Understated Eibar continue to show size doesn't always matter

Only Barcelona and Atlético can match Eibar’s results over the last three months as another unlikely run at Europe continues

Iván Ramis took off his shirt and put his hat on, a flat red porkpie perched on his head as he stood in the corner of Butarque where a couple of dozen Eibar fans down from the Ego valley were going wild in wigs: some red, some blue and some Scottish, ginger locks tumbling from tam o’ shanters. As he had flung his top high into the air before running towards them shouting, they had thrown the hat on the pitch; so he wore it, along with a smile that even the referee trotting over with a yellow card couldn’t wipe from his face. “I don’t know why he took his shirt off but what am I going to say?” his manager José Luis Mendílibar shrugged .

How about something in German, French or Italian? “Entschuldigung, wo ist das Fußballstadion?” might be handy. Or: “Bonjour, bonjour, nous sommes les garçons Eibar!” Better still: “Ciao, siamo l’Eibar, magari non avete sentito parlare de noi ma siamo fotutamente bravi.” Either way, it may be time to get practising and Mendilíbar knew why Ramis had taken off his shirt, alright: the same reason he was struggling to be heard, sitting there under the stand. Eibar’s fans had gone, a four-hour drive home ahead of them, but beyond the wall, down the corridor to the right, their players were shouting and chanting. It was Saturday night and they’d beaten Leganés 1-0 – but it wasn’t only that; it was how it happened and what it meant.

The clock showed 93.03 when the corner was curled in from the right. Mostly, it had been tedious but as time went on Eibar closed in, creating chances. Yet while there had been 18 shots there had been no way through. At Butarque, they thought it was over; back in Barcelona, where commentators sit in a little booth with an even littler telly, they thought so, too. They were summing up. “Eibar have been clearly the better side but you have to take a bazooka out to beat Leganés because they’re a team that …” started one. “Look out!” the other said. And then he said: “Gol!” About 30 times. Ramis headed past Pichu Cuéllar and off he went. Shirt off, hat on.

“It was late but they deserved it; it was not strange, it was a consequence of the game,” Asier Garitano said, reeling off a long list of elements, from loose balls to long balls and second balls to high balls, passes to crosses and tackles, and adding: “Eibar won it” at the end of each. “It was the 94th minute, which hurts more but we came across a team better than us,” he said.

When the ball hit the net, it carried Eibar into sixth place. Stay like this and they will be in Europe next season. Slip down a place, as they did with Sevilla’s victory over Girona the following morning, and they almost certainly will be, too, what with Barcelona and Sevilla facing each other in the Copa del Rey final. Even if they don’t – and like last season when they found themselves in a similar position and eventually finished 10th, they might not – what they’re doing is remarkable, despite being all too rarely remarked upon.

Leganés’ manager Garitano is a shareholder and former player at Eibar. Asked about them on Saturday night, he replied: “I’ve said it before, it’s barbaric.” Others have said it, too, but not often enough; they are few and somehow it gets forgotten, so it is worth saying again:

Eibar are playing only their third [fourth now] season in primera and, while it’s true they were relegated at the end of their first only to be reinstated because of Elche’s economic problems, that was exactly what everyone expected, little more than logic. They’d initially been blocked from going up in the first place basically because they were too small. It’s only three and a half years since they were in Spain’s regionalised, 80-team, theoretically amateur Second Division B, and they came up from the Second Division A despite having the league’s smallest budget. And the only reason Eibar increased the stadium from the already expanded 5,173 it held on that opening day was that the league made them, and the town has a population of 27,378. To put that in perspective, every person there could travel to the Santiago Bernabéu and there would still be room for 53,666 Madrid fans. It’s not like there’s a hinterland either: Bilbao and San Sebastián are within an hour. They’re still the smallest club around.

That paragraph was written here last year but it still stands. At €45.3m, less than a third of the cost of Ousmane Dembélé, only debutants Girona, who beat Madrid and have been extremely impressive, have a smaller budget – and they, of course, have Manchester City behind them. Barcelona’s squad cost €711m more to assemble than theirs; Madrid’s cost €485m more; Sevilla, who they sit one point behind, and who they hammered 5-1 a week ago, have a squad who cost 10 times as much. This winter, they signed Fabián Orellana from Valencia, where he was no longer wanted. “It’s strange seeing him here,” Mendilíbar said. “I still don’t know how we conned him into coming; he’s a player for one of those clubs that’s supposed to be up there.”

Up where Eibar are. “Our aim at the start of the season is to spend another year in primera and we have not reached that objective yet. If we can do that, maybe we can enjoy the final 10 games,” Mendilíbar said, while Ramis added: “Let’s hope this run continues and we can dream of other things.”

Fabian Orellana shields the ball for Eibar.
Fabian Orellana shields the ball for Eibar. Photograph: Shot for Press/Action Plus via Getty Images

Mendilíbar conceded: “At the start of the season, no one expected this. Being in sixth is extraordinary, yes.” Their play, on the other hand, isn’t. Or so he says. “It should be easy to play against us,” he said.

At the start, Eibar struggled. Pedro Leon and Adrián, their most important creative players last season have not played a minute – Adrián left for Málaga while Pedro León has been injured – and they were beaten seven times in their opening 11 games. “We had to get back up again,” Mendilíbar said. They overcame that run and it is strength and stability that most impressed Garitano, leading him to say that while there may be some parallels between Eibar, Girona, Getafe and Leganés, smaller teams all lurking near(ish) to the final European place and, in his case, reaching the Cup semi-final, Eibar remain “way ahead”. Since then Eibar have won eight, drawn three, and lost once – a frankly fortunate 1-0 victory for Atlético at Ipurúa. Only Diego Simeone’s side and Barcelona can match their results over the last three months.

“We’ve had it easy so far; I don’t know how we would have reacted to that,” Garitano said. Eibar knew how to react – and that is precisely the point. When Mendilíbar said his side were easy to play, he wasn’t talking about the resources. He was, instead, talking about the style, and the clarity he underlined is part of the key. “We’re the team that’s easiest to analyse, we don’t do anything extraordinary. We insist upon what we do well and we hardly ever change: we like to win the second ball, get it out to the wing, put the ball in, get a shot in. Any team, or any media analyst, knows what we do each week.”

The Eibar model: another kind of football is possible.

What they do works. Eibar are not, for all the lazy clichés, a tough team, they’re not an especially defensive team and they’re certainly not a dirty one but they do deny opportunities and space to their opponents, forcing them back, and they do play on a pitch so small and so tight to the stands that opponents train corners without a run-up in the week before facing them. In the whole of Europe, only Manchester City have faced fewer shots and in Spain only five teams have taken more. They are direct, they press high and they deliver more crosses than anyone else – by a long way. They have put in 632; Real Madrid, second, are on 574, Barcelona on 255.

“In theory, it should be easy to play against us, no?” Mendilíbar said but, no, it’s not. If it is simple, it is effective, which is why they have lost only once in three months and are seventh, heading into Europe; it is also why Ramis was standing there on Saturday night wearing a porkpie hat. “It’s not chance,” Garitano insisted. “They’re very good.”

Talking points

• And so everyone’s favourite question made a comeback. Is there league? Maybe there is league, you know. José Bordalás’s Getafe became the first team to stop Barcelona scoring a league goal for 449 days – in the first half they didn’t even let them shoot – meaning Barça have now dropped four points in two weeks and their lead over Atlético Madrid, who seem to be approaching peak Atlético Madrid, is now only seven points. “We still have to sweat this league a lot,” Valverde said.

Getafe’s Vicente Guaita makes a save from Lionel Messi.
Getafe’s Vicente Guaita makes a save from Lionel Messi. Photograph: Albert Gea/Reuters

• The European Cup returns and so did Real Madrid, which may not be purely chance. They scored five against Real Sociedad.

• It was 1-1 in the Valencia derby when Coke’s goal to make it 1-2 was disallowed after a defender tumbled in the area in front of him. Which would have been fine, only it wasn’t Coke who had pushed him, it was his own team-mate. And in the very next move Valencia went up the other end and made it 2-1, to end a six-match losing run. No wonder Levante were furious.

• Abelardo’s revolution keeps on rolling. They might not always be brilliant but, boy, are Alavés putting up a fight. Survival draws closer with every week.

• Sergio Rico saved a penalty and pretty much everything else as Sevilla scraped past Girona 1-0, and afterwards dedicated the performance to Antonio, a cancer patient who had been through a 16-hour operation on his head. “I took strength from him,” Rico said after he had made two big mistakes in a row and had some supporters on his back. “We had a SuperKeeper in front of us,” Pablo Machín said.

• Celta drew 2-2 with Espanyol, for whom Gerard Moreno was their everything, again. He’s now got almost half of their goals and played every single minute of the season so far, the only outfield player to have done so. He got an equaliser right at the end after Celta had dominated once more.

Athletic 0–0 Las Palmas, Villarreal 1-2 Alavés, Málaga 0–1 Atlético, Leganés 0–1 Eibar, Real Madrid 5–2 Real Sociedad, Sevilla 1–0 Girona, Barcelona 0–0 Getafe, Celta 2–2 Espanyol, Valencia 3–1 Levante. Playing on Monday night: Deportivo v Betis.

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Barcelona 23 49 59
2 Atletico Madrid 23 25 52
3 Valencia 23 18 43
4 Real Madrid 22 27 42
5 Villarreal 23 6 37
6 Sevilla 23 -5 36
7 Eibar 23 -2 35
8 Celta Vigo 23 7 32
9 Girona 23 1 31
10 Getafe 23 5 30
11 Real Betis 22 -8 30
12 Leganes 22 -2 29
13 Athletic Bilbao 23 -1 28
14 Real Sociedad 23 -2 26
15 Espanyol 23 -10 26
16 Alaves 23 -12 25
17 Levante 23 -14 20
18 Las Palmas 23 -33 18
19 Deportivo La Coruna 22 -27 17
20 Malaga 23 -22 13