Granada's rise to top of La Liga is a fairytale... but also a warning to Spanish football's elite teams
There's an elephant in the room, it has red-and-white stripes, is 88 years old and has a name: Granada Club de Futbol.
Like all elephants in the room, everyone's avoiding the subject. In short: it's a risible, humiliating and potentially disastrous situation that, right now, Granada are outright leaders of La Liga in Spain for the first time in their history. There, I've said what you were thinking while all your friends and an assortment of people on social media around the world go all gooey with their "oooohs" and "aaaahs" and "aren't they cute" while patronisingly leaning over, for a minute or two, to stroke Granada on the head.
Yes, it's true that Granada were top back in the early 1970s but that barely counts. They'd won twice in five games while being tied in first place on points and goals scored with Celta. It was a blip. In 2019-20, however, they've outscored Real Madrid, boast precisely the same goals for/against total as La Liga's sexiest side (Real Sociedad), have beaten Barcelona and are halfway towards a points total (40) that would have saved them from relegation in all but two of the past 10 seasons. With 28 matches left, it's a racing certainty that if they can take 20 from a possible 84 points, they will achieve their main objective for this season: safety.
But there's a clear reason to argue that this could be looked at as a symptom of Spanish football's decline. That's the red-and-white striped elephant everyone is ignoring.
Granada is a club that, not long ago, was chaotic, zipping through both owners and managers at the speed of light. Thirteen coaches of various shapes, sizes, ages and tenures over the past five years. On that anarchic evidence alone, how are they not in the third division, nevermind becoming the cream rising to the top of the Spanish elite?
I'll review them in a minute, but what about the other top table diners who, frankly speaking, have been made to look as if they've spilled soup on themselves by Granada?
In sporting and psychological terms, Granada's current position as Liga leaders -- not simply for being top but for how comfortable they've looked in doing it -- can be interpreted as a commentary on how dramatically Spain's ancien regime have declined, right? Set aside the defeat of Barcelona, plus the fact that when Diego Martinez's team went to Real Madrid, they fought back from 3-0 down to be within touching distance of a 3-3 draw before James Rodriguez's late goal sealed three points for the European champions of 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018. Set those aside.
These Andaluz upstarts lost two players almost certainly among their best, midfielder Fede Vico and defender Quini, over a month ago, also lost their "indispensable" centre-back German, who made 38 starts in their promotion season, didn't play particularly well at home to Betis at the weekend and are still setting the pace for Madrid, Sevilla, Valencia, Atletico and Barcelona.
OK, the rescheduled Clasico skews the picture a little. Had that match been played and drawn, Granada would still be joint-top of this division. Their rise comes at time when you'd be hard-pressed to argue that La Liga isn't in a state of significant upheaval.
Barcelona, serial winners of the Spanish title, are repeatedly undone by European teams that play with pace, height, power and intensity: witness defeats in recent seasons away from home to Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, AS Roma and Liverpool by an aggregate score of 14-0. Madrid had European football on its knees seemingly a blink of an eye ago, winning the first hat trick of Champions League titles since Bayern Munich did it 42 years earlier, but were treated like rag-dolls in their own stadium by CSKA Moscow, Ajax and Club Brugge over the past few months to the tune of two defeats and a draw and an aggregate score of 9-3 against. Oh, and Valencia were routed at home by Ajax and Atleti thumped by Juventus to exit the Champions League last season.
Aren't Granada, with their streetwise hustle, high-tempo boogie and "cope with us if you can" mentality just a symptom of the fact that the Ferraris and Maseratis are rusted and deeply in need of new oil while a reliable station wagon, no frills and functional, rolls stoically past them? Aren't they just a lower-budget version of Getafe who, with their muscular, tactical fouling, press-squeeze-run-suffocate soccer last season, came within a hair's breadth of making it into the Champions League?
I honestly believe that if the ascent of Granada, even at this stage of the season and following on from Getafe's template, doesn't cause decent football minds to take a look at the brand of football being played by this country's leading clubs (and national team) that might be occasionally prettier, but increasingly withers and dies when the temperature gets hottest (e.g. Granada, Getafe and their European counterparts are trampling on them, outjumping them or running past them), then those minds are looking at football very differently from me.
None of that is meant provocatively in any sense other than to try to spark a conversation. None of La Liga's top five or six clubs is currently (successfully and consistently) playing a brand of football that is comparable to the very best around Europe. Most of them, namely Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia and Sevilla, are in a state of introspection, upheaval, transformation, rebuilding or broad confusion. Debt aside, Atletico are perhaps slightly surer of "where they are," how they'd like to play and what their character is, but that doesn't mean they're hitting much above a six or seven out of 10 for how close to their self-set playing ideal they are. So please don't think that this column is aimed to provoke in the manner of waving a red flag at a bull.
Like the vast majority of those who love football, when a club like Granada finds an owner with a clear plan, Jiang (John) Lizhang, constructs a motivated, able AND unified squad with spending that's well planned and effective, "connects" with its fan base and, on top of it all, gives a big opportunity to a coach who will probably become the management revelation of this season, then I'm both impressed and delighted. Granada's football doesn't quite make the heart go pitter-patter and frolic in delight, but it's not dour, it's not "lucky" that it's coming together and they've already shown that they have the character to ride defeats -- like the ones against Sevilla and Real Madrid -- and bounce back to apply the identical concepts that got them promoted last season and now has them as Spain's leading club.
There are players in red-and-white who are in the process of proving that they'll go higher still: midfielder Yangel Herrera (on loan from Manchester City), defender Domingos Duarte and keeper Rui Silva fit that category. But inevitably it's their coach, Diego Martinez, who catches the eye.
It's no fluke that Granada are becoming the "new Atletico." Under Diego Simeone, Atleti are so well-drilled that they're within touching distance of having registered a whopping 70 1-0 wins since he took over in 2011. Between last season and this, Martinez's side have managed the feat 12 times. That's deeply impressive, especially when you see that his Granada team has kept 25 clean sheets out of 53 competitive matches since he became manager.
Martinez, a man who was "discovered" and trusted by that one-man football hit-maker, Monchi, said recently that "football is my passion, it's integral to my entire life and when your passion becomes your career it's like a dream coming true. The fact that I became a coach aged 20 gives me so many 'flying hours' of experience that I've a backlog of knowledge and understanding of the challenges.
"Thanks to Monchi, Sevilla became a club where I was allowed to innovate, make mistakes and share learning with other colleagues... now when I go as coach to a big, famous stadium I remember the days when I had to coach at tiny pitches in the pouring rain where no fans bothered to attend and I know that both faces of professional football are vital to your perspective, your ability and how you work towards success," Martinez said. "I can't quantify how much time I dedicate to this profession because if I'm reading a book, watching TV, listening to an interview or at a gallery show, I'm not only thinking about football but I'm soaking up every single thing I can from every experience in order to be better at my job and to find success for my team."
Even if Granada, yes I'll say it again, scaling La Liga's summit might be a signal that all's not quite as it should be among the country's elite, there shouldn't be any real doubt that, in Diego Martinez, Spain has added another smart, durable, admirable and communicative coach to their already brilliant school of football professors. That's something, at least.