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The one-man Machín taking on the big clubs one game at a time

Pablo Machín, coach of Girona, is a man of his word. “I want an honourable team,” he said in an interview with Spanish football magazine Panenka...


Pablo Machín, coach of Girona, is a man of his word. “I want an honourable team,” he said in an interview with Spanish football magazine Panenka just as Girona’s first year in the top flight started. On Sunday afternoon, matchday 10 of the 2017/18 LaLiga season, he sent 11 footballers out against what many consider to be the world’s best side and not only beat them on an individual level but also systematically broke down Real Madrid’s rearguard time and time again.

Girona's famous win over Real Madrid was no fluke

It was 27 years, almost to the day, since Real Madrid had been beaten by a LaLiga debutant. The last time came on 27 October 1990, when they came undone against Burgos FC in similar fashion: going a goal up before being picked off 2-1. The 42-year-old from Sofia, just outside Madrid, believes that the possibility that a modest team can overcome one of the greats is why football is the king of sports.

It happened again on Sunday but while these things are rare, this was by no means a fluke.

Machín showed against Atlético Madrid in Girona’s first ever game in Spain’s top flight that they had a plan and would stick to it regardless of who came to town. And while Machín is unequivocal in stating that the word ‘advantage’ and the term ‘small team’ have no place in the same sentence together, he is doing everything he can to take on the big clubs one game at a time in a purposeful manner. “They made us feel uncomfortable,” Sergio Ramos said. Just the way Machín likes it.

In the same interview with Panenka, Machín gave little away when he was asked what his approach would be when Real Madrid, in particular, came to town. “It would be easy to say and I would be blowing hot air if I did say that we are going to take them on one on one.” This is a manager whose idealism is soaked in a form of pragmatism before it can be relayed to his team.

Maybe he didn’t know himself. He needed time to see how his players and, perhaps most importantly, his tactics would stand up in the face of the very best Spain had to offer. Whatever doubts he had about the effectiveness of doing things in the right manner and empowering your players to play good football regardless of who you are up against disappeared in that first game against Atlético. “The whole of Spain and in different parts of the world saw what a small team doing things the right way can achieve,” he said after his most recent scalp.

On Sunday before the game, AS spoke with Cristhian Stuani about the game and Girona’s chances. There was a-come-what-may attitude in his answers and a sense of defiance in his voice. “It will be difficult, but at home we are a very intense team,” he said. Stuani seemed to know something we didn't. Something we were about to find out.

Far from the stock media answers football players so often splay out, Stuani delved slightly deeper. “We need to block their transitions because they're so fast and you have to stop their counters, as that's where they're very strong,” he said.

Machín during Girona's win over Real Madrid.
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Machín during Girona's win over Real Madrid.Getty Images

Stuani reflects Girona players' clarity of purpose under Machín 

It seems to be a trademark of a Pablo Machín team. The players are empowered under him. They speak with a sense of clarity that can only come from clearness of purpose in what they are doing, how they are being led, a belief in the end goal. If they are going to fight against the bigger teams, it will be a fight, at least, and not a slaughter.

And it was evident on Sunday that Machín believes it because for as hard as Real Madrid pushed for a goal, Girona pushed harder still for a third. At 2-1 and looking comfortable, Girona weren’t going to fall into the same trap that has beset so many minnows before them, throwing away their chance at glory by falling back terrified about losing what they’ve already achieved. And in so doing forgetting what it was that got them into the lead in the first place.

So often, teams get into positions like Girona found themselves in on Sunday night only to let the loss aversion theory kick in. It is something that tends to happen to the ‘modest’ teams, as they are referred to, when they find themselves in a winning position as they would rather not lose one point than gain all three, leading to fear, which so often leads to collapse.

There is no fear of collapse under Machín. It was evident in his substitutions. As the game ticked by, many observers would have expected Machín to grow more conservative but when he took off his wide men it was to replace them with wide men with even more pace, to cause further problems for Real Madrid, rather than defenders thrown in to fill space at the back. At 2-1 up, Machín felt there was another goal in his team.

And that’s how it ended. With Real Madrid coming dangerously close to conceding a third and never really looking like scoring themselves, and with the kind of loss that tends to happen once every three decades.

Machín bristles at the thought that there is a puppet-master pulling the strings from England with Manchester City taking a vested interest in the side and loaning them a handful of players: “Nobody tells me who I have to play and what manner I play in.”

That’s all down to Machín and more often than not, the way he likes to play is on the front foot.


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