Sitting in the relegation zone with just six games remaining in the league, Spanish minnows Granada were staring down the barrel of the gun of an unprecedented and unwanted return to the Segunda Division.
Having reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Europa League last season, the script flipped dramatically for the Andalusian club who endured a difficult year, where wins would prove few and far between.
Diego Martínez, who guided the club to promotion and European football in a matter of twelve months, stepped down at the end of the 2021/22 campaign and was replaced by the former Spanish national team head coach, Robert Moreno.
By March 2022, Moreno was dismissed with the team sitting in the bottom three. Rubén Torrecilla arrived at the helm on an interim basis but after winning just once in five matches, the temporary boss was also sacked — enter panic stations.
Granada’s board needed a saviour. Instead, they turned to the anti-Christ. Aitor Karanka was appointed until the end of the season. The former assistant to José Mourinho had no experience managing in La Liga, nor had he a track record of keeping teams in the top flight.
Unfortunately for the club and the manager, Granada were relegated on the final day. The appointment was made too little too late. Nevertheless, the Nazaries were still impressive under the new boss.
Style and formation preference
Karanka was lauded for his ability to get Middlesbrough promoted from the Championship to the Premier League back in 2015/16. However, once results began to turn south in England’s top-tier the year after, the Spaniard was lambasted and ousted by the fans and media.
The 48-year-old has a preference for employing a defence-first style of football, built on long passes, winning second balls, counterattacks and crosses while ensuring that things are kept tight at the back.
Already during his tenure, Granada’s willingness to cede possession is evidential:
Overall, Granada have averaged 44.9% possession in Spain’s top-tier over the course of the 2021/22 campaign. However, during Karanka’s tenure so far, this has drastically been reduced to 39.75%.
Possession, in and of itself, means absolutely nothing. You don’t get extra points for having more possession than the opponent. You don’t win games by having more possession than the opponent. Having more of the ball doesn’t even prove that a team have controlled the game.
However, being possession-oriented is a belief system employed by coaches. By having the ball, you physically cannot concede chances. Karanka doesn’t subscribe to this simplistic credence.
As a true disciple of the legendary José Mourinho, the new Granada boss believes that by defending deep, a side can control the game by controlling the spaces the opposition has to play into. This will be analysed in greater detail deeper inside this piece.
Something that Karanka had to determine upon arrival was which formation to deploy. So far this season, Granada have utilised almost every formation possible barring a few.
In the end, the Spanish coach has primarily selected his preferred 4-2-3-1, although he has been no stranger to a 4-3-3 too.
Given Granada have employed a plethora of different tactical structures in this campaign, the new manager had some wiggle room to play around with. In a recent draw with Celta Vigo, Karanka changed his side’s formation three times over 90 minutes, switching from a 4-4-1-1 to a 4-2-3-1 before landing on a 3-5-2.
Now, let’s take deep-dive into Granada’s tactics under Aitor Karanka, looking at the team’s tactics to see why they were unlucky not to stay in La Liga.
Long balls, long balls, and more long balls
Generally, when we write tactical analysis pieces on a team’s set-up in possession, the build-up phase is one of the first areas discussed. This first phase is pivotal for most teams in the modern game to entice the opposition to press them high up the pitch before trying to play through the pressure.
In Granada’s case, analysing their structure in this phase of play would be reductive. Karanka doesn’t care about our persistent yearning for alluring build-up patterns. He wants to hold hands with Sean Dyche and Sam Allardyce as the trio watch meteors crashing into the earth’s core, destroying life as we know it. Only, they’re not meteors. They’re footballs pumped long from the goalkeeper.
In all seriousness, though, there is something wonderful about creating an efficient support structure around a long ball, and Granada utilise the entire team when going direct from goal-kicks.
Looking at this example, Granada have gone long to the centre-forward, Jorge Molina. The 40-year-old has the perfect support around him necessary for the team to retain the ball in this higher area.
The wingers have closed in, preparing to run in behind if the ball is flicked on, while the three central midfielders are ready to collect it in case the ball is knocked down. Even the back four have closed in, completely narrowing the structure, allowing there to be several players ready to gang up and win it back.
Winning the first contact doesn’t matter at all, once the second ball is obtained. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are a wonderful example of this due to their lack of height in the forward department but innate ability to recover possession from second balls.
During the Spanish manager’s very short stint in charge so far, Granada are averaging 41.7 long balls per 90, boasting an accuracy of 55.4%. This doesn’t seem like a whole lot but given that the minnows are averaging merely 39.75% ball possession per 90, it’s quite a high volume.
Furthermore, exactly 15.51% of their passes under Karanka have been long balls, according to Wyscout’s data. Meanwhile, the average for La Liga this season is just 12.4%.
The side are very well-drilled from these long ball situations and are able to create chances out of nothing. An example of this would be Granada’s fifth goal from a recent outing against Mallorca.
The ball was hoofed long from the goalkeeper. Granada’s players closed in together in their 3-5-2/5-3-2 shape, keeping within minute proximity of one another. One centre-forward dropped to challenge the aerial ball while the other ran in behind, and this led to the team being through on goal.
Such a simple pattern of play as Karanka’s side created a goalscoring opportunity within two passes, a move that would have put a massive grin on the face of the late statistician Charles Reep.
However, when a team are struggling for form and need a boost, simplicity always trumps complexity.
Crossing is the key
Continuing on from the idea of simplicity, Granada’s primary attacking variation in the final third is crossing the ball into the box. Crossing has always been a key component of any team led by the former Nottingham Forest boss.
Once Granada reach the final third, the players create wide triangles and overloads in order to give themselves the best chance of getting into good crossing positions.
From these types of situations, El Graná can execute some combination play to try and find the free man who can cross the ball into the area where players are waiting to attack it.
The key principle during these scenarios is to ensure that there is plenty of movement, particularly from some players making runs in behind the backline to stretch the opponent and create space to cross.
Halfspace runs a great way of doing this as it allows the ball-carrier to go into a 1v1 battle with the fullback/wingback on their side before attempting to whip one into the penalty box for the forwards.
Often, teams like to be unpredictable with their crossing by mixing things up. Sometimes players will try an early cross, an inswinger, maybe an outswinger, a by-line cross, a low cross even — but Granada’s approach is very conventional and somewhat predictable.
Looking at the team’s crossing positions since Karanka took to the helm, there is a clear emphasis from the dugout to put deep balls into the mixer from the flanks or halfspaces. This is akin to the variation preferred by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kevin de Bruyne.
From the team’s recent outing against Real Betis, in the 2-0 defeat at the Estadio Benito Villamarín, Granada attempted 17 crosses in total into the box, in the hope that one of the team’s forwards would latch onto the end of them.
Most of these crosses were down the right too, using the crossing ability of both Santiago Arias and Antonio Puertas to try and break down Manuel Pellegrini’s Copa del Rey champions. A considerable number of these attempts were in deep crossing positions.
Only 6 of the 17 were successful, with none leading to a goal as Granada went scoreless for the ninety minutes. Nevertheless, the intent was certainly there.
High pressing to low block defending
Karanka loves a mean low block, as any true disciple of José Mourinho would. However, like the current AS Roma boss, many people have created a false narrative that the Spanish manager is averse to high pressing. This simply isn’t true.
Throughout the course of the season, across three different head coaches, Granada have averaged merely 27.8 pressures in the attacking third per 90, the fourth-lowest in La Liga behind Cadiz, Elche and Espanyol.
But during Karanka’s tenure so far, El Graná are averaging 30.9, a sharp increase, albeit not an overly staggering incline.
Under the new boss, Granada press in an option-oriented zonal fashion. In layman’s terms, the ball is the main point of reference. Players follow the course of the ball, with one man pressing the ball carrier while the rest mark the nearest passing options or lanes. If it’s switched to the opposite side, the team shifts across, and the closest player applies pressure on the ball while the rest mark the nearest options once more.
This type of pressing is a mix of regular zonal pressing and strict man-for-man pressing, while the structure depends on the formation that Karanka deploys on the day.
Nonetheless, it’s quite difficult to quantify whether Granada’s pressing is successful or not. On the one hand, the team have scored three goals already during his reign from pressing situations. However, their pressing success rate sits at merely 26.4%, which is lower than under the manager’s two predecessors this season.
Once Granada’s high press is broken, the team subsides into a medium-level defensive block, keeping very compact vertically and horizontally, shifting from side to side as a unit, irrespective of the formation.
Granada take a zonal approach in this mid-block phase. Players are tasked with marking and applying pressure to any players that enter their zone, as can be seen from this example against Atlético Madrid where the minnows are defending in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
The middle third of the pitch is also where Granada are most active in the defensive phases under Karanka. Since his arrival, 48.1% of the team’s total pressures have come in this area.
As the opponent progress further and further up the pitch with the ball, Granada have no qualms about dropping off into a deeper block. The principle remains exactly the same as in the second defensive phase, only their lines are even more compact.
Karanka wants the lines of his midfield and defence to be very close together, squashing the opponent’s ability to play the ball into this dangerous area.
Once the space between the lines is closed off, Granada force the attacking team to play into the wide areas where they will attempt to regain possession of the ball by being aggressive with their defending and pressurising.
This data visual displays all 69 of Granada’s defensive duels from their 1-1 draw with Celta Vigo at the beginning of May. 45% of their total duels were in the defensive third while 88% took place in the wide areas, including the halfspaces.
The defensive statistics have seen an upturn too which has allowed Granada to pick up some huge points including a goalless draw with the European giants Atlético Madrid. Before Karanka’s arrival, Granada were averaging an expected goals against (xGA) of 1.7 per game — this has now fallen to 1.26 xGA, although the sample size is much, much smaller.
Nothing changed too drastically once Karanka stepped foot inside the Nuevo Estadio de Los Cármenes. However, the team pressed higher, conceded fewer chances, defended better as a unit and played to their aerial strengths by being more direct compared to his predecessors.
Granada were devastatingly relegated and will spend the next campaign in Spain’s second division. However, Karanka’s work in such as short space of time should give optimism of a bounce straight back to La Liga, providing his contract is extended beyond the season.