Manchester United travel to Spain for the first leg of their Europa League quarter final tie against Granada on Thursday evening. The Andalusian club have enjoyed a remarkable run in their debut European campaign, eliminating Italian giants Napoli in the round of 32 on the way to reaching the quarter finals.
The Red Devils edged past AC Milan in the round of 16 with talisman Paul Pogba scoring the decisive goal in the 1-0 away victory at the San Siro. This is Granada’s first ever European encounter with Manchester United, or any English opposition as the club’s remarkable rise continues under manager Diego Martinez.
Who is Diego Martinez?
Diego Martinez came through Celta Vigo’s academy as a promising full-back who could play on either flank, before joining third division side Cadiz in 1999. However, months after swapping Galicia for Andalusia, his dreams of becoming a professional footballer were cut short due to injuries, with Martinez hanging up his boots at 20-years-old. Martinez immediately began his coaching career in Granada, managing the youth divisions of minnows CD Imperio de Albolote whilst also playing for their first team. Martinez continued his coaching development over the next few years with stints with Armilla, Tercera and Granada-based side Motril.
Martinez got his big break in October 2009 when he took a backroom role at Sevilla, where he managed the C team and the juvenile team before replacing Javi Navarro as Michel’s assistant manager to the first team. Martinez continued to impress and took charge of the B side in 2014, guiding them to promotion to the Segunda Division two years later and narrowly avoiding relegation from the second division. Martinez opted not to renew his contract, and was appointed as Osasuna manager on the 14th of June 2017. He left the club by mutual consent in May 2018 after failing to gain promotion back to La Liga via the play-offs.
Martinez returned to Andalusia and was named Granada CF manager on the 14th of June 2018 on a two year contract. The beginning of his time in charge of Granada did not get off on the right foot with the club failing to sell or rescind the contracts of Javi Varas and Raul Baena. This restricted the club’s transfer dealings which meant Martinez missed out on two transfer priorities identified at centre half and centre forward due to the Segunda Divisions salary limits. Martinez also had to deal with the loss of key players such as Matthieu Sanier, Joselu and Darwin Machis in a mass squad exodus which saw 12 players depart the club.
The appointment of highly regarded technical director Antonio Cordon coincided with some astute business in the transfer market with Granada spending a total of £70,000. Martinez identified attainable transfer targets which the club signed with the Alvaro Vadillo joining the club on a free transfer after winning promotion to the Primera division with Huesca. Whilst left back Fede Vico, midfielder Alex Pozo and midfielder Nico Aguirre joined Martinez in Andalusia with the aim of gaining promotion to the Primera division.
Martinez showcased his tactical acumen adapting a (4-2-3-1) formation, with a strong emphasis on defensive solidarity and high pressing. Granada earned promotion to the Primera division finishing second boasting the best defensive record in the league, conceding only 28 goals in 42 matches. Los Nazaries promotion back to the promised land was based on their exceptional defence, which typically consisting of Rui Silva as goalkeeper, and Victor Diaz, German Sanchez, Jose Antonio Martinez and Quini making up the back four.
Sporting director Fran Sanchez did an exceptional job reconstructing Granada’s squad in the summer transfer window ahead of their return to La Liga. The Andalusian club have the lowest budget in the entire Spanish top flight and have relied on shrewd business in the transfer market over the years to compete with the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and other clubs. The club signed Portuguese centre half Domingos Duarte from Sporting CP for £3 million, whilst Darwin Machis returned from his one-year loan spell at Italian side Udinese. Martinez tapped into his old connections at former club Sevilla and brought in Yan Brice Eteki and Carlos Fernandez both of whom played under him at Sevilla B. Perhaps the smartest piece of business was the signing of 34-year old striker Roberto Soldado who arrived on a free transfer following the expiry of his contract at Turkish club Fenerbache. Soldado quickly became a key player for Martinez’s Granada both on the pitch and in the dressing room, scoring 11 goals in 39 appearances in all competitions and forming a deadly partnership with Carlos Fernandez in attack.
Martinez showed his tactical flexibility during his first season in the Primera division alternating between his preferred (4-2-3-1) formation, and also experimenting with (5-3-2) and (4-4-2) formations depending on the opposition. Martinez led Granada to their best ever league start with them achieving 20 points from ten matches, with Los Nazaries briefly topping the La Liga table. Los Nazaries most famous victory in their first season back in the top flight came against defending champions Barcelona in a 2-0 victory at Nuevo Estadio de Los Carmenes. Despite a mid-season loss of form Granada enjoyed a cup run reaching the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey before being eliminated by Athletic Club. Upon resumption of the season after Covid-19 pandemic Granada climbed the table and got themselves into the European positions. The impossible dream was realised when Los Nazaries thrashed Athletic Club 4-0 on the final day of the season which sealed European qualification for the first time in the club’s 89 year history.
Diego Martinez has taken Granada from the Segunda Division to the Europa League in just two seasons, and at 40 years old is the youngest manager in La Liga. He is building a legacy that can last a lifetime in Andalusia and a famous victory over Manchester United could prove to be another milestone in his remarkable career so far.