La Liga Lowdown
The Men Who Make Granada Tick
Written by Matt Clark
Just over two years ago, Granada lost 2-1 to Deportivo La Coruña at Riazor, with Ángel Montoro grabbing a consolation goal in second-half injury time. At this juncture, not even the most optimistic Granada fan could have foreseen what the next two years would have in store for the Nasrids.
Granada only lost five more times in Segunda as they won automatic promotion to LaLiga. Fast forward to the present day and Dépor have fallen into the third tier while Granada are embarking on a European adventure for the very first time.
Granada were one of the stories of the season in 2019/20, as the promoted side took some big scalps and qualified for the Europa League courtesy of a seventh-placed finish. Now they have successfully negotiated the qualifying rounds and have reached the group stage alongside Villarreal and Real Sociedad, having stunned Malmö FF to qualify for the first time in their history.
But how have they managed to reach these heights so quickly? Who are the key figures behind their success? With the insight of Granada fan and La Liga Lowdown contributor Heath Chesters, we answer these questions.
It all begins with Martínez. The youngest coach in LaLiga is the architect-in-chief of their incredible rise, taking the club up and straight into Europe, all within the budget constraints of a club that should be in a relegation battle.
Having worked his way up through the youth sides at Sevilla, the Galician coach is already a legend for Granadinistas. His record is simply phenomenal. Across his 92 matches in charge, he has registered a win percentage above 50%, and since promotion to LaLiga, that figure is in excess of 40%, which is impressive by any measure. But perhaps the most remarkable statistic is this: they have never lost a game in which they opened the scoring (via @LaLigaEnDirecto).
This reveals a lot about the character and mentality of the side, a perfect footballing representation of their coach. Once they get ahead, they are street smart enough and have the know-how to see a game through, working tirelessly for each other to get the job done. This desire is encapsulated in the club’s hashtag on social media: Eterna Lucha (eternal fight), refusing to be beaten, never giving up. These qualities make the search for key players almost counter-intuitive, given the emphasis on the collective and the team ethos. Nevertheless, there are some notable players who are totally integral to Martínez and his methods.
The Portuguese shot-stopper’s performances throughout his time at Granada demonstrate exactly why he is so highly sought after. He won the Zamora trophy in Segunda as Granada won promotion, and he kept 12 clean sheets stepping up into LaLiga last season, a number bettered by only six keepers. This form earned him a call up to the Portugal national set-up, richly deserved recognition for his consistent displays.
Heath notes that as for any team, backing your keeper is critical for success: “It goes without saying that any defence needs to have confidence in their goalkeeper, which Rui Silva certainly provides with his agility and reactions”.
Rui Silva has all the physical attributes needed to reach the top, and is now gaining experience in European football. Granada will have a fight to keep hold of him if he maintains such high standards.
Another Portuguese in the team, Duarte was signed in summer 2019 from Sporting after impressing in Segunda at Dépor, ironically enough. Knowing the value of a stubborn defence, Duarte has become a cornerstone of the Nasrid backline, providing strength and composure at the back.
Durability is also an underrated quality, and Duarte was present for 36 of the 38 LaLiga matches last season. Heath adds that Duarte “oozes calm and confidence, which is underpinned by the quality of his marking, tackling and heading”. An all-round solid defender and an absolute bargain for Granada, Duarte provides that defensive solidity and quality needed at the top level.
Heath goes further, declaring him as “the best central defender I’ve ever seen playing for Granada”. High praise indeed, and aged just 25, there is potential for him to progress even further.
It wouldn’t be right to have a list of Granada’s key players without mentioning their captain, the 32-year-old right-back. Into his fourth season at the club, the experience and leadership he brings is invaluable to the team. Another manifestation of Martínez on the pitch, he wears the hopes and ambitions of the fans on the armband with pride.
Heath describes how he is lovingly nicknamed as ‘The Plumber’ by fans “because of his average Joe appearance”. But his technical ability is far better than average, as he makes penetrative runs forward and helps to create chances and provide assists for his team.
Granada have been active in the transfer window, ensuring that their squad has added depth in a season where matches will keep coming thick and fast. The reacquisition of Yangel Herrera is perhaps their best bit of business. The “outstanding” midfielder returned to the Nuevo Los Cármenes once again on loan from Manchester City, and this time Granada have a purchase option in the deal. At this stage, exercising that clause looks inevitable, as the young Venezuelan is critical in that central midfield area.
Heath cites his dynamism as his best attribute: “full of energy, his movement on and off the ball is excellent”. He offers the solid presence in front of the back four, but also gets forward and offers a goal threat, as he proved by scoring the first goal of the LaLiga season. There is also an apparent tactical shift this season, with Martínez giving him added licence to roam forward and chip in with more goals.
In the mould of a classic box-to-box midfield general, his energy and dynamism will be key for Granada to compete in the heart of the pitch. The burgeoning partnership with young pearl Luis Milla also looks like a tantalising central midfield pair.
Plucked from Segunda, Heath is excited by his potential: “He's taken to the jump in levels like a duck to water, and particularly impressive is his reading of the game. Most impressive is his pressing, how he steals the ball and immediately sets his sights on shooting or playing a killer pass”. With youthful vibrancy and a wide skillset, this midfield duo could take Granada to another level this season.
Another tough competitor, Machís also brings the creative flair to the team. Many of their attacking chances originate with his quality and unpredictability on the flanks. Heath expects this to be a huge season for his development. While he has never doubted his potential or technique, Heath believes that sometimes he “perhaps lacked that bit of footballing intelligence that sets the very best players apart”.
Heath recalls his arrival in Spain as “a raw 18-year-old from Venezuela, who had only played two seasons of 11-a-side football there, having risen to prominence as an indoor footballer”. This childhood education is evident in his game, and the subtleties of playing in tight spaces come very comfortably for Machís. Having spent the best part of a decade adapting and honing his game into a more complete package, now is the time for him to enter his peak years and reach new heights.
A LaLiga legend, Soldado epitomises the spirit of the Nasrid club, and is, as Heath puts it, “an extension of Diego Martínez on the pitch”. In the final game of last season, he scored the opener in the 4-0 rout of Athletic Club which confirmed their European berth. At the start of this campaign, he picked up where he left off. He wrote his name into the history books by scoring Granada’s first ever European goal, and then he scored in the second round of LaLiga to reach 118 goals, overtaking Brazilian Ronaldo. Not bad for a few days’ work.
In a classic example of nominative determinism, the ‘Soldier’ plays with full effort and determination and always fights to the end, exactly the kind of qualities that embody this Granada outfit.
He is not getting any younger, but you barely notice: “The 35-year-old is in fantastic physical shape and right now, you’d think he was ten years younger,” enthused Heath. This experience is invaluable to Granada, and is something that money simply cannot buy. Soldado has a wealth of experience in Europe, having played in the Europa League for multiple clubs, and reached the semi-finals on three separate occasions, so he knows what it takes to go deep in the competition. In Heath’s words, “a magnificent asset”.
It is this delicate and well-planned mix of young and determined talent, stars reaching their peak and experienced leaders which gives Martínez such a strong blend to his squad. Featuring men like Antonio Puertas, who have risen from Primera Andaluza, the fifth tier of Spanish football, to the very top, it typifies the ethic of this side. It was fitting that it would be Puertas who scored the decisive qualifying goal to guarantee a spot in the Europa League group stages.
Further success in 2020/21 may make it harder for Martínez to keep hold of his core players. But having lost striker Carlos Fernández as he returned to Sevilla after his loan spell, Granada are showing an ability to adapt.
These are the men that make Martínez’s Granada tick. If you’re watching LaLiga, or the Europa League, this season, then you’d better keep an eye out for them.
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