutant had ever managed before. Even though they are now backed by Manchester City’s owners, they still have just the second smallest budget in the Spanish top division and have achieved their success through ingenuity rather than money.
The 3-4-2-1 formation that Machín has been using has been so effective, partly because there is nothing else like it in LaLiga. Real Betis and Las Palmas have flirted with a back three in recent weeks, but no other team has religiously set up with three centre-backs like Girona have.
Breaking the formation down, it appears to be quite a simple one, at least on paper. The foundation is their three-man defence. They use hard-working wing-backs on the outside, usually Pablo Maffeo and Johan Mojica. They have two central midfielders in the centre to do the dirty work, just behind Portu and Borja García, their two-pronged attacking midfield. Then up top they have target man Cristhian Stuani, the man who gets the goals.
All of this combines to make Girona a difficult side to break down, as they can quickly shift eight men behind the ball when they want to. When the have the ball, they can either counter attack quickly by using Portu and Borja García’s pace or by capitalising on Stuani’s great hold-up play. Or they can patiently craft an attack too, with the Catalan side having becoming excellent at slowly inching the ball forward through the spine of the team, buying their wing-backs enough time to move forward and to reach the byline, at which point Girona’s formation resembles the historic WM of the early 20th century.
It can be counted on one hand the number of times Girona have deviated away from these tactics this season, while they very rarely alter the personnel involved either. So why are teams finding them so hard to stop?
Well, it’s surely because this is still a novel way of playing football in LaLiga. Even a three-man defence is still considered a rarity, whereas it has become a lot more common in the likes of Serie A and the Premier League. Then there are the nuances of Girona’s set-up, with their two lines of two central midfielders and two attacking midfielders causing opposition managers headaches.
There’s also the fact that Girona’s system seems to work so well against a 4-4-2, a system which has become very common in LaLiga this season. Barcelona and Real Madrid have even used it frequently, while it is the default set-up for the other two teams in the top four, Atlético Madrid and Valencia, and for several other sides further down the table.
If Girona’s 3-4-2-1 is so successful because of the reasons stated above, then surely other teams would have followed Picasso’s advice and copied it by now?
Well, there are surely other coaches who might like to mimic Girona’s success by mimicking their tactics board, but the Catalan club’s system is one which requires certain skillsets, from wing-backs with three lungs to an excellent-in-the-air target man like Stuani. Perhaps, then, other clubs will recruit such players in the summer and then try to replicate Girona’s system in 2018/19.
It should also be noted that Machín has been at the Estadi Montilivi since 2014 and that nine of his 11 most-used players were at the club last season when they won promotion, with only centre-back Bernardo Espinosa and No.9 Stuani having been imported last summer. Girona’s secret recipe isn’t one that can be learned overnight, but perhaps it can be perfected over a full pre-season. Maybe next year we will see much more Girona replication.