It has almost been 5 years since Leicester City, a team which barely survived relegation the season before, a team which had fewer odds of winning the Premier League than Mahatma Gandhi being alive, won the Premier League. It’s been 4 years since a country with the same population as the city of Leicester reached the quarter-finals of Euros. Footballing fairy tales had reached their peak. Everyone believed nothing would even come close to this but football had other ideas.
A little over 3 years ago, Getafe were second from bottom… of the second division. Today, they are on the brink of being among 32 of Europe’s best. A club having a budget a 16th the size of Barcelona could be playing Champions League football next season and while it may not be as spectacular as Leicester City winning the Premier League, it definitely comes close.
According to Government stats, 62% of people living in Madrid are Real Madrid fans, 22% support Atletico Madrid and 8% are Barcelona fans. That doesn’t allow much room for the rest which includes Rayo Vallecano, who have a much deeper history. It is also evident since Getafe have the third-lowest average attendance in La Liga at only a mere 9,874. A club that invented a dating app for Getafe fans to meet and reproduce in order to fill their stadium might have stumbled upon the best way possible – to invite Europe’s elite to their town.
Today, we look at how they have come this far.
Jaime Mata’s first-ever slight sight of fame was when he stood half-naked in the middle of the stadium for a photograph. Still 19, Mata was an average striker playing for Pegaso Galactico in Spain’s Tercera division, which is a long way down the Spanish football ladder. There is a second, a second B with 80 teams and then the Tercera with 366 teams divided into 18 provincial groups. Pegaso were struggling for funds when Mata and his teammates posed with only pieces of paper covering their modesty in order to raise funds for the club and even then, Mata’s fame didn’t last long. Pegaso disappeared and Mata did the same. You’d have to look at rough pitches and tiny stadiums to find Mata, mostly earning his trade in the Tercera division while he was preparing to be a customs officer. The Spanish striker didn’t play a minute of La Liga football until he was 30 and now, he plays for the Spanish National team.
Jorge Molina is a vital part of this Getafe side. 20 years ago when he started playing football in the fourth tier of Spanish football, 465 teams stood between him and the top of the footballing pinnacle in Spain. Today, that number has reduced down to two. Molina had a direct involvement in 21 of 48 goals scored by Getafe last season. An extraordinary output for a 36-year-old, an age where many players stop altogether. According to Getafe’s head physio, Jorge Molina, despite his age, is still among the fittest players in the whole squad.
“He was very focused throughout the whole year on making sure he was in the best shape possible. He really took his individualized training regiment seriously, his rest, his diet. At 37, he knew that he had to really take care of himself. And when we used the platform (Zone 7), it took into account his age.”
-Javier Vidal, Getafe head physio.
Not only those two, but almost all of Getafe’s players also have a similar story. Damian Suarez experienced relegation for two consecutive years before finding his feet at Getafe. Allan Nyom had different stints playing in the bottom half of the premier league with Watford and West Brom before being reinvented as a right-winger at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez. Marc Cucurella was deemed not good enough for Barcelona. Nemanja Maksimovic faced a similar fate with Valencia. Djene Dakonam had never played in the first division before. They all are used to playing on imperfect pitches and experiencing relegation, not playing in the Champions League. And yet, they are on the verge of making the European dream, a reality.
Their manager is no different. Jose “Pepe” Bordalas, in his 23 years of coaching career had never managed a club in the top flight of Spanish football before winning promotion with Getafe in the 2016/17 season. He had managed to get Alcorcon to the playoffs and won the title with Alaves only to be replaced by Mauricio Pellegrino before he could manage in La Liga. In the end, the decision was good for Alaves who finished 9th and reached the Copa del Rey final and also for Getafe, who are now on the brink of Champions League football with Bordalas at the helm.
Getafe on the outside look like a group of 11 individuals put together to play football with an aim to barely survive playing in the top flight of Spanish football and yet when those 11 individuals don the signature blue jersey, they look like a team who belong here. They look like a team that belong in the Champions League.
So how do they do it?
“He calls in the defenders first: breaks a TV. He calls in the midfielders and he breaks a light. Calls in the strikers, breaks a sofa.” One of José Bordalás’s former players tells the tale and, although he’s laughing, he’s only half-joking.
Behind the sophisticated beard, the intelligent glasses and a dashing suit is the face of a man who the movies would describe as ‘necessary evil’. Fridges have been kicked, doors have been slammed, tactics boards have been broken in the dressing room, Jose Bordalas won’t settle for anything less than 100% from his players and he does everything possible to make sure none of them forget that. Bordalas believes that every football match is a battle and he makes his players believe that too. He once made a defender hold a pencil between his nose and his top lip and made him cross his eyes. “Now go to the pitch like that”, he told him. He wanted his players to make a scary face and to terrify the opponents.
Getafe were 23rd in the Segunda when they turned to Pepe Bordalas. Bordalas managed to win them promotion first time of asking and then managed them to 8th and 5th place finishes in their two seasons back in the top flight. An impressive feat for a man who had never managed in the top flight of Spanish football before.
Their ‘go-out-to-battle’ attitude gets reflected on the pitch as well. Getafe are known for their physical, aggressive style of play. Every game is a battle which is evident since Getafe have nearly committed the highest fouls in the league. But it’s so much more than just fouls and luck which has made them successful.
Getafe lineup in a traditional, old fashioned 4-4-2. No matter how the opposition team plays, Bordalas doesn’t change his system often. The Getafe system focuses on earning numerical advantages in areas where the opposition might trouble them the most. The traditional 4-4-2 allows them to mark the opposition’s central midfielders and defenders forcing them to play the ball out wide or long which is what triggers their press. Bordalas likes to be compact through the middle so as to prevent the opposition from breaking through the lines centrally. Getafe sometimes lineup with 4 central defenders playing across the backline or 4 fullbacks playing on the flanks. Either way, it makes sure that there is a strong understanding between the relevant pairs which makes sure that they are compact, structured and never breaking their shape while balancing and switching their roles.
El Geta don’t like to press often and their press is usually triggered by certain situations but when they do, they try to gain numerical advantages and create overloads whenever possible forcing the opposite team into making mistakes and turn over possession. Whenever Getafe win possession they transition from defence to attack very quickly. One of the two strikers drop deep to receive the ball while the other makes a run in behind the defenders so as a deeper-lying midfielder can pick out a pass since he has a clearer vision than a striker dropping deep with his back to the goal. Getafe attackers are great in attacking and exploiting the half-spaces left by the opposition with just a few passes.
The stats back their style of play as well. Getafe conceded only 35 goals last term, only Atletico Madrid conceding fewer. They have the second-best defence this season too with them conceding only 22 goals in 24 games. They had the lowest average possession(43%) and lowest passes completed in the whole league last season but they still scored 48 goals which are surprising to see given their attacking stats. The unorthodox setup has led to some spectacular results for them so far with Jose Bordalas being the architect of it all.
Another factor getting the best out of their players is their fitness program, led by head physio, Javier Vidal. Vidal uses an AI software called Zone7 which was invented by a pair of big-data engineers at Israel’s Defence Forces intelligence corps. The software collects data from around the world of sports, as well as player’s own injury record along with inputs taken from an external monitor worn by the player to predict injuries. This technology has helped Getafe keep their players at 100% through the grueling training sessions which Bordalas conducts. Some players have even admitted that they have never trained this hard in their whole life and Zone7 helps the physios to track if a player has been pushed too hard. This technology, among many other tools, has helped the Getafe physios to monitor the players’ fitness properly resulting in them missing only 178 days through injury in the 18-19 season.
Unfortunately, the Azulones had to settle for Europa League football this season after missing out on a top 4 finish to Valencia on the last day of the 2018/19 season. A devastating blow for a team who punched well above their weight but that heartbreak has now turned into a burning fire. They are now more desperate than ever to make things right which is evident from their current position. They are sitting third in La Liga with 14 games to go and most recently recorded a richly deserved 2-0 victory over an Ajax team that has drawn a lot of praise from European fans over the past year and a half. Getafe are on the brink of qualifying for the Champions League and could also be termed as the ‘dark horses’ to win the Europa League.
The club, by no means, is supposed to be competing with the heavyweights of Spanish football. They are a small team located in a small suburb on the outskirts of Madrid but they have punched above the weight ever since earning promotion to La Liga in 2004. Even then, they have never come this close to playing Champions League football.
Everything about Getafe from the outside looks very peculiar. Their owner is a season ticket holder at the Santiago Bernabeu. The club had to resort to very unorthodox methods to fill their stadium. The stadium is named after a person who has never played there. Their manager had never managed in top-flight before. Their star striker didn’t know he would be playing football for a living till he was well into his twenties. They are a team of misfits and rejects with fullbacks playing as wingers and centre-backs playing as full-backs. And yet, somehow, they are going toe to toe with Spanish and European heavyweights and emerging victorious. The Azulones have been on an uphill journey for a while now and judging by the looks of it, they have absolutely no intention of stopping.
If the popular phrase ‘on paper’ is anything to go by, Getafe shouldn’t be anywhere near where they are right now. Very few things about the club make sense from a logical point of view. But from a romantic point of view, their rise to be on the brink of playing European football is nothing short of remarkable.
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