Despite all the struggles this season, sitting in the twentieth last position in La Liga, Espanyol is looking good in Europe. After securing the seventh position last season and qualifying for Europa League football, Espanyol have won their group and were facing the English side Wolves in the round of 16 tie. However, it hasn’t ended well for the Spanish team, letting in four unanswered goals and practically burying any chance of coming back in the next game at RCDE Stadium. Espanyol were flying to England without two key players – their striker Raul de Tomas and midfielder Marc Roca. I believe that missing of the 23-year-old Roca was the significant reason that the Periquitos conceded that many goals this Thursday. After coming through the ranks of Espanyol academy, in his first two full seasons, he became the most important man in midfield, controlling the tempo of the game and providing defensive security at the same time. In this scout report we will look at some of his best qualities, what role he plays in his current team and what can he bring to any potential clubs that want to buy him.
Position and role
After sacking Pablo Machin and appointing Abelardo in the late December, Espanyol have been playing mostly 4-4-2 formation, with Roca playing as a central midfielder.
However, he was also operating as an only defensive midfielder in some games this season, for example in the game against Leganes in December. Roca is playing mostly in the middle third, that is where he is positioned almost all game, and his heatmap for this season shows that.
You can see that he occupies all the middle third, and not only the central areas, but he is also providing the cover on both flanks of the pitch too. In later sections of this analysis, we are going to see how his smart positioning and body orientation helps him and his team to prevent attacks right in their core. Roca is not the fastest player, so his great sense of positioning allows him to compensate for his lack of pace and even make it insignificant.
Apart from his defensive qualities, Roca also has something that differentiates him and puts him on another level in comparison to other defensive midfielders in La Liga, and that is his passing. He is excellent at controlling the flow of the game, distributing the ball on every part of the pitch and feeding the attackers with through and long balls.
In this section of the scout report, we are going to look at some qualities that Roca has that allow him to be so solid defensively. Let’s begin with his positioning and anticipation. As we saw in the previous section, Roca is not restricted to play in one specific area of the pitch and he can position himself where he thinks he will get most out of the situation. In the example below, you can see how Roca starts moving towards the opponent before he receives the pass, allowing him less time on the ball and eventually making a tackle on him. What is also interesting, is that before marking that opponent himself, Roca told his teammate on the right to mark him, but when his teammate kept following the other player, Roca did it himself. It is one of the examples where Roca is showing his leadership qualities and guide his team.
In most cases, Roca follows the same strategy as in the example above by moving towards the opponent and pressing him from the back. Roca is six feet tall, and he is able to try and get the ball even if the opponent shields the ball off of him. His clever body positioning definitely helps him with that. In the example below, you can see that Roca is putting pressure on the opponent from the back and is ready to tackle if he has the chance to do so.
So, Roca is oftentimes trying to stop the attacks and get the ball back to his team. One of the important aspects of his defensive game that surely worth mentioning is his fouls. According to Wyscout, he makes 2.3 fouls per game this season, which is quite a lot considering the fact that not his every stoppage of an attack which is breaking the rules is counted as a foul. It is important for a player like him to be able to tactically foul the opposition and prevent an attack. What is important is that Roca gets yellow cards on very rare occasions, approximately one every five games which is very impressive and shows that he mastered the art of tactical fouls. It becomes very tough to get past him when he challenges you as he can make a tackle or if that isn’t working he can stop the game with a foul.
One of the valuable traits that Roca has is his understanding of where and how to provide cover for players. When the opposition team enters his third, and he sees that the opponent with the ball is left 1v1 with his teammate, he will move closer to the ball and occupy the space that was left by his teammate. We can see the example in the image below when the Espanyol’s right-back is chasing the opposition No.7 and Roca sees that and gets into his position so if his teammate gets beaten he can instantly provide the cover for him and try to get the ball himself.
Statistically, Roca shows great numbers this season in all competitions, averaging 4.02 interceptions, 9.25 recoveries in the opposition half, 1.21 clearances and 2.2 tackles. He is putting up a great volume of defensive contributions this season, despite playing in a struggling side and not being the only midfielder tacked with defensive duties.
As was mentioned earlier, Roca makes around two tackles per game this season, averaging 2.4 in the La Liga. His manner of tackling is determined by how he plays with the opponent 1v1. We saw earlier that his body positioning makes it hard for the opposition to turn around or even keep the ball when they just got it. But if the opponent is already running, Roca is following him closely and tries to tackle wherever he has the chance to. Usually, he is forcing the opponent to lose the ball either with an unsuccessful pass or with Roca getting it himself.
Overall, Roca is a great defensive player, contributing a lot to his team in that department, covering the spaces and preventing attacks. Despite having the worst defence in the league, I believe without his contributions the matters would only get worse and Espanyol won’t have a chance in the relegation battle. Now, with the team starting to acquire points and being only two away from the safe seventieth spot, there is a fair chance for them to stay up.
Roca is very good defensively, but his passing ability, vision and great technique are the traits that differentiate him. He is a great distributor of the ball with a wide range of passes.
Most of his passes are obviously passes between the defensive line and midfielders in the build-up. However, even here he is able to pick smart passes that can confuse the opposition. He is very important in Espanyol’s build-up, picking good passes that move the ball around. He tends to play very vertical passes that get his team up the pitch very quickly and this is one of his main weapons. He is quick on his feet, and he also is excellent at working under pressure and making quick decisions. Below you can see his passing map in the game against Mallorca. He only made 27 passes, which is way below his average of 49.5 passes per game. However, it still gives you an illustration of Roca’s passing patterns. You can see that in his own half he mostly makes backward passes to centre-backs and more rarely full-backs, exchanging passes with them in the build-up and giving the rest of the team time to regroup, make runs, etc. When we move on to the passes in the opposition half, you can see that their direction immediately changes. He makes forward passes from both half-spaces to the wingers or strikers who are drifting wide. It is a small sample of passes, but it gives an idea of Roca’s passing play.
As mentioned earlier, he makes a lot of vertical passes, and below we can see an example of that. One of the strikers is drifting wide and frees himself up between the lines, and Roca is making a pass to him, leaving four Bilbao players behind.
This is one of the main patterns of his play, he picks his teammates who are in the final third or are open between the lines and makes a perfect pass. It is very important for Espanyol as it allows them to break several lines of pressing with a couple of passes and without Roca, it becomes much harder.
He is good at these kinds of passes, but he also provides some danger in the final third. He is left-footed, so he operates from the right half-space or the right side of the pitch a little bit more often, but he can release the attackers with his through and long balls from the left too, just like in the example below. He sees Wu Lei(number seven) making a run between Alba and Lenglet, and the Frenchman is focused on the ball and he isn’t aware of Lei’s movement. Roca launches a through ball to Lei in the exact right spot in the penalty area.
Because of Espanyol struggling with right tactics and approach this season and the overall downgrade of the level of play you can see less of those passes performed by Roca but he is capable of making them and being one more playmaker in the final minutes, just like in the previous example against Barcelona. He possesses real threat with his vision and technique, and he has experience of playing as a number-six and even as an attacking midfielder, which shows that he has the qualities for playing in that position.
In this tactical analysis, I have analysed the important aspects of Roca’s abilities. However, he obviously has a lot of things to improve, that doesn’t leave out the fact that he is already a brilliant player. There were a lot of rumours of Roca leaving the previous summer. He was linked to Bayern Munich, but he decided to stay in his boyhood club for one more season.
The Espanyol midfielder apparently has a release clause of around 40 million so it will be tough for Espanyol to keep him around even if they manage to stay up. I believe his summer move will definitely happen, and with such a reasonable clause in his contract, a lot of clubs from other top leagues will be very interested in him, especially Premier League teams. He is still only 23 and can develop in any system, already having the necessary traits to succeed in any of them. From watching him play and seeing his leadership qualities on the pitch I can say that with the right manager he can become a world-class midfielder for many years to come. But before any of that, he has unfinished business in Spain with his current club.