Scrapping it out in the bottom half of the table, trying to avoid a relegation battle in one of the tightest La Liga seasons in recent memory, Girona hasn’t been an easy destination for Manchester City’s loan group in Spain.
The Catalans went on an excellent run at the start of the season that took them into the European positions, but since then things have levelled out. As the big guns naturally started to find form, Girona lost the excess in theirs, flirting intermittently with a relegation fight and not winning a home match in La Liga since late October against Rayo Vallecano.
It is a fierce environment in which to throw young players hoping to take a step up and impress their parent club back in Manchester, but Txiki Begiristain will have been well aware of that when deciding to send Douglas Luiz, Patrick Roberts and Aleix Garcia to Montilivi for a crash course in elite football.
Garcia has been given the biggest chance of the bunch to show that he’s City material. The midfielder has played the most league minutes of the trio, and fits perfectly with coach Eusebio’s possession-based style of play. The player himself predicted as much last summer, saying the change in boss from Pablo Machin to the Galician manager was a ‘great opportunity’ for him “because this coach prefers to keep the ball, like I do”.
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While Machin only handed Garcia seven starts in 2017/18, this term, action has been far more forthcoming. With 25 league games under his belt including in fixtures against Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético, there has been no shortage of learning experiences for the Ulldecona native.
Crucially, he has managed to avoid injury. While Douglas Luiz has suffered fitness problems at different stages of the season, Garcia has also had a touch of fortune on his side. With veterans Alex Granell and Pere Pons guaranteed starters there is generally only room for one of the City midfield duo in the starting line-up. That means the two are in a battle to earn valuable performance time that could catch the eye of Begiristain, who has been to watch Girona on multiple occasions in the current campaign.
So it was that, just as Douglas was starting to shine as the single pivot in front of the back line in recent games, fortune conspired for him to pick up an injury. And so, his City companion returned to the midfield against Valencia this weekend, in a game that in many ways encapsulated Garcia’s season.
The 21-year-old started strong, and was discretely one of Girona’s best players in the first half – all of their best attacking moves tended to involve him in some subtle way. Garcia has a habit of picking opponents’ pockets, intercepting their attempted passes or correctly anticipating when a heavy touch will take the ball away from them for long enough to rob it.
His sharpness of mind is also evident in an attacking capacity. When Jonas Ramalho scored an initial equalizer in the first half, it came from a free-kick Garcia won by opting to dink a wall pass, first time, out to the flanks, rather than play it on the ground as was most obvious. Valencia defender Jose Luis Gaya hadn’t expected that, and clattered through the midfielder as the ball sailed unexpectedly over his head.
Garcia has is a useful linking player: someone who moves the ball on quickly after receiving possession to help increase the pace of play. He is also capable of mixing things up by driving forward when possible, showing decent whipped delivery when drifting to the flanks.
But while the mental and technical side of Garcia’s game makes it clear why City see potential in him, in the physical side he still has some work to do. In the second half against Valencia he faded dramatically, and after regularly being part of the best play in the first period, he was barely involved after the break, ultimately leading to Eusebio withdrawing him with 20 minutes to go.
That has been in keeping with his season in general. It is no coincidence that the No.23 has only lasted 90 minutes in four of his 16 league starts in 2018-19. Girona reporters see him as inconsistent, someone who is capable of being very impressive for spells but not of maintaining it long enough to truly dominate a game. The midfielder’s youth explains that, but he will have to improve his endurance if he ever wants to make it at City.
If he can make that physical leap, Garcia may well find there is an opportunity back at the Etihad. Fernandinho will be 34 in May, leaving Pep Guardiola with a key player to either replace or at the minimum, reduce the demands upon in the near future. Garcia’s intelligence, sharpness of pass and ability to improvise fit the bill, but can he find the stamina to complete the package? If not, he could yet be beaten to the spot by Girona teammate Douglas.