In an age where players have social-media highlight reels and are identified, scouted and hyped aged 14 or younger, it feels incredibly rare for a breakout season to occur at 22. But that's exactly what has happened with Bryan Zaragoza, who in the space of just six months has gone from playing a bit-part role with Granada in Spain's second tier to signing for Bayern Munich for €15 million.
It's been a staggering rise. In October, the forward scored two stunning goals in a 2-2 draw against Barcelona which led to his first call up for Spain. And when he debuted against Scotland, he became just the fourth Granada player ever to represent La Roja, and the first for almost 50 years.
It has all happened so fast, and by modern standards, so late. Last season, in the Spanish second division, a 21-year-old Zaragoza was effectively used as an impact sub; he started just six games across the entire season. In fact, it was only in the final three games of last season -- against Mirandés, Lugo and Leganés -- that something clicked. He started two of those games and scored in all three, playing a major role in leading Granada to the title and promotion back to LaLiga.
From then on, he's been a key player and a sure-fire starter -- even in stepping up a division. He's scored five goals and assisted two in 11 starts this term, a phenomenal return for a team that are struggling badly at the bottom end of the table. He's averaging 2.9 successful dribbles per 90, which is joint-second-most with Nico Williams (Athletic Club) and behind only Vinícius Jr. (Real Madrid). Zaragoza has carried the ball into the final third 38 times, the fifth-most in the league; he's carried the ball into penalty area 28 times, also the fifth-most in the league. In both statistical categories, it's largely just Real Madrid and Barcelona players ahead of him.
Bryan Zaragoza puts Granada on the board early with a goal against Barcelona.
He does everything with searing pace and unnerving directness. He's not just fast, he's lightning fast, and his balance while moving at top speed is exquisite. Watching him change direction, cutting in and out of stride, sending defenders sprawling, is a remarkable experience -- for a taste of it, watch those goals against Barcelona in the October game that led to that Spain callup.
Bryan Zaragoza uses two fakes before scoring a goal to to put Granada up 2-0 on Barcelona.
To say he's been Granada's Most Valuable Player this season would be an understatement, yet as recently as March, he was having to make do with half an hour off the bench against the likes of Racing Santander and Sporting Gijón. It's an almighty leap in ability and confidence that has confused many, but the reasons behind it are interesting.
Firstly, the issue of size. Zaragoza is as diminutive as they come: 5-foot-5 and skinny. Rafa Salguero, a former Granada talent scout watched him bounce around southern Spain, taking on trials at Málaga, Real Betis and Real Valladolid but never sticking. "No one took the step with him," he told Ideal. "I think there were prejudices due to his height and tactical shortcomings."
Simply put, Granada took a gamble others weren't willing to when they signed him in 2019, eager to harness obvious natural talent and smooth out his rougher edges. The sheer number of street and pickup games Zaragoza had played up until this point had made him an extraordinary dribbler, but left gaping holes in his tactical knowledge and general understanding of the game.
"He [Zaragoza] told me that it was Paco López [Granada's promotion-winning manager] and his coaching staff who had taught him to understand football," Salguero added. "Bryan has gone from being a player who only looked for one-vs.-one on the wing to being able to act in intermediate zones and focus more on the team."
Granada's then-reserve team manager, Rúben Torrecilla, said much the same to AS: "At a tactical level he had to improve. He liked to attack, but it was difficult for him to defend. Coach López has done a good job with him."
It seems as though the penny dropped for Zaragoza somewhere in those final three games of the promotion season, when he ran three defences ragged in must-win scenarios. Now he's the club's leading light as they vie to stay in the top division, switching in and out of different formations comfortably and contributing in every phase of play from the wing. The pressure and attention on him have steadily mounted over the course of 2023 but he hasn't so much as batted an eyelid.
"He is a player who doesn't care about pressure," Torrecilla said. "He doesn't care about playing in front of 200 people, 500, 2,000, 10,000 or 20,000, he doesn't care. He tries, and tries, and tries."
It's little wonder he took his Spain debut so easily in stride, in front of a watching nation, at the famous 57,000-seater La Cartuja stadium in Seville.
Bayern fans will have to wait a little while before they see him strut his stuff at the Allianz Arena, as Zaragoza insisted on staying at Granada on loan for the rest of the season in order to try and save them from relegation. Fellow Bundesliga club RB Leipzig activated his release clause but wanted him to move in January, so he turned them down.
That gives Bayern the chance to step back and assess over the next six months which, despite already landing his signature, should prove extremely valuable. After all, like the rest of us, the German giants are probably still catching their breath after his whirlwind 2023.