After a glamorous win against Villarreal on Sunday, Barcelona will be hosting 20th-placed Espanyol on Wednesday. Ahead of such derby, this tactical analysis will examine the strengths and weaknesses of RCD Espanyol, who would be officially relegated to the Second Division in case of defeat.
On Wednesday night, the Camp Nou will host a Catalan derby full of history and rivalry but that will take place under unusual circumstances. First, of course, due to the absence of fans, which are always invaluable in such local meetings. And second, because the two teams facing each other will have a lot of stake, yet a positive or negative result could change their situation next to nothing.
Barcelona come from beating Villarreal by 1–4 on the weekend, in what arguably was the best collective performance in the Quique Setién era. That said, the blaugranas continue to be four points behind leaders Real Madrid, who have the La Liga title within their reach. Meanwhile, RCD Espanyol are sitting in the twentieth position in the table, and they are destined to be relegated. A defeat against their city rivals Barça would officially see them drop down to the Second Division.
It has been a season to forget for RCD Espanyol. A season to forget after an unforgettable season. The 2018/19 campaign had seen Espanyol reach the European spots for the first time in twelve years, lead by a fully cohesive team with Joan Francesc Ferrer Rubi as the coach and striker Borja Iglesias as their top goalscorer. It was all joy and celebrations at Cornellà, but what would follow was disaster.
The two most important figures of such side, manager Rubi and centre-forward Borja Iglesias, left to Real Betis in the summer of 2019. Although Betis had finished lower than them in the table, the project seemed more encouraging than Espanyol’s. In spite of the on-pitch success, the institutional instability from the Periquitos became evident in the following course.
President Chen Yansheng has not been able to cope with the troubles at the club, which have provoked, among others, a sporting failure, a triple change of coaches, and the sacking of directors Roger Guasch and Óscar Perarnau. Following the exit of Rubi last summer, it was B team manager David Gallego who was appointed as his replacement. It looked promising at first, for having been at the club for many years, but two problems came together: some limitations in the squad – such as not having signed a proper forward after Borja Iglesias’ departure –, and the inability to optimise the resources in the squad.
The team registered its second worst start to La Liga in 25 years, and Gallego was sacked in October after Espanyol were 19th in the table. Former Girona and Sevilla tactician Pablo Machín was hired, but he couldn’t revert such negative form and, 77 days later, he was shown the exit door when the team was standing in the 20th position.
Abelardo looked to provide some tactical assurance to Espanyol | Photo by AFP7 via Imago
Abelardo Fernández, an expert at dealing with such complicated situations as shown during his time at Sporting Gijón and Alavés, was chosen as Machín’s replacement. The early signs were very encouraging. Abelardo acted with coherence, using simple yet easily applicable ideas such as a 4–4–2, defensive organisation, wing play and lateral crosses, and verticality. Espanyol drew 2–2 against Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona, and the signing of star striker Raúl de Tomás from Benfica just made the levels of hope skyrocket at the RCDE Stadium.
But, while the Catalans gained momentum, the coronavirus break heavily hurt them. While they beat Deportivo Alavés by 2–0 in the return of the competition, since then it has been one draw and five losses for the Blanquiazules, with a tragic streak that has all but confirmed their relegation to the Second Division.
Still, before hosting Real Madrid a week and a half ago, and in a state of maximum desperation, the Espanyol presidency decided to sack Abelardo. He hadn’t done that bad, and many fans saw him as a coach more than good enough to manage them in the second tier in the following campaign. But rushed decisions were taken once more.
After Abelardo, Francisco Joaquín Pérez Rufete, who had previously been acting as the sporting director of Espanyol, was announced as the interim coach for the remainder of the season. He hasn’t managed to revert the team’s fortunes either, with two losses in two matches. Tonight they will be visiting the Camp Nou, the stadium of their great city rivals Barcelona, and if they lose again their relegation will already be official in spite of three more games being left.
Last five league finishes
2014/15 | 10th · 49 points
2015/16 | 14th · 43 points
2016/17 | 8th · 56 points
2017/18 | 11th · 49 points
2018/19 | 7th · 53 points
A frequent problem with Espanyol in recent seasons is that they had often fallen in positions of indifference. Not close enough to the red zone, but neither to the European spots. Good enough to survive, but not to progress and make a step forward. Until last campaign, in which Rubi sent them to the international competitions for the first time in twelve years thanks to a seventh-placed finish in La Liga.
After immense optimism following a decade of indifference came the tragedy. Now Espanyol, with 11 points less than 17th-placed Eibar and with only four matches remaining, are on the cusp of their fifth relegation in history. The previous ones had been in 1962, 1969, 1989 and 1993, the last one being 27 years ago.
Despite having won only four Copas del Rey and no La Liga titles in their history, Espanyol are a historic club in Spain. In fact, after Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic Club and Valencia – the former three have never tasted the Second Division –, Espanyol are the fifth club with most seasons spent in the top flight of Spanish football: 85 in total. Now, though, the counter will be stopped as Espanyol will be returning to what’s said to be the hell of football.
The first two matches from Rufete as the first team manager, especially considering he is an interim manager, are not enough to reveal his tactical preferences. Still, he has continued along the operating line from former coach Abelardo. If last term under Rubi Espanyol were characterised by their search for possession, in recent months they have mostly tried to rely on a lower block and direct attacks in order to survive in the division.
In January, after their alarming situation in the table, Espanyol decided to make some important additions to their squad. Mostly, Getafe centre-back Leandro Cabrera, Rayo Vallecano attacking midfielder or winger Adrián Embarba, and Benfica centre-forward Raúl de Tomás. They have all made a contribution, but it has by no means been enough to fix all the collective problems.
The problems started in midfield | Photo by Eric Alonso via Getty Images
Rufete, like Abelardo, has been using a 4–4–2 or 4–4–1–1 with a more natural striker like Raúl de Tomás as the reference, partnered up by a secondary striker like Wu Lei or Embarba himself. One of the reasons for the huge difference in the Periquitos’ performance this course compared to the last one, though, has been in midfield. Espanyol decided to modify what was already working a year ago.
Pivot Marc Roca alongside Óscar Melendo and Sergi Darder as interiors, all of them raised at their academy, sounded like a perfect combination for a 4–3–3. Nevertheless, when Espanyol switched to a 4–4–2, all struggled. Melendo and Darder, in particular, and in spite of their brutal technical quality to operate in central positions, have mostly been deployed as wide midfielders in the flanks. This has not benefitted them nor the team.
Espanyol don’t have the worst attack nor the worst defence in La Liga, but the second-worst attack and the third-worst defence. Still, with 27 goals scored and 54 conceded, they are sitting rock bottom with the worst goal difference in the competition: –27. They have better individual talents than the likes of Leganés, Mallorca or Eibar, but it is the lack of consistency and poor tactical work behind the team what has damaged them through all these 34 league games so far.
Player to watch: Raúl de Tomás
In January, Espanyol welcomed 25-year-old centre-forward Raúl de Tomás as their saviour. The former Benfica, Rayo Vallecano and Real Madrid man certainly deserves much better than to be fighting to avoid relegation. And, when he arrived, it was already proved that he could be decisive wherever he went. The Blanquiazules‘ best player by some distance, he made an immediate impact as soon as he arrived.
In fact, Raúl scored four goals in his first four matches with Espanyol. Lethal, self-sufficient, excellent both in and around the box, capable of generating chances out of nowhere…Espanyol, with full-backs that make no contribution going forward and midfielders that feel uncomfortable in their respective positions, may well be the team with the worst attacking structure in La Liga. Thus, and especially with the sale of Borja Iglesias, they needed someone that could create opportunities and score goals on his own.
Raúl de Tomás has been too good for Espanyol | Photo by Aitor Alcalde via Getty Images
Nevertheless, after his four opening goals, R.d.T. hasn’t scored since, picking a couple of injuries along the way. When fit, the problem has obviously not been him, but the context. While he is very autonomous, Espanyol have barely had any automatisms to progress the ball and they have greatly struggled to send balls to Raúl de Tomás.
It is undeniable that Barcelona are utterly superior to Espanyol. Individually, the differences are obvious. But even collectively, and despite Barça’s several problems over the season, the blaugranas are far more cohesive and have way more clarity than their local rivals.
“We will fight until there is a silver lining”
Francisco Joaquín Pérez Rufete
Espanyol interim coach
Espanyol being last in the table certainly is not by chance. Everything that had gone well for them last season has collapsed or has been brought down. Defensively and offensively, on and off the pitch, they have been the embodiment of instability.
With that being said, and even if they are virtually relegated already, Espanyol will be playing for their lives tonight. With nothing to lose, and with the passion that a derby generates, Rufete’s men will be ultra motivated in their visit to the Camp Nou. As if there was no tomorrow.
The numbers behind Frenkie de Jong’s revival at Barcelona
How has the shift away from a double pivot and into the right side of a midfield trio affected Frenkie de Jong’s performance and with it Barcelona’s?
Coming into this season, many believed the arrival of Ronald Koeman would help get the best out of Frenkie de Jong. In Koeman’s Dutch national side, de Jong had been one of the star performers, giving fans reason to be optimistic.
To open the campaign, Koeman implemented the 4-2-3-1 he had utilized with the Netherlands, which placed de Jong on the left side of a double pivot in midfield. While the former Ajax man played well, a more recent tactical shift away from the 4-2-3-1 has seemingly allowed him to reach new heights.
Starting with Barcelona’s away victory over Huesca, de Jong has played on the right side of a midfield three in the new midfield implemented by Koeman. In that more advanced role, the Dutchman’s freedom to roam forward has noticeably increased. He seems fresher, happier, and more impactful on the course of the match.
With that in mind, what do the numbers say about de Jong’s recent performances? What is he doing more of? What is he doing less of? How is this helping the side? Time to investigate.
Moving across and up
To start off, how about a little visualization of this role change? In theory, there should be significant differences between the positions de Jong was taking up earlier in the season compared to recent matches. Looking at where he played his passes from certainly backs this up.
It has been quite the shift. Not only has the Dutchman transitioned from the left half of the pitch to the right, but also higher up towards the opposition goal. In these last four La Liga games, de Jong has been operating much less in the defensive half of the pitch, plus one can see his territory stretching further to the attacking penalty area.
What about the areas de Jong has played his passes into?
Some more basic trends are visible. As the left pivot, one can see de Jong’s hot zone extending diagonally towards the left-wing. As the right interior, he seems to be passing to a more refined, central position, often in the right half-space.
An additional method that can highlight these differences is clustering de Jong’s actions. This allows us to see which passing patterns he repeated with the most frequency. For instance, his top clusters for passes played in the double pivot further reflect his tendency to play out to the left-wing.
That first cluster does show some activity higher up the pitch on the right, but outside of that, it is all passes played from the wide left or left-central positions. In comparison, de Jong’s pass clusters for the last four matches show him favouring shorter combinations from slightly to the right of the centre of the pitch.
The same can be done with the passes for which de Jong was on the receiving end of. Doing so provides further insight into his movement to get on the ball. Once again, the early season shows that left side dominance, and also just how far back de Jong was playing.
All of those lateral switches the Dutchman received in the defensive half, the short passes from the likes of Clément Lenglet, and the back passes from the attacking third all point to a deep-lying playmaker. Fast forward to his time as the right interior, and things look very different.
For one, we can see his passes received up and down the right flank. Additionally, there have not been as many deep passes received around the Barcelona box. Instead, de Jong has been getting the ball further into the attacking third, even in and around the penalty area frequently.
So, simple observation and data show the Dutch international phasing into a new role. Now that the basics have been established, though, the true insight has to be drawn from how this shift has made de Jong more productive. Given the new positions he is taking up, he must be contributing to different aspects of the game than he was before.
Adopting a new statistical profile
Moving to different areas and playing passes to different zones is only what is on the surface. To dive further into the Willem II academy product’s transformation, what matters most are the different actions he performs in these areas.
In order to investigate this, de Jong’s stats in matches on the right of the midfield three can be compared to his stats in the double pivot. To level the playing field between different metrics that occur at varying volumes, percent change will be utilized.
In this case, a positive change, or per cent increase, reflects an action he is performing with more frequency in the last four matches than in the opening sequence of the season. There are twelve key metrics which have increased by 10% or higher and five, which have more than doubled (over 100% increase).
Note: These stats are provided by Football Reference via StatsBomb. They have all been adjusted on a per 90 minutes scale.
Right off the bat, it is clear to see the increased freedom and dynamism in attacking areas. His non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes have shot up dramatically by 256%. Furthermore, he is carrying the ball into the penalty area far more often. Getting much more involved in creating goals — goal-creating actions are the two offensive actions leading directly to a goal.
The increases are not just on the offensive end, too. The Dutch international has been a more active ball-winner in his new role, with tackles, interceptions, passes blocked, and successful pressures all up. More specifically, his tackles and pressures in the middle third of the pitch have increased, reflecting the fact that he is now able to step up further on the pitch when out of possession.
In short, de Jong has been more active in the attacking penalty area, supplying a spark to create chances or get on the end of them himself, while also taking advantage of the freedom to step out and press with more intensity.
On the other end of the spectrum, what has de Jong started to do less frequently?
The most significant decrease has been to his switches of play, or horizontal passes across the pitch. As a right-footed player, de Jong was much more suited to playing these switches from the left side of the pitch because he could cut inside and ping the ball across.
Elsewhere, the inverses of his increasing metrics can be seen. By staying in the middle third more often and moving up to join the attack, de Jong has to take up fewer responsibilities in the defensive third.
Furthermore, there have been drop-offs in several metrics associated with playing deeper. The Dutchman is getting involved in fewer aerial duels, fouling less, and playing fewer long balls, which was also reflected by those pass clusters.
It might be surprising to see that his passes into the penalty area have dropped. Still, given that his carries into the penalty area and his shooting numbers have increased, this reflects the fact that de Jong is getting into these advanced positions with the ball himself as opposed to playing it in.
With these metrics taken into account, one can appreciate what has truly made de Jong so effective recently. The new role has given him more freedom and room to roam, but he has taken great advantage of that with brave runs, incisive play, creativity, and ball-winning.
While the sample size is still small, this new role seems to be the best one for Frenkie de Jong going forward. Not only does the 4-3-3 allow the Dutchman to shift up and make the most use of his strengths, but it allows him to play into the team’s success as well.
With a player of de Jong’s calibre, it should not be surprising that what seems to be his best span of matches at the club so far has yielded four consecutive convincing wins. That is the type of impact he was brought in to make, and it is brilliant to see it unfold.
Of course, there are more difficult tests in the future for de Jong in his new role, but from what he has shown so far, there is a lot more to look forward to.