COLUMN: Girona and Savio knocked down, but far from out

Savio – or Savinho, depending on which you prefer – probably doesn’t need much of an introduction at this point. Within just a couple of months, the 19-year-old has gone from an intriguing but unheralded loan signing to one of La Liga’s most devastating attackers. And even now, you still get the sense that nobody really knows just where to set the bar on what he might do this season.

“We know that given his age he can have ups and downs, but he has enormous talent. We’re going to enjoy him,” Michel said after their win at Sevilla last month.

To listen to the manager speak about Savio, there’s a clear sense of enthrallment – and yet just like the rest of us, it’s wrapped up in uncertainty as to the whole sum of what the Brazilian might be. At 19 years of age, in his first season as a regular starter in senior football, and after trading South America for Europe with unspectacular results at the first time of trying last season, there’s simply no way of knowing.

The good news for us watching from afar is that we get to simply enjoy the show, and follow the story wherever it goes without consequence beyond our own enjoyment. For Michel, though, the process has to be tantalising and delicate in equal measure, for even he who observes every touch that Savio makes can’t be sure of the path that the Brazilian will take. Is he the talent that sets the ceiling on Girona’s ambitious plans? Does he need to be taken slowly, knowing the long road ahead? How will the overnight acclaim proceed to impact his game?

The issues, if you can call them that, were there against Real Madrid. “I think everything we’ve said about him harmed him,” Michel said after the game, before adding that Savio hadn’t managed the spotlight on him well enough. “It’s true that Real Madrid have defended well in that zone with Carvajal and Valverde, but he hasn’t taken good decisions when he’s [usually] a player who’s spectacular in making decisions.”

It’s hard to argue with the assessment of the Girona boss – just as it was when he referred to a player who’ll have his ups and downs, following one of his better performances. Savio completed just one take-on, didn’t create a chance, and lost possession with 39% of his touches.

“There were situations of one against two or one against three and he went for them when he had to give continuity to the play,” Michel explained. Against a Madrid side who had prepared accordingly – with keen support for the full backs from Valverde and Bellingham – the teenager found himself caught between wanting to generate individually and feeling a necessity to make things happen, once it became clear he was on the periphery.

The weekend will be filed under lessons learned, rather than any sort of failure. And besides, they didn’t bring the Brazilian in to make the difference against Real Madrid. They’re playing a different, longer game; one which Saturday’s defeat shouldn’t derail for the team or individuals. If Girona and Savio process the defeat correctly, they stand to win more than they lose in its wake.

Saturday’s events don’t remove from the fact that Savio has been – and will continue to be – a significant part of Girona’s evolution this term. Through eight games he’s been directly involved in six goals (two goals and four assists), which is just two fewer than Rodrigo Riquelme (8) managed in the whole of last term, as the player that he theoretically replaced. It speaks not only to Savio’s individual impact, but the fact his presence has allowed Girona to diversify their game and introduce new elements. And in the case of the youngster, that goes way beyond giving him the ball and expecting sparks to fly.

Take the distribution from goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga, for example. Girona’s aim isn’t to build from goal to goal in a specific manner; it’s to find the spaces that the opposition aren’t optimally prepared for. Their squad is designed with those aims in mind, so for the signings of Eric Garcia and Daley Blind to tighten up the quality on the ball from defence, come the likes of Artem Dovbyk as a physical reference at centre forward, as well as speed to play over the top through Savio, Portu or Yan Couto, when the latter plays higher up.

Believe it or not, Girona (13) have played into the final third from goal kicks more often than every other team bar Cadiz (22) and Mallorca (16) in La Liga this season. Real Madrid and Barcelona – the two teams they share a perch with for now – haven’t done so once.

What it represents is a team who, despite being known for their precise use of the ball in short, aren’t limited to patiently moving the opposition around at close quarters. Of course, much of their work begins far from the opposition goal and they want to move with precision, but Girona want to be a live threat in all in-possession situations too, with sharp changes of tempo. And in the form of Savio, they have found a player who permits Girona to travel towards goal with the ball, as a quick ball-carrier and one-v-one specialist, as well as without it, through his speed running beyond defenders.

No player has created more chances following a carry than Savio (7) in La Liga this season, only Bryan Zaragoza (26) has completed more take-ons than him (19), and he leads all players for expected assists (2.98). That the Brazilian has been so productive in individual terms highlights what his presence has helped Girona to do on a team level, with the ways in which they manipulate space. It’s one of the reasons why, in the absence of racking up shots, they’ve still created higher quality chances than almost everyone else. Only Barcelona (31) have created more Opta-defined ‘big chances’ than Girona (29), while their average shot quality in terms of xG (0.15) is second only to Atletico (0.16).

Indeed, being able to threaten different spaces was one of the principal issues against Real Madrid. After a strong start to the game – where Girona missed two big chances to get ahead – the two sucker punches to put them 2-0 behind landed them a in a spot they hadn’t been this season. From there, the visitors had little onus to apply meaningful pressure against Girona’s build-up, and could tighten up their defensive shape in deeper areas. The effect saw Savio reduced to attacking in limited space and often at a numerical inferiority – not to mention the fact that with Viktor Tsygankov’s injury and the enforced changes at the break, the Brazilian was clearly the player they were to emphasise in terms of defensive coverage.

Dani Carvajal and Eduardo Camavinga – along with a helping hand from Fede Valverde and Jude Bellingham – may have had him for breakfast on Saturday. But there’s plenty of reason to think that for the rest, Girona and Savio have plenty more coming. It did take eight games and the arrival of Real Madrid for someone to put the brakes on them, after all.

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