For the best part of a decade, Espanyol have been La Liga’s perennial mid-table club, rarely flirting with danger nor seriously threatening the European positions. Coaches have come and gone following largely forgettable reigns but finally this year it appears the Catalan club may just have found the right man to spark genuine, positive change. As the halfway mark in the season approaches, Espanyol boast the second longest unbeaten run in La Liga and summer appointment Quique Sánchez Flores appears to have found the right formula.
He has sparked a dramatic turnaround in a side that had La Liga’s worst defensive record last term with an embarrassing 74 goals conceded. The initial signs weren’t too good this term either with some comical defending contributing to Espanyol’s 6-4 defeat on the opening day at Sevilla. Few could have predicted then, that just four months on they’d be forging a reputation as one of Spanish football’s meanest defensive outfits.
That transformation has taken time to take shape and a 2-0 defeat at home to Celta Vigo on match-day six left the former Valencia and Atletico Madrid boss with just 5 points from 6 games on his return to Spanish football. Already Espanyol fans were starting to resign themselves to another lacklustre bottom half season but since that match, things have improved immeasurably and it’s not particularly hard to pinpoint why that’s happened.
After experimenting with various formations in the opening weeks, Sánchez Flores has mostly settled on a fairly orthodox 4-4-2 not dissimilar from the one employed with a fair degree of success at Watford last season. Following on from the late defeat to Celta, Espanyol hosted Villarreal and he brought in promising young centre-back Diego Reyes for his first start of the season in place of the injured Óscar Duarte. The Mexican, who impressed at Real Sociedad last term, helped his team to a 0-0 draw and has been an absolute rock at the heart of the defence since alongside the dependable David López.
Reyes hasn’t missed a minute of league action since that game and his successful partnership with López has been a key factor in his side’s ability to keep clean sheets in 7 of Espanyol’s 9 Liga games with him in the team, none of which have ended in defeat.
If that change was more brought about by necessity than inspired management, Quique Sánchez Flores can take more credit for some of the others he has made to make Espanyol much tougher to break down. He also brought on young left-back Aarón Martín for his first team debut in the Villarreal game and like Reyes, the 19 year old has excelled and his coach has rightly kept the faith.
Perhaps his most controversial choice has been to utilise key midfielder Víctor Sánchez in a full-back role for virtually the entire campaign. He has been Espanyol’s most consistent performer in the middle of the park in recent seasons but his calming influence has helped this new-look back four take shape and he has proved what an all-round quality performer he is by delivering some excellent displays at right-back.
In front of the back four, Javi Fuego has taken on the holding midfield role and has done a solid job of breaking up opposing attacks. Around him, Sánchez Flores has had to shuffle his pack at times and Espanyol’s midfield as a whole has been functional rather than fantastic but they’ve looked far more assured and understanding of the jobs being asked of them than they did during the often muddled reign of Constantin Gâlcă.
It has been a ‘back to basics’ approach in many ways and with Victor Sanchez playing further back and Marco Asensio having returned to Real Madrid, creativity did look as though it was going to be a problem. Fortunately though Espanyol seem to have hit the jackpot with the loan signing of Pablo Piatti from Valencia.
He is the one real flare player they have that transforms this newly organised Espanyol team from an ordinary one into something a little bit better. For someone apparently deemed surplus to requirements by a poor Valencia side, the Argentine has been nothing short of a revelation in Barcelona.
No player in La Liga can better his tally of 7 assists this season. With 5 goals to his name too, Piatti has played his part in 12 goals in total and only Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez can better that. The Barcelona duo have also spent far longer on the field than the Espanyol man, who has achieved such impressive figures despite missing 4 games and being replaced late on for tactical reasons in several others. He is that one player with an air of unpredictability about him, which complements the more disciplined approach of most of his team-mates very well. With Espanyol keeping clean sheets with such regularity, it has often only taken a moment of magic from Piatti or an expertly delivered set-piece from him to unlock an opposing defence and turn one point into three.
Up top Sánchez Flores has also being quite consistent in his selection policy with Gerard Moreno and Leo Baptistao enjoying long runs in the side and the Brazilian in particular has benefited from that after an inconsistent season at Villarreal, where he never really established himself in the team. At 24 both players still have youth on their side and given time they certainly could develop into a very effective strike partnership.
Therefore things are very much looking up for Espanyol as they bid to extend their 10 game unbeaten run in all competitions. Perhaps one concern in the longer term could be that several of their best performers this season have been loan signings including goalkeeper Diego López but that’s a problem for another day. This week they find themselves in the rare position of heading into a Barcelona derby at Camp Nou with a degree of cautious optimism.
Whether Espanyol’s much-improved defence has what it takes to hold off Messi, Suarez, Neymar and co remains to be seen but they certainly look a much more competitive outfit this season and a top half finish could be within their grasp.