Rewind to last summer and the customary predictions on who would be in the mix for the La Liga title were filtering through.
Real Madrid? Definitely. Barcelona? They'll be challenging. Atletico Madrid? You can't count them out.
Girona? What’s a Girona?
Located in northern Catalonia, Girona Futbol Club have sent shockwaves around the world of football as they compete for a maiden Spanish top-flight triumph.
Until 2008, the team had never participated in as much as Spain's second division and their highest-ever finish in La Liga is 10th, achieved in 2017/18 and the previous season.
Last summer they lost a series of key players, including productive winger Rodrigo Riquelme, and were seeking a large volume of replacements. Fortunately for Girona they’re part-owned by City Football Group, the company who own Manchester City and a portfolio of other clubs, one of which is Troyes.
Their association with the French outfit enabled them to sign a young, unproven Brazilian named Savio on a season-long loan deal.
Five goals and seven assists later, this 19-year-old sensation has flourished into one of the league’s most feared threats and is the attacking protagonist in Girona’s unprecedented ascent to La Liga’s summit.
We dissect Savio’s development from an unknown quantity into one of the world’s most highly-sought stars in the latest of our Scouting Europe series.
Growing up and working on a cow farm in São Mateus, Savio was on the books at Atletico Mineiro during his adolescent years and enjoyed a fruitful youth career.
His vast potential prompted the Brazilian club to offer him professional terms when he was 16 and his contract initially consisted of a $60million release clause.
Within a year Savio had made his first-team debut and had carved his berth in Atletico Mineiro’s squad.
The winger only made 35 appearances in Mineiro’s famous black and white stripes before his electrifying talent captured the attention of the world’s most astute scouting networks, with Arsenal and the Red Bull franchise clubs of Salzburg and Leipzig reportedly monitoring his progress.
Savio’s move to Europe was another example of how the global transfer market has evolved. European clubs no longer bide their time with South American prospects; they purchase them as teenagers, integrating them early in an attempt to accelerate the adaptation process.
In the end Savio was acquired by CFG and assigned to Troyes, who are one of the 13 clubs under the company’s supervision. He was immediately sent on loan to PSV Eindhoven but was used sparingly by Ruud van Nistelrooy, clocking just eight appearances as the Dutch side won the KNVB Cup.
With Troyes suffering relegation from Ligue 1, a return to France beckoned until Girona’s need for reinforcements led them down the path of Savio. Girona’s ability to lean on CFG’s vast network and resources allowed them to complete a series of shrewd deals in the summer window.
In Savio’s case, all areas of the business concurred that a stint in La Liga would be most beneficial for the player’s development.
Girona exceeded expectations with a 10th-place finish last term but their manager Miguel Ángel Sánchez Muñoz – better known as Míchel – is not one to rest on his laurels.
A 1-1 draw away at Real Sociedad was an early barometer of Girona’s competitiveness and while Savio was rather subdued on his debut, Michel’s system would soon extract the Brazilian’s brave and brilliant ability on the ball.
Michel’s philosophy is to attack at all costs and the success of his methods are evident. With 51 goals scored, Girona are La Liga’s highest scorers. Eight clear of Real Madrid, they’ve scored double the amount of 10 other teams in the division.
Their relentless attacking nature has resulted in a series of high-octane thrillers; 4-2 v Granada, 5-3 v RCD Mallorca, 5-2 v Almeria, 4-2 v Barcelona (!), 4-3 v Atletico Madrid and most recently, 5-1 v Sevilla.
Having a coach who strictly abides by this attacking ideology has been majorly beneficial for Savio.
In Spain, people love to have the chance to watch beautiful football, with players of technical quality, and Savio fits into this historical profile that Spanish football has always had.
Deco, Barcelona sporting director - December 2023
On paper, Girona typically line up 4-3-3 formation but their structure is fluid, evolving as they commit more men forward.
Savio predominantly operates as a left winger but has deputised on the right flank in the absence of Yan Couto or Viktor Tsyhankov, which enables him to cut inside onto his preferred left foot.
Patient in possession, there are constant rotations in Girona’s build-up and Michel encourages his players to exploit the spaces. In order to maximise the space, Savio is instructed to hog the touchline and stretch the pitch.
As Girona build out from the back, their sustained movement encourages the opposition to tighten their defensive shape and this in return gives Savio acres of space from which he can drive the team forward. Midfield lynchpin Aleix Garcia has completed the most switches of any player in La Liga this term, which is a major supply line to the exhilarating Savio show.
La Liga 2023/24: Progressive passes received
|Rodrygo (Real Madrid)
|Lucas Ocampos (Sevilla)
|Inaki Williams (Athletic Club)
This enables the Brazilian to get into one-on-one situations with a defender and Savio thrives when taking a player on, showcasing his electrifying speed and silky ball control.
What further aids Savio’s cause is the support of the dynamic left-back Miguel Gutierrez and the marauding centre-back Daley Blind.
When Girona are in possession, Gutierrez will navigate forward and play in the central channels, offering Savio with an alternative outlet in the final third. If a pass to Gutierrez isn’t on, Savio can look to Blind, whose hybrid role requires him to make endeavouring runs forward and there’s been occasions where the former Manchester United and Ajax defender will overlap.
Savio’s been handed all of the tools to make a success of his role on the flank and the winger has utilised them to full effect.
Savio excellent ball progression and ball protection plays a key role in Girona’s quick transitions into the opposition half, having recorded the second-most progressive carries (100) in La Liga behind Real Madrid’s Rodrygo.
And with Michel’s passing sequences creating one-on-one situations for Savio to embrace, the fleet-footed winger relishes taking defenders on.
No player in La Liga has completed more successful take-ons than Savio and the Brazilian ranks third across Europe’s top five leagues, behind Frosinone’s Matias Soule and Bayern Munich’s Leroy Sane.
La Liga 2023/24: Successful take-ons
|Nico Williams (Athletic Club)
|Bryan Zaragoza (Granada)
|Isco (Real Betis)
|Rodrygo (Real Madrid)
His explosive speed, precise control and abundance of tricks make him a dangerous proposition for any full-back and Savio is bold enough to vary his rhythm to get the upper hand on his opponent.
Savio has a tendency to lean on his stronger left foot which, if operating on the right, carves opportunities for him to cut inside and shoot. Having mostly been deployed on the left flank, Savio will target the byline when taking on a defender, easing past them before producing a cross.
Averaging over four crosses per game, a key component in Girona’s manufacturing of chances is their ability to deliver from wide areas and bombarding the penalty area with late runs into the box.
Interestingly, Savio doesn’t rank highly for the volume of chances he creates but the opportunities he does produce are of exceptional quality.
Not only is he top of the pile for assists in La Liga but he is a clear leader in the Expected Assists column, accumulating a handsome 6.7 xA which places him third across Europe’s top five leagues; only Sane and Bukayo Saka are ahead of him.
La Liga 2023/24: xA (Expected Assists)
|Ilkay Gundogan (Barcelona)
|Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo)
|Isco (Real Betis)
|Alex Baena (Villarreal)
The evidence of his high-quality chance creation stems further with Savio chalking up 16 goal-creating actions in the league so far this campaign.
He doesn’t shoot a great deal – he averages 1.21 shots per 90 – and yet Savio has proven himself to be an accomplished finisher from a series of distances and angles. His strike in the 4-2 victory over Granada CF flaunted his technique and power, firing a sublime effort into the top corner from outside of the penalty area.
Europe's top five leagues: Goal-creating actions
|Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa)
|Leroy Sane (Bayern Munich)
|Nico Williams (Athletic Club)
|Florian Wirtz (Bayer Leverkusen)
If Girona are to take their title challenge to the very end, sustaining Savio's productivity will be a key element.
Michel's side have proven as a collective that they're capable of conquering any side in the division and while they're not reliant on moments of individual brilliance, Savio is single-handedly capable of turning the tide in their favour if proceedings are not going their way.
Whether they're successful or unsuccessful in their quest for La Liga glory, Girona have constructed a fabulous underdog tale and reinvigorated a league that had become accustomed to the dominance of the elite.
It’s of little surprise to see a large quantity of clubs register their interest in Savio with the breakthrough season he’s enjoying.
Threatened by Girona’s emergence, the Spanish behemoths of Real Madrid and Barcelona will have no doubt eyed a deal for Savio with the view to directly weakening a rival.
The issue for them is that it will take a substantial fee to prise Savio away from Estadi Montilivi; unless you fit under the City Football Group umbrella.
Girona’s association with Manchester City ensures last year’s treble winners will be at the front of the queue and better yet, the Citizens will be entitled to a discount.
I have the goal of playing for (Manchester) City, yes. I think that when I was hired my goal was always to get to City and I'm working towards that.
Savio, December 2023
Pep Guardiola has a healthy track record with the incorporation of young South American attackers, with Julian Alvarez the latest to flourish at the Etihad.
There is of course the possibility that Savio moves to Girona on a permanent basis but with Man City at the top of the CFG food chain, what they want is ultimately what they get and according to latest reports, the reigning Premier League and Champions League winners have agreed a deal to sign Savio in the summer.
Savio has already represented Brazil at U15, U17 and U20 level and appears primed to make the transition into the national team in the coming years.
His performance at youth level on the international stage had generated excitement about his potential and now Savio is living up to the hype with his club form.
Since the start of time itself, the Seleção have been spoilt with a wealth of attacking riches. Their current crop lacks glamour compared to the iconic names of the past and yet competition in the attacking areas is intense.
After two defeats in November that have derailed their World Cup qualification campaign, the Brazilian football federation opted to part ways with interim boss Fernando Diniz and appoint Dorival Júnior.
Dorival’s arrival could prise the door open for Savio. He will be eager to earn his first cap but at such a tender stage of his development, time is on his side.
Savio could be the one who spears a new generation for the famous yellow and green.