Granada: La Liga leaders compared to Leicester

By Andy WestSpanish football writer
Diego Martinez
Granada boss Diego Martinez, 38, is the youngest manager in La Liga

With Barcelona and Real Madrid out of action at the weekend following the postponement of Saturday's scheduled Clasico, another early-season front-runner took advantage by leapfrogging the big two and moving into La Liga's top spot.

The new leaders are a team who have never been in such a position so far into the season and who have only just climbed back into the top flight: Granada.

"Nobody expected this. It's one of the biggest surprises I can remember in Spanish football. Everyone is shocked," said Toni Padilla, a pundit for La Liga TV.

Described in the Spanish media as 'the new Leicester City', how did such a small team get to the top of the pile and how did former England defender Tony Adams help them on their way?

Adams sows the seeds for success

Granada's last season in La Liga came to an embarrassing end in May 2017, when they finished with a feeble total of 20 points under the guidance of Adams, their fourth manager of that season.

The former Arsenal captain was often seen as a figure of fun during his brief spell with Granada, but that perception deserves to be turned on its head considering the way Adams instigated a key culture shift before his departure.

Tony Adams at Granada
Tony Adams was in charge of Granada when they were relegated from La Liga in 2017

In fact, it could even be argued Adams planted the seeds for the team's current success.

"Adams couldn't perform miracles during his managerial stint, but he made some important recommendations to the club's owner John Jiang," explains Heath Chesters, an English freelance journalist and Granada fan who has been living in the city since 2006.

"When Adams took over there were just five Spaniards in a squad of 28 players featuring 20 different nationalities.

"Adams insisted that Jiang should restructure the club with a focus on Spaniards - in the boardroom, in the sports directive, in the dugout, and on the pitch.

"Jiang took that advice to heart. Antonio Cordon, the former sporting director at Villarreal and Monaco, was brought in to oversee transfer policy with Fran Sanchez as technical director. And their strategy was to sign not only predominantly Spaniards, but also players with roots in Andalucia."

Granada's new local identity - instigated by their Chinese owner on the advice his English adviser - quickly provided the stability that had been missing and Granada's first season back in the second tier yielded a relatively satisfactory 10th-place finish.

But then came the masterstroke: the appointment of a young and dynamic new manager, Diego Martinez.

Rising coaching star begins his ascent

A few eyebrows were raised when Martinez was named Granada manager in the summer of 2018, aged 37.

He was more or less an unknown quantity, having failed to make the grade as a player and started his coaching career with a series of lower-level appointments and a few seasons with Sevilla's youth and reserve teams, before a solitary mid-table campaign in the second tier with Osasuna.

"If Diego Martinez has one key quality, it is humility," says Chesters. "He's worked his way up from the bottom rung of the ladder, and implanted a strong sense of solidarity which the players embraced and filtered throughout the club. Nobody is special, everyone's in this together.

"Players in interviews refuse to accept individual praise, focusing instead on collective effort and the influence of their manager. I've never seen a club that's so united from top to bottom."

Under Martinez's calm but purposeful leadership, Granada were rock solid throughout the 2018-19 season, grinding their way to promotion by conceding just 28 goals in 42 games.

That, though, was widely thought to be the extent of their capabilities, and Granada headed into the new campaign accompanied by unanimous predictions that they would spend the season battling against relegation. How wrong we all were.

No-name anti-superstars

Since starting their first season back in the top flight with the weird aberration of a 4-4 draw at Villarreal, Granada have settled into the same pattern that gained them promotion; organised, hard-working and defensively strong, with the ice-cool direction of Martinez - the youngest coach in La Liga - keeping everyone pulling in the same direction.

Top of the La Liga table
Barcelona are just one point below Granada and have a game in hand

The highlight of their campaign so far was a deserved 2-0 victory over reigning champions Barcelona, which came as one of a run of four consecutive home wins without conceding a goal - culminating in Sunday's victory over struggling Real Betis to send them to the top of the pile.

The match-winning goalscorer this weekend was one of the few Granada players with top-flight pedigree - winger Alvaro Vadillo, who ironically started his career with Betis.

Roughly half of the squad had never played in the top flight before this season, while the recent international break saw only three players - Ramon Azeez (Nigeria), Darwin Machis and Yangel Herrera (both Venezuela) head off to represent their countries.

"Their last season in the top division was a disaster. They brought in a lot of players from all over the world but weren't able to pay their salaries at the end of the season," said Padilla.

"This time they listened to the sporting director and the manager and decided to work in a different direction, bringing in players who are not famous.

"The owner does not want to lose money and Granada has the third lowest wage bill in La Liga - only Valladolid and Mallorca pay less to their players - but they have such great collective spirit and are a very balanced team."

With six wins, two draws and just two defeats from their first 10 games, Granada's results speak for themselves. And nearly 10,000km away from Andalusia, on Sunday they gave someone a very special birthday present.

The man behind it all… thousands of miles away

The brains behind Granada's operations is enigmatic club owner and baby-faced Chinese businessman Jiang, whose 'HOPE Group' consortium also includes part-ownership of Italian club Parma and Chinese team Chongqing Dangdai Lifan, as well as previously holding a share in NBA side Minnesota Timberwolves.

After enduring a bad experience with a previous owner from overseas, Italian entrepreneur Giampaolo Pozzo (also the owner of Watford), Granada fans were nervous about Jiang's intentions and capabilities when he took over in 2016 - especially when his first season resulted in disastrous relegation.

Chinese businessman Jiang is the club's owner

But Jiang poured his heart out to supporters by writing an emotional open letter when promotion was sealed in June.

"Granada was the first club I invested in," wrote Jiang, who celebrated his 38th birthday on Sunday. "Emotionally and strategically, Granada means more to me than any other.

"My first season didn't end well because of my profound lack of knowledge of this sport. We suffered relegation but I didn't give up. I appreciated the experience and I learned from it. This is only just beginning. We will continue with calm and humility."

"Granada fans have grown fond of Jiang, even though he's more of a background figure these days, delegating responsibility to others," Chesters notes.

"It's fair to say he's learned from his mistakes and brought in the right people. People who understand football and know what they're doing. These days, fans see Jiang as quite an amusing and mercurial figurehead."

While Spanish media have predictably compared Granada's rise to Leicester's Premier League-winning heroics in 2015-16, Padilla does not think such a scenario is on the cards.

"I don't think so!" he laughs. "In fact, I don't even expect them to play in Europe. Staying in the top division is their priority."

From a more partisan perspective, Chesters is slightly more optimistic: "Granada winning the title would be an even greater achievement than that of Leicester. In reality, it's never likely to happen despite such a great start.

"However, I do see this Granada side as being genuinely capable of fighting to finish among the European positions. They look so much more solid and cohesive than some other teams."

Will they stay the course? Quite possibly not. But right now, their fans don't care. All that matters is one simple fact: Granada are top of the table.

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