The international break is back after what felt like two years instead of two weeks, and Barcelona fans will finally watch the beginning of the Xavi Era. And it seems almost poetic that Xavi’s managerial debut will come in the Barcelona Derby against Espanyol.
After a season in the second division last year, Espanyol came back strong and are having an excellent start to this La Liga campaign. They come into Saturday’s match with the same 17 points as Barcelona and have conceded fewer goals despite playing an extra game, and Espanyol don’t look like having any issues staying in the league and will probably avoid the relegation battle.
How are they doing it? With solid, well-coached team football. Watching Espanyol isn’t particularly impressive or exciting, but all 11 players know what they’re doing and they have more talent than you’d expect from a newly-promoted side. That is a good formula for staying up, which is their only goal for this season and one they will most likely achieve.
Espanyol don’t shock you with any tactical innovations and don’t do one thing extremely well. They are solid in all aspects of the game, but their strength is defending. They are currently fourth in the table in goals conceded, although the advanced stats will tell you they rank in the bottom three in non-penalty Expected Goals (per fbref), which shows there’s some luck and a lot of really good goalkeeping by the interminable Diego López involved in that defensive record.
Tactically speaking, they follow a very simple 4-4-2 base. Regardless of who they face, Espanyol aren’t very fond of pressing on goal-kicks and prefer to keep a mid-block that tries to win the ball back in midfield.
Espanyol’s main defensive objective is to stop the opposition from progressing the ball through the middle. All they want is for the opponent’s possesion to end in a cross, trusting that the back four and López will deal with the aerial danger. The numbers back that up: entering action this weekend, Espanyol have conceded 230 crosses, most in the league and a whopping 45 more than the next team on the list, and they’re second in corners against.
They are very much a bend, but don’t break defense that is happy to allow teams to fire crosses and shots from distance but will try their hardest to stop chance creation through the middle. It has worked so far, but with a little bit of regression to the mean they won’t be a top-five defense for too long.
In attack, Espanyol are far from the most creative offensive team in La Liga. They only rank 13th in xG, though they do improve a little bit to 10th when you exclude penalties from the equation. They are not an ugly offense that goes long all the time, however: Espanyol do play out from the back in most of their goal-kicks and try to progress the ball through the ground to midfield, and sometimes you can see as many as seven players in attack.
For a team that averages just under 46% possesion per game, they do a lot with the few opportunities available. And most of what they do is centered around the man circled in the picture above: Aleix Vidal. The former Barça man is a crucial piece of the system, whether he plays as a right-back or right winger in their 4-2-3-1 formation. Vidal keeps the width at all times and has the license to go forward as much as he wants. And whenever the ball reaches Vidal in a crossing position, the rest of the team knows that it’s time to attack the box and there are always at least four players ready to receive a cross.
The main recipient of all those crosses is striker Raúl De Tomás, who received a deserved call-up to the Spanish national team this month thanks to a great start to the season. De Tomás is tied for second in the top scorer list with seven goals, and most of them have come from crosses. De Tomás has fantastic movement in the box, and one of his favorite moves is to fake a run to the far post only to dart towards the near post and get to the ball before his defender.
Apart from the crosses from the right side, though, Espanyol don’t do anything else especially well in attack. They do try to pass it short and make some combinations in and around the box, but unless Sergi Darder can come up with a perfect through ball down the middle there is not much else they are able to create.
All in all, this is very much a mid-table team playing their hearts out every week looking to avoid a relegation fight. An injury to Vidal or De Tomás would destroy them, and the defensive liabilities will catch up with them eventually. But for now, Espanyol have a solid team that is high in confidence and knows it can get a result at Camp Nou against a Barça side starting a new era with several injuries to key players.
Expect a tough one on Saturday night.