Tactical Insights

Eric Garcia interview: ‘I had doubts over my role at Barcelona. I needed to prove myself at Girona’

In June 2021, Pep Guardiola was asked about centre-back Eric Garcia’s move from his Manchester City side to Barcelona.

“I already told (then Barcelona manager) Ronald Koeman that Eric is an outstanding signing,” Guardiola said. “First of all because he is a gem of a guy, so clever. But he is also really hungry to learn more and more and absorbs everything. You will see how, some years on, he will become a club captain at Barcelona.”

As has tended to happen recently at Barcelona, things haven’t worked out as planned. Garcia has been unable to fully establish himself in three years there and is now starring on loan at their Catalan rivals Girona. He has played a key role in a historic season for the side owned by City Football Group.

Girona’s unlikely title challenge has dropped away, but they are third in La Liga and on course for a first-ever Champions League qualification. Garcia has played nearly every minute he has been available — with senior sources at Girona, who asked to remain anonymous as they did not have permission to comment, saying the defender has been “levels above what we could usually imagine for a club like Girona”.

Garcia after scoring for Girona against Athletic Bilbao (Ander Gilleana/AFP via Getty Images)

Garcia is speaking to The Athletic at an impressive golf complex 20 kilometres south of Girona. At the course, there are luxury houses and apartments and 12 of the side’s players have decided to make them their homes. The 23-year-old looks relaxed. He has reason to feel vindicated given how last summer panned out.

“In pre-season with Barcelona, I had some doubts over my role,” Garcia says. “I am at an age when I need to play. I had lost this feeling.

“More than vindicated, I’d say this is the level I have and what I’ve always shown in the squads I played in. No one has ever played for Barcelona, Spain and City for no reason. But last summer, I felt I needed to prove myself again.”

He has certainly done that. After 29 La Liga games, Garcia is among the top three defenders with the most passes completed into the final third. His team-mate and the former Manchester United left-back Daley Blind also features on that list, but Garcia has managed to do it having played just 21 times this season.

Garcia is a large part of Girona’s build-up play and has a crucial role in creating chances, as we can see in this pass network map from the team’s 5-3 win over Real Mallorca in September.

If you had told this to Garcia on deadline day last summer, September 1, 2023, when his loan was finally agreed, he probably would not have believed it. When he woke up that day, he was convinced he would stay at Barcelona.

“I left on a Friday, but it all started on Monday,” he says. “We had just played the third league game of the season the day before at Villarreal. I came on at half-time and we turned the result around, from losing 3-2 to finally winning 4-3.

“But on Monday I went to Xavi’s office and told him I’d like to leave the club on loan. We had a chat and he insisted I shouldn’t leave. He said he was counting on me, that I played a good game at Villarreal and that I would find my moment and place in the team. I left that meeting having decided I would stay in Barcelona.

“Then we had a couple of days off. I trained again with the team on Thursday, nothing had changed. But suddenly, on Friday morning, I got a call from my agent. Barcelona told us they received an offer for me and that if I had any intention of leaving, I would be given permission.”

Later that summer, Barcelona sources said Garcia’s departure had been necessary to allow for loan signings Joao Felix and Joao Cancelo to be registered with La Liga before the end of the window given the club’s financial difficulties.

“We were surprised, but I told my agent that if I had to leave the club, it needed to be in a place I had picked. And that place, for me, was Girona,” Garcia says.

“I even trained with Barcelona on deadline day. At the end of the training session, staff from the club came to me to say everything had been agreed and I was allowed to leave.”

Garcia thought he’d be staying at Barcelona this season (Miguel Riopa/AFP via Getty Images)

Perhaps the highlight of Garcia’s season came in Girona’s 4-2 win against Barcelona at Montjuic in December. After that game, Barca coach Xavi said he would have liked the centre-back to stay the previous summer.

“If it had been my decision, Eric would have stayed with us,” he said. “We spoke about it and he knows it.”

But Xavi also said “the pressure you are exposed to is really different” at Barcelona compared to Girona. Garcia says he has been used to the pressure of playing for an elite club throughout his career.

“Playing at Barcelona is different to many clubs, but you have high demands at any big club,” he says. “In the end, I came from (Barcelona’s youth academy) La Masia, Manchester City, playing the Euros and Nations League final with Spain and Barcelona… I’ve lived with pressure everywhere — at Girona, too.

“Every player needs to feel comfortable and trusted to perform in games. I’ve found that here at Girona.”

Girona were not the only club after Garcia last summer. The offer Barcelona initially mentioned to his camp did not come from Girona. Local reports suggested Real Betis were in the mix for him.

But Garcia’s mind was made up when he spoke to Girona boss Michel.

“We spoke in August for the first time,” he says. “He laid out his game style, what he would expect from it and the high hopes he had with all the signings Girona made in summer.

“He mentioned to me the names of Savinho (also known as Savio) and Artem Dovbyk, who I did not really know that much. And then how he had imagined his defence with myself, David Lopez and Daley Blind. He was really convincing and I made up my mind.”



Inside Girona’s unlikely rise: Pep Guardiola’s brother, Manchester City and table football

Garcia had a lot of friends in the Girona dressing room, which helped him. Star midfielder Aleix Garcia and right-back Yan Couto had played with Garcia at City. Spain Under-21 international defender Arnau Martinez had been a team-mate at La Masia and young midfielder Pablo Torre played with him at Barcelona last season.

“It is a young dressing room, full of hungry people with a desire to grow in football,” he says.

Girona manager Michel (Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

If there’s one standout name from Girona’s season so far, it has been Savio. At 19, the Brazilian winger has been one of La Liga’s most dangerous players with eight goals and seven assists. He made his Brazil debut against England last weekend and City are already working on securing his signing from their sister club Troyes, who loaned him to Girona. Is he good enough for Guardiola’s side, though?

“I’d definitely say he is!” replies Garcia with a smile. “I have to mark him in every training session and I can tell you he is this good.

“Comparing him with players I have shared a dressing room with, I’d say he might have the burst of speed (now-Paris Saint-Germain and former Barca winger) Ousmane Dembele has — they are so fast and can dribble past you on the left or right.

“In the way we want to play, having a winger playing on his natural side gives us a lot of things. I remember when we had Leroy Sane at City playing on the left-hand side. It’s hard to find a player who can dribble towards the end of the pitch and then put in crosses with the quality they have.”

Manager Michel has also been a key factor behind Girona’s brilliant season.

“Michel is like a football geek,” he says. “He loves it. We have video analysis after every game that can last around 45 minutes. Before facing any opponent, he also prepares videos of around 40 minutes. Then we use two days a week to do tactical training ahead of the next game — which is him recreating situations we believe we’ll find and providing us with tools and solutions to resolve them. That, for me, is his strongest point.”

It is no surprise Garcia is so interested in how Michel works — as soon as he made his professional debut at City at 17 in December 2018, he knew he wanted to become a manager after his playing career was over.

Garcia started doing his coaching badges in England but has put that on pause for a while. He remains a football obsessive.

“I have games on the TV at home all day,” he says. “On the weekends, when we don’t play, I normally watch a couple of games simultaneously, one on the television and another on my tablet. I follow everything in La Liga and the Premier League and I’m also trying to follow the Bundesliga and PSG this season.”

Being a manager isn’t the only role that appeals to him once he eventually hangs up his boots.

“I’ve always been very clear that I want to have a life linked to football in the future, too,” he says. “I don’t know if it will be by being a manager or a sporting director — both appeal to me.”

That might explain another of his favourite hobbies: Football Manager. He was introduced to the game by former City team-mate and now-Barcelona midfielder Ilkay Gundogan.

“In Manchester, Gundo was obsessed with Football Manager,” Garcia says. “He was playing all the time. When I spotted it, I didn’t even know the game and asked him about it. He showed me everything about the game and I got hooked.

Garcia playing against Barcelona (Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images)

“Possibly my best save is one where I took Oxford United from League One (English football’s third tier) to compete for the Champions League. I put a lot of time and effort into spotting new talents! When I reached the top places of the Premier League, I thought that was enough.”

Garcia was once one of those new talents coming through La Masia. The 16-year-old Lamine Yamal and the centre-back Pau Cubarsi, 17, are two of the latest Barcelona starlets to have come off the conveyor belt that helped produce Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi among many others.

“That’s what you get from La Masia, big talents,” he says. “They are just proving it again. If you look at Europe as well, you have Xavi Simons or Dani Olmo starring at RB Leipzig (who also came through the academy)… there are many cases like that.

“But what Yamal and Cubarsi are doing at this age is simply outstanding. People were saying they could not deliver in big games or Champions League knockout ties — then they play against Napoli or Atletico Madrid and show (their quality) again.”

Garcia saw Yamal up close a lot as he trained with Barca’s first team last season and the centre-back says he could see the teenager’s left boot was “different”. Cubarsi, meanwhile, has been tipped as one of the greatest centre-backs La Masia has produced for generations — in the mould of legends Carles Puyol or Gerard Pique.

The same used to be said of Garcia himself — it was the reason City made such an effort to sign him from Barcelona in 2017.

“I left Barcelona because I did not see a clear path or sporting plan for me,” he says. “I was 16 and I wasn’t expecting to have anything assured or gifted to me, but City knocked on our doors offering a career path we could not envisage here. Guardiola had just arrived a year earlier, the project was amazing and the playing style seemed like a good fit for me.”

Garcia made 36 senior appearances for City over three seasons. “My first season was focused on getting used to life in a new country and a new club,” he says. “In my second season, I joined the first team in their pre-season tour and made my debut, to then finally get more established in the third season. The following campaign, I probably could expect to take another step, but I had to make a decision.”

That year, 2020, he was due to sign a new contract extension. Barcelona came calling and he decided to return home.

“I don’t regret it,” Garcia says. “I took this decision as a ‘culer’ (Barcelona fan). I’ve been a Barcelona fan since I was a kid, the dream of my life had always been to play for the first team. When you are from here, it’s very complicated to say no to Barcelona.”

And, despite his departure on loan, Garcia sees a future at his boyhood club when he returns this summer.

“I’m under contract until 2026,” he says. “This summer I’ll go back to Barcelona and we’ll see what the club’s plan is for me, but I only think about coming back to Barcelona and what happens.”

Additional contributor: Thom Harris

(Top photo: Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

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