Tactical Insights

Switching Barça for the NWSL: Giráldez talks joining Spirit

Jonatan Giráldez remembers the moment his coaching career and, as a consequence, his life, changed. The new Washington Spirit coach had been living in Barcelona for a couple of years, working in restaurants, department stores and as a charity street seller to fund his studies as he sought a path into football.

Then, one day, Marc Vivés — one of his teachers who also worked at the Catalan Football Federation and years later as his sporting director at Barcelona — had a question.

“[Vivés] asked me: ‘How much money do you need to earn to be calm in Barcelona and focus on football?'” Giráldez told ESPN after moving to the United States to take up his new post. “It was a crazy question for me in that moment, like, ‘What do I say now?’ “

Giráldez, 32, is not the first nor the last person to find themselves in a similar situation. What do you do? Go too high and risk missing out on the opportunity? Or undersell yourself because you’re so desperate for a chance?

“I gave him a number,” Giráldez continued. “If you say too much, what is going on with you? If you say a little bit, it’s like, come on. So I told him, right now I earn €1,000 [a month] in [the restaurant] Ginos, working a lot. So, if I have the option to earn the same money but only in the Catalan Federation, putting the focus only on football, I will be the happiest man in the world. I remember a small laugh from Marc, saying like ‘OK, that will be easy.’

“That changed my direction in life.”

Giráldez — who will take charge of the Spirit in his debut game on Saturday, hosting the North Carolina Courage — first moved to Barcelona from Galicia in 2012 as a 20-year-old. He abandoned any hopes of becoming a footballer to instead focus on his studies and find another route into the game. He arrived with his now wife, Olaia, the mother to his 1-year-old son and worked a variety of jobs to enable him to continue in education.

He first impressed Vivés when giving a presentation as part of a UEFA course. Later, at the Catalan Federation, he worked as an analyst, a fitness coach and an assistant coach with boys and girls. He also had a side hustle as a commentator. He credits all of those broad experiences — inside and outside of football — with making him the coach he is today.

Vivés’ hunch about Giráldez, meanwhile, has been proven right during three incredible years as Barça manager which culminated with the Champions League win over Lyon last month. The 2-0 victory over the eight-time European champions sealed a 10th trophy from a possible 12 during his tenure. The only two he missed out on were the Copa de la Reina last season (Barça were expelled from the competition after fielding an ineligible player in a 9-0 win against Osasuna) and the 2022 Champions League, when they lost in the final to Lyon.

The French club have historically been the thorn in Barça’s side. Barça had never beaten them prior to last month. Giráldez was the assistant to Lluís Cortés when they lost to them in the 2019 final and was in charge himself three years later. Making this year’s final even more difficult was the fact Spirit owner Michele Kang — Giráldez’s new boss — also owns Lyon.

“It was a weird situation for me,” Giráldez says. “What I wanted was to win for Barça because it was my intention, my goal, but obviously the vision for Michelle is her team has to win. Lucky for me, I could get what I wanted, and after ending of the season I will give my best to keep winning, in this case for Washington.”

That win sealed Barça’s first-ever quadruple. They have dominated domestically and in Europe over the last three years. Giráldez says Barça are the best side in the world in women’s football. So, why walk away now?

“Many things,” he explained. “I am 32 years old. I arrived [at Barça] three years ago, I have a family, a baby, I won everything there. I think I have room for improvement. I don’t know how many years I will be [at the Spirit], but if I am here three weeks, three months, three years, 30 years, for sure I will improve a lot, personally, professionally.

“I know what my capacity as a coach is right now and what I want is to improve, make bigger the comfort zone. I am comfortable in my zone, but I need to make it bigger. For me, the challenge to go to another country, another language, improve the communication with the players, the staff, supporters, journalists, know the supporters, what they need, how they are, how I have to connect everyone, the players, the staff, the supporters. Try to improve the players I have there is a big challenge.

“It’s the right decision, personally, to be better in the future and what I will do is give my best to help the team, the players to be one of the best teams in the world. That is what I want to do. It sounds crazy, but this is the mentality that we have to achieve in the future. We have the tools to get it.”

There are other reasons which Giráldez does not immediately offer. While he still considers Barça the best, there is an appeal and a professionalism to the NWSL which is lacking in Spain. At the Spirit, he will have a staff of over 30 people, experts in their areas from around the world, dedicated exclusively to “helping the players.” The Spirit play at the 20,000-capacity Audi Field, which is 14,000 seats bigger than Barça’s Johan Cruyff Estadi — and that is the most impressive ground in Liga F.

Then there is the competitiveness of the respective leagues. Giráldez says it’s not a primary reason, but it is a factor. Barça won 87 of their 90 Liga F games under him. In 2021-22 they won all 30. This past season, they cantered to the title with 29 wins and one draw. They scored 137 goals and conceded just 10.

“That is another important point,” he admitted. “In Spain, we don’t suffer a lot. A few games we suffer. The feeling to suffer to win every week, I need it. I am really competitive. I need to have the feeling to suffer during 90 minutes.

“You have to prepare the games as best as possible, be focused during the game to take good decisions, not relax to understand that you need to be focused 90 minutes to win the game because everyone can beat you. The NWSL is an unbelievable league, so this is another decision as well, to be ready to compete and cope with the pressure every week.”

How would NWSL teams fare in Europe’s Champions League?

“It’s a good question,” Giráldez said. “I think they can compete with any team in the world, but I don’t have enough information to analyse the level because my vision right now is everything is 50-50 [in the NWSL]. But it would be interesting to compete Barça, Lyon, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, VfL Wolfsburg, Bayern Munich against American teams to analyse the level. I hope in the future we can compete together to make it more competitive.”

“Competitiveness” is a word that Giráldez repeatedly uses. It is something he seeks in every single training session, with the intensity even surprising some of the game’s best players.

Barça defender Lucy Bronze, a European champion with England and Lyon, told ESPN last year that despite her rich history of clubs and coaches worked under, the environment created by Giráldez surprised her.

“The training, the way they want to press, play, is a really intense, high level,” said Bronze, who will leave Barça this summer and could follow her former boss to the NWSL as a free agent. “And it’s not just like in one small game, it’s everything we do. They upped the intensity and made these players even better, the likes of Alexia [Putellas], Aitana [Bonmatí], Patri [Guijarro], Mapi [Leon] — so many of them that maybe five years ago no one was talking about and now they’re among the best in the world. It is because the intensity of training has stepped everyone up a level.”

Giráldez’s success has been creating that culture and getting everyone to buy into it. His challenge is to replicate it in Washington.

“It is how I understand training, the process,” he said. “I don’t understand the process of training to get in the highest possible way for the weekend. You have to create the habit every day to compete at 100% of your intensity. I don’t understand football in another way.

“What I want is to be competitive in training, understanding that there is always a winner and a loser. That way, you manage the emotion, when you are winning and when you are losing — and you have to show it in training. There is the management of the coach.

“That needs time. It’s not easy to get it in a few days. I needed many seasons at Barça. I am very happy because the performances we had in training were crazy. I didn’t have to push a lot every day because the players did. But my way to understand training, process, preseason, seasons is like that. That is what I want [at the Spirit] as well.”

Under Giráldez, Barça also faced the opposition with a recognisable style, focused on the Catalan club’s world-renowned DNA: possession, positioning and pressing. It is one thing to create that type of football with players drilled in it from a young age, though, and another thing to implement it at another club in another country where perhaps it does not come as naturally. Is Giráldez ready to be more pragmatic if required?

“The football is the players, it’s from them, 100%,” he said. “The only thing I do as a coach is help them grow, maximise their skillset and try to take the best possible performance of each one. We can’t demand things that they cannot give us. So, for sure, I like to have a good possession phase, have control of the game, be close in distance when we are attacking and defending, but I also know the [NWSL] likes transitions, long balls and things like that.

“The work [interim coach] Adrián González and the staff have done is really good, we are improving a lot. In small areas we have to adapt, adjust a little more. But 100% the football is from the players. Sometimes the spaces are in the back, sometimes the side, sometimes between lines, in front or behind of the midfield line… the most important thing in football is identify this advantage.”

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