Leganes near La Liga fairytale

Eibar sent a shockwave through Spanish football when they claimed an unlikely promotion to La Liga in the 2013-14 season. The tiny Basque club won their first ever promotion to the top flight and did so with the Second Division’s smallest budget. At the time it was dismissed as an anomaly, but just two seasons later Leganes, a team based in the southern outskirts of Madrid, are replicating Eibar’s low-budget march towards the top division.

Led by 46-year-old coach Asier Garitano, no relation to but a friend of Eibar’s promotion-winning Coach Gaizka Garitano, Leganes have worked their way up the standings, from 17th to second. With 17 matches remaining, the Madrid outfit find themselves in one of the two automatic promotion spots, four points behind leaders Alaves and one point ahead of third place Real Oviedo. An undefeated December and January of six wins and two draws manoeuvred Leganes into automatic promotion contention and fans in southern Madrid are beginning to dream of trips to Camp Nou and Santiago Bernabeu.

The fans at Leganes’ 8,000-seater Butarque Stadium were content enough with last season’s 10th place finish. After spending a full decade in the regionalised 80-team Second Division B, the fans of Los Pepineros were happy enough with winning promotion to the second tier of Spain’s footballing pyramid in 2013-14. The board of directors, however, held loftier ambitions. Although many outsiders, and some fans, expected Leganes to be contesting a relegation battle this term, it hasn’t even nearly turned out that way thanks to the hard work in the offices of Butarque over last summer.

Despite working with the third lowest playing budget of the entire second division, one that is only larger than those of Huesca and Gimnastic de Tarragona, Leganes assembled a winning squad without spending a single euro. Their most important signing of the summer was arguably that of sporting director Txema Indias, who was brought in after impressing in his role with Second Division B club Toledo, and assigned the unenviable task of putting together a competitive team with zero budget for signings. Acquiring players solely through free transfers and loan deals, Indias was successfully able to bring in quality footballers and, according to Marca, Leganes now has the fifth most valuable squad in the division.

Indias and Garitano, both from the Basque Country, were able to gain the priceless trust of some of the largest clubs in the country and the continent. As such, highly-rated young talents such as Pablo Insua, Gabriel and Guillermo were signed on loan from Deportivo La Coruna, Juventus and Athletic Bilbao respectively. The pair’s Basque connections helped to form that partnership with the Bilbao club and, as well as Guillermo, Athletic also loaned Inigo Ruiz de Galarreta and Unai Bustinza to the capital city club until the end of the season.

Despite their links with Athletic Bilbao, Leganes were unable to snap up one of the most highly sought-after free agents of the summer market, Gaizka Toquero, who was leaving Athletic after seven season and who instead signed with current league leaders Alaves, where he has been brilliant. Had Leganes been able to secure his signature, they could be in an even stronger position and their title rivals Alaves in a worse one.

The Madrid club did, however, manage to sign some other exceptional talents on free deals and added nine free agents in total, the most impressive of which is without doubt the half-Polish and half-Argentinian left-winger Alexander Szymanowski. Signed by Danish side Brondby in the summer of 2014 for a mighty €1.75m price tag, Szymanowski featured for the Danish side far less often than he had anticipated and was also struggling to adapt to life without his family, who were still based in Madrid, the city where he grew up.

Leganes had been following his situation closely and, although it was complex, they were able to help Szymanowski terminate his Danish contract and return to his hometown. He has been nothing short of exceptional for Leganes since his homecoming, scoring 10 times from the wing already this season, while providing six assists.

The style of football has, admittedly, not always been inspired watching. Leganes are defensively solid, conceding the fewest goals of the entire division, while they have kept the second most clean sheets.

Results have been useful, if not always thrilling, with fans enduring five goalless draws already this campaign. Yet the football is effective and nobody will be complaining if this is the price to pay for Leganes’ first ever ticket to the top flight. Even if Leganes do fall into a late season funk and ultimately miss out on promotion, this can still be considered a successful season for a club which should really just be happy to avoid relegation. That is why it pays to set your ambitions high because if you shoot for the moon you may still land on a star if you miss.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, the key to Leganes’ success is that Indias knows how to get the best players out of the resources he has available, while Garitano knows how to get the best results out of those players. Just as a similarly intelligent recruitment policy was key to Eibar’s success two seasons ago, another small club with no right to dream of La Liga football is now doing exactly that. Size is finally proving to be no barrier to the Spanish top division.