Patrick Roberts Reaping Rewards of Girona’s Complex City Connection
Patrick Roberts did not have to wait long. Announced as Girona’s first brand new summer signing in a short statement late last Thursday afternoon, by the following evening he had made his debut. He had not even been presented yet but there he was on the Montilivi pitch, brought on for the last 10 minutes of the opening night in Spain, a footballer most fans there still knew little about.
Three days later the 21-year-old was formally introduced, on loan from Manchester City. “Games like [Real Madrid and Barcelona] are why I came,” he said. He will not have to wait long for that either: on Sunday Madrid visit his new home.
Roberts said he watched the Spanish league as a child with his brother and last season he watched Girona finish their first campaign in primera on the verge of clinching an extraordinary European place, starting with a draw against Atlético and defeating Madrid along the way. That he tuned in was natural enough: Montilivi was always a possible destination, more so than is initially apparent.
“We watched him a lot last year,” said the sporting director, Quique Carcel, “although it’s true that maybe he wouldn’t have fitted last season’s system quite so well.”
This term they hope he will. Pablo Machín has departed as coach for Sevilla and under Eusebio Sacristán, who spoke to Roberts on the phone before the deal was completed, wing-backs have been replaced with wingers, moving from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3 or 4-4-2. “Patrick allows us to play outside more; he has the ability to go past people there,” Carcel said.
Manchester City signed Roberts from Fulham in July 2015; his only league appearance came as a substitute against Spurs. In two and a half years on loan at Celtic, he scored 18 times and provided 26 assists.
Girona knew that and more. Carcel speaks to the City sporting director, Txiki Begiristain, on a daily; City’s younger players are a particular focus of attention but they are only one of them basis. A year ago, Girona were effectively bought by Manchester City. The Premier League club’s parent company bought 44.3% of the club while another 44.3% was purchased by the Girona Football Group, owned by Pere Guardiola. An agent who represents Luis Suárez and Andrés Iniesta, he is also the brother of City’s manager, Pep.
Although the figure was not disclosed, the buyout is understood to have been less than €10m. In part, that is because the deal had been agreed well before, set up a year in advance when Girona were in the second division. The relationship goes back to 2015 when Guardiola oversaw the sale of the club to a French media group, TVSE.
Exactly who was behind TVSE was not clear but increasingly City were behind Girona. Collaboration was extensive, with expertise exchanged and players too. The Spanish club’s players visited the Etihad Campus, where well before the purchase was completed last August, staff referred to Girona as “ours”. Last summer, before the deal had gone through, City played a friendly at Montilivi and since then staff from Girona across a number of departments – accounting, marketing, communication – travel to England every few weeks.
Then there are the players. Florian Lejeune, now at Newcastle, was bought from Girona by City and loaned straight back in 2015-16. The centre-back played 38 league games as they reached the play-offs for the third time in four years but missed out on promotion. Roberts’ signing means the number of players Girona have had on loan from City has reached double figures. This was an opportunity that Roberts knew might open up. “I spoke to City and it was the right option,” he said.
Yet the impact the loan players had was quite limited. The full-back Pablo Maffeo started 32 times in the league but the other four City loanees were rarely in the team. Aleix García started seven times, Larry Kayode twice and Douglas Luiz once. Marlos Moreno did not start in the league. Girona would have liked to sign Maffeo on a permanent deal this summer but he was sold to Stuttgart. Moreno has been loaned to Flamengo, Kayode to Shakhtar. Douglas was denied a work permit to play for City this season and is set to go on loan again. Only Aleix García has returned, with Roberts now joining him.
Communication is fluid but that does not always mean the process is fast. In part because the relationship is close, and perhaps in part because City are owners not partners; Girona let City evaluate all the options before making a decision. Usually Girona request players, although occasionally City may propose a loan – with Douglas, that model did not really work – but shared ownership does not ensure a positive response. Girona’s requests are not always met – they would have liked to loan City academy product Brahim Díaz – while City’s desire for players to get minutes is not guaranteed either.
The opportunity, though, is there. And for Roberts, the only Englishman in La Liga, it is a hugely attractive one. “I thought it was a great idea,” he said. “I just want to play as much as I can and help the team as best I can.” He had to wait this summer but when it happened, it happened fast: a debut before he was presented and next up, Real Madrid – only 10 days after arriving at Montilivi.
The Guardian Sport