Can Abelardo Fernández save Espanyol from relegation?
Underperforming in xG, xGA and XPTS, Espanyol begrudgingly calls the La Liga cellar home. With just 11 points in 19 games, the club recently hired its third coach in the current season.
Enter Abelardo Fernández, the 49-year-old Spaniard who spent his playing days at centre-back for Barcelona, Sporting de Gijón and Deportivo Alavés while also earning 54 caps for Spain. Of his former clubs, the team he hasn’t managed is Barcelona. Now, he returns to the city of Barcelona, but he’s crossed into enemy territory with Espanyol.
A memorable opening game draw against Barcelona was a great start to his Espanyol tenure. With his new side sitting in 20th place midway through the season, Abelardo will have to quickly pinpoint the necessary changes and implement his coaching philosophy at the club.
In this tactical analysis, we’ll look at what’s ailed Espanyol thus far, look at Abelardo’s tactics from his previous coaching posts and offer an analysis of what’s to come. If Abelardo can repeat his relegation saving performance at Deportivo Alavés, he’ll save a club and eat for free at select Barcelona restaurants all the days of his life.
Abelardo’s first course of action is to figure out who fits his tactics and where to play them. This season, Espanyol’s coaches have shown little consistency in formations, starting XI or player positional roles. To a large extent, this comes down to opposition specific tactics and tinkering for the sake of solving the team’s many issues. As you’ll see below, Espanyol has not used any formation for even a quarter of their matches. The side is heavily rotated with a host of player combinations.
Expect Abelardo to remain faithful to the 4-4-2. It’s easy to train, highly structured, and creates simple, yet effective, connections across the field. His biggest issue is determining which players to trust with so little time left in the season. Only goalkeeper Diego López, holding midfielder Marc Roca, and highly-adaptable Sergi Darder are sure starters. If Abelardo continues to play defensively in the middle with David López next to Roca, Darder would likely move to either left-midfield or a second-striker type role.
Where has Espanyol suffered?
Throughout the season, Espanyol has made a concerted effort to pressure the opponent receiving the ball. Often times, they pressured with very little discipline, overcommitting their numbers near the ball and leaving massive holes in their defensive shape. The best description of Espanyol’s defensive approach this season is a high-press mentality in a low block. Over and unstructured pursuit has hurt Espanyol’s ability to defend, especially in the central channel, while also forcing their transitional attacking outlets in more varied starting points. That last point has seen them resort to hit and hope type balls forward. Perhaps worse, when the players take their time to pick out a pass, the high positional variation has led to too much time on the ball and turnovers in the defensive third. Lack of discipline and poor play at the back has led to opponents enjoying 1.89 goals per game average off of 1.26 xG. If there is an upside, it’s that goals against is due to regress, moving closer to xG.
Here we see Real Betis in the midst of a switch of play. Notice the four players who were in the vicinity of the ball, the four players in the box and the one central player transitioning to first defender.
Seven seconds later, look at the difference in the line. The ball is now on the border of the right-wing and half-space. Betis bypasses all five defenders and has a three versus two in the central channel. Espanyol over-pursued in this instance, as common occurrence due to its pressing tactics, and didn’t account for the Betis central overload.
Fortunately for Espanyol, Betis made a mess of the matter. If you look closely, you can see the outstretched arm of the left-centre Betis forward asking for the ball at his feet. His teammate tried a cheeky chip over the top, losing possession and a great opportunity to goal.
Poor build-up and service
2.16 counterattacks per game leading to 0.37 shots per match for a lowly 17.07% of counterattacks resulting in shots. In contrast, opponents are averaging 3.89 counters per game producing 1.26 shots, a 32.43% success rate. Espanyol ranks eighth in the league with 50.64% possession per game. The issue is that those possessions aren’t creating many chances, leading to few shots on goal and leave Espanyol scrambling to recover defensively. Many times, Espanyol look rushed into action, leading to either a poor decision or subpar technical execution. When entering the attacking half or under any pressure, an instinct to send the ball high up the pitch and progress quickly seems the default, even when it isn’t there.
In this instance, Espanyol collects the throw-in and switches the point of attack. Looking at the Leganes imbalance on the right-wing, it’s a great decision to play centrally. If it acts quickly, a possible three versus two scenario awaits them. A point of contention is the movement of Didac Vila on the far side of the field. Rather than pushing higher up the field to pull his defender away from Darder, Vila drops deeper, reducing the need for the Leganes right-back, Roberto Rosales, to account for his mark, transitioning more centrally to contest the threat of Darder.
The switch of play is slow, allowing Leganes to recover its ground. Darder is begging for the ball at his feet. You can see his outstretched arm pointing to his right foot. Fernando Calero made a mess of the play, sending the ball long, over the top, resulting in a turnover. Had he simply played Darder and Vila positioned himself higher and wider, he would have given Darder more room to operate and, maybe, had a chance to run in behind himself. At this point, Leganes had all threats covered anyway.
On the season, Espanyol is averaging a reasonable 10.05 shots per game, but only 3.11 shots on target per match, leading to a dreadful 30.89% shots on target. In terms of goals per game, the side averages 0.74 goals per 90 minutes, underperforming its already poor 0.96 xG per game. The finishing is so dismal there’s a four-way tie for the distinction of “leading goal-scorer” on the team, two of whom are centre-back Bernardo Espinosa and defensive midfielder Roca.
Abelardo’s Tactics at Sporting Gijon and Deportivo Alavés
In the attack, Abelardo’s sides didn’t mind playing the second ball. His side wasn’t the standard Spanish side that could play its way out of heavy pressure. Given that Gijon and Alavés were among the smaller clubs in La Liga, it’s no surprise that it utilised the two high targets. Abelardo will surely recognize his Espanyol side has similar aesthetic limitations.
True to his playing days as a tough centre-back, Abelardo’s Gijon was defence-minded and willing to deliver a hit. In the attacking half of the field, they would look to funnel opponents to the wings and press them hard. It wasn’t uncommon to see all 11 players on one vertical third of the pitch. Too often, recoveries led to balls played immediately forward only to be turned-over with new lanes to outlets outside of his team’s press. When defending in its defensive half, a highly structured 4-4-2 was standard.
Here you see Abelardo’s Sporting Gijón pressing aggressively in the left-wing. Nine of the ten field players are there to contest the throw-in.
The gamble initially paid off. Gijón won the throw, but choose to simply play it high up the pitch. Though Gijón had numbers in the area, so did the Eibar.
Eiber won the first and second ball, then quickly played out of pressure and initiated the counterattack. With so many players committed to such a small area of the pitch, any ball landing near an Eibar player’s foot had a chance to break pressure and start the counter. While Eibar didn’t score on this play, Gijón’s aggressive defensive tactics left loads of space for Eibar to break pressure and quickly progress up the field.
Fixing the defence
In Abelardo’s first match as manager, the team prioritized defensive shape over pressuring the ball. As we saw earlier on, Espanyol had previously pressured each pass, often with multiple players committed to pressuring and blocking short passes. Aggression and intensity were present, but a cohesive tactical approach was lacking.
Espanyol is surprisingly good at pressing high up the field. Expect Abelardo to engage in an aggressive press in the opponent’s half, but with the understanding that third defenders must recover their ground, giving the team a more compact defensive shape. That was one of the issues Abelardo had at Gijon, though it’s fair to say that he’s inheriting a more talented side that has never shown a lack of desire in defence.
Within the 4-4-2, watch for Espanyol to grant their opponents a greater share of possession, allowing the Periquitos to sit further back and counter. While the first game against Barcelona was going to result in the wide possession disparity with or without Abelardo, don’t expect many departures from that approach. With as little attacking prowess as this team has at its disposal, it simply can’t afford to concede. Watch for the low block with numbers behind the ball.
Here, in Abelardo’s first game, we had a really nice example of his tactical development. In this brief run of play, we saw the Espanyol defence move from the middle to defending on its right, then tracking across the field to defend against the switch of play.
Rather than committing most, or all, of his field players into the wing, Abelardo had his men keep their shape. As Barcelona played to its left, Espanyol moved perfectly as a team to defend the play. As Espanyol’s right-midfielder, Victor Gomez hurried out wide to defend Jordi Alba, allowing the backline to remain intact.
A switch of play saw Espanyol follow their marching orders back across the field. Roberto tried to beat Vila on the dribble, but Bernardo was there to cover his teammate, shielding the ball out of bounds. A great defensive approach held Barcelona at bay for most of the first half and the better portion of the game.
News broke earlier in the week of a record signing for Espanyol, smashing the previous club record of €10.5m for Matias Vargas. Raúl de Tomás arrived from Benfica with an initial fee of €20million deal which includes €2m in add-ons. Additionally, Benfica will retain a 20% sell-on clause. Though his six months at Benfica were hugely disappointing, he’s a goal-scoring threat with both feet and his head. Several of his top career goals came in transition on the dribble with shots from outside the box. Given Espanyol’s finishing woes, R.D.T. represents a huge upgrade up top. Last season, he grabbed 14 goals in 32 games for Rayo Vallecano. The Spaniard will immediately slide into the starting lineup, offering a much-needed threat up top.
A common advantage of playing a 4-4-2 is numerical superiority in the wings. Per WhoScore.com, Espanyol succeeds in the fewest dribbles per game of any team in La Liga with a paltry 6.8. We saw them verse this trend in Abelardo’s first match in charge, with Espanyol attempting 27 dribbles, completing 13 for a 48% success rate. Look for Espanyol to veer away from a second ball approach and look to incorporate the wingers more often. That’s true to Abelardo’s approach at Sporting Gijon Deportivo Alavés.
Here we see Abelardo’s Gijón winning the ball in its box and looking to spring a counterattack.
After the interception, the ball is quickly played forward. The initial pass is central to the outlet. Meanwhile, the two wide midfielders push high and wide to offer their services in the attack.
As Eibar started to close the gap in the central channel, the ball was played wide into space. In Espanyol’s game against Barcelona, we saw this simple, yet effective, pattern emerge throughout the game. Expect the trend to continue, increasing the number of dribbling attempts and wins for Espanyol.
Underperforming in xG and xGA shows that this Espanyol side has been unlucky this season, but also hints of some mistakes and soft goals. Abelardo must correct these issues right away. With the team expected to play a more rigid, defensive style, expect improvements in those categories. This Espanyol side has the talent to make a turnaround and secure a stay in La Liga. Though they entered the winter break with just 11 points, their expected points for the season currently sits at 19.17. While that only moves them to 17th out of 20, it should offer Abelardo and the team hope of securing results in the second half of the season
The club has stated their intentions of upgrading the roster to secure safety. De Tomás is the first signing, but more are sure to come. Securing upgrades at centre-back and one of the wide midfield positions will greatly aid Abelardo’s side in the stretch run. Regardless of the arrivals, Abelardo’s first game in charge shows that he will demand a disciplined approach from his squad. Anyone who fails to meet those standards will watch from the bench. Expect fight, discipline, and quick counterattacking from Espanyol.
Look for the derby draw against Barcelona to act as a springboard for the second half. Four points from safety, they face a difficult task. Based on expected points, Celta Vigo, currently in 17th, has put in performances comparable to an 11th placed side. Ahead of Celta is Eibar on 19 points. While catching Celta Vigo and Eibar is not outside the realm of possibility, Espanyol will have to rack up some wins against teams in the bottom half of the table. Fortunately, Espanyol is set to host all of their immediate competition, from 15th to 19th, in the second half of the season. Abelardo saved last-place Deportivo Alavés from relegation back in the 2017-18 season. With that experience under his belt, look for Espanyol to show marked improvement in the second half and sneak into safety.