Loaned out from Barcelona this summer with just one Copa del Rey appearance under his belt, few expected Marc Cucurella to hit the headlines when he joined La Liga’s Basque minnows, Eibar. Ernesto Valverde decided that he wasn’t up to scratch after two pre-season appearances and didn’t hesitate to loan the 20-year-old out with an option to buy.
“This guy isn’t quick, he’s not strong, in every test that we do with the machines we have, he doesn’t even feature. With those stats, you’d never sign him,” his new coach at Eibar, Jose Luis Mendilibar, explains. “But he’s very clever, he chooses well, he’s a great footballer, that’s Marc Cucurella.”
Here, our tactical analysis will provide analysis of how the Spaniard has performed on loan at Eibar from Barcelona in La Liga.
Getting the best out of him
A left-back throughout his rise through the Barcelona ranks, he had struggled to breakthrough at times. With fierce competition with Juan Miranda at Barcelona B, he finally nailed down a regular spot in 2017/18 as first choice left-back. However, he knew that the start of this season would be a battle to see who would be the alternative to Jordi Alba. Valverde deployed him in his favourite position against both Tottenham and Roma in the International Champions Cup, but eventually opted to choose Miranda and send Cucurella out on loan.
Once in the Basque Country, it took Cucurella some time to find his way into the team. Initially competing for the left-back role, he did not make his debut until the game against Espanyol on 25th September, again in defence. He made the move to left wing initially as a substitute in October, then getting his first start in that position against Real Valladolid in November.
Since then, he has thrived. Not returning to defence once since the switch, it is in this more attacking role where Cucurella has found opportunity at Eibar. Having made just two starts in three months at left-back, he has become a regular in the more advanced position, contributing in attack and also getting back to provide defensive cover.
Adapting to Eibar
Cucurella has also been aided by the way in which he has settled in. Tactically, Eibar take a far more direct approach than he was accustomed to at Camp Nou, and early on it was obvious that it was a challenge he would have to overcome.
Whilst the average Eibar player makes over six long passes per game, Cucurella has averaged less than half of that figure this season. It is easy to see why, given that on his debut he attempted to play in a similar style and instead frequently lost possession. Rushing to play the ball long, he would repeatedly hit long balls first time, completing just one of seven attempts.
There have been signs of improvement, picking and choosing when to play a long pass and when not to, but also as he has gained the confidence to take a few touches and take his time on the ball. Whilst he has rarely reached anywhere near the numbers of long passes of his team-mates, he has had games, such as against Getafe, where his numbers have been lower but with a much higher accuracy. It is small steps for a player accustomed to a significantly different style, but he’s making progress.
Cucurella lacks the strength and physical presence of other Eibar defenders, winning just 28.4% of his aerial duels, but this issue has been avoided through his change in position. In the more advanced role, he is not relied upon to contribute defensively in the same way. He can also play shorter passes interlinking in attack, rather than looking to play long passes to transition attack to defence.
Intelligence and work rate
One of the most impressive aspects of Cucurella’s game play lies in his number of recoveries and interceptions. Responsible for 13% of his team’s interceptions in an average game, his excellent anticipation and reading of the game mean that he often leads the way for the two key figures as his team look to win the ball back and set themselves on the attack.
Whilst he has changed his game to adapt to the more attacking position, he ensures that his defensive abilities are put to good use. With pace and work rate which cannot be questioned, he harries opposition defenders and pressures them into making mistakes, often forcing them to rush into passes. It is a crucial way in which Cucurella looks to start attacks, with 58.9% of his recoveries coming in the opposition half. This is even more impressive given that he started the campaign at left-back.
This is also one of the aspects which set him apart from his team-mates. Whilst many of them have no problem in applying pressure, players like Fabian Orellana, who often lines up alongside him on the right flank, struggle to read the game in the same way. In this regard, his La Masia training is clear.
What will be interesting to see in the years to come is how Cucurella would fare in a side which applies a high press. At Eibar, that is most certainly not the case, yet he does so almost single handedly. If deployed alongside an organised unit pressing high, as executed by the likes of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, it could have an even stronger impact and allow the youngster to thrive.
A lack of tangible return
There are countless positives to Cucurella’s recent form but the biggest concern that remains is very little in the way of two of football’s most basic statistics: goals and assists. Two assists against Real Madrid saw his name hit the headlines for the first time, but he has provided just one other assist, against Alaves two weeks before that famous victory over Real Madrid, and one goal, in the Copa del Rey against Segunda side Sporting Gijon.
Mendilibar has kept the faith with Cucurella in attack, believing that he in an instrumental part of his team’s attacking set-up. That decision has not been questioned, but Eibar have enjoyed some strong form and, particularly compared to some recent years, have not struggled for goals.
When doubts begin to arise, perhaps during a goal shortage which may be inevitable should top scorer Sergi Enrich depart this summer, it could lead to questions about the role of Cucurella.
His contribution in attack is clear, providing the first line in defence and adding real energy and enthusiasm which helps to drive his team forward. Yet, whilst he is still adapting to the position, he is lacking the all important finishing touch which could determine whether Barcelona one day consider bringing him back to Camp Nou or not.
From his 18 games in the attacking role, he has failed to get a single shot off in half of them. That may raise the question of whether it is that Cucurella is not finishing well, or whether he is not in the positions to get the chance to do so. Given that he is rarely on the last man or arriving in the box at the right time, it appears to be a natural challenge as he adapts to his new role, rather than a fundamental flaw, but he needs to begin to show signs of improvement sooner rather than later.
On the face of it, Cucurella is much more suited to be Alba’s long-term replacement than Miranda at Barcelona. Like Alba, he has left the club, reinvented himself as an attacking winger and could now return. Despite the similarities, speculation seems to suggest that it is not on the cards for Valverde.
“Seeing the level of performance of the boy and his quality, if you asked me now what I would do, then yes I would say we would consider paying the purchase clause.”
These were the words of Eibar’s Sporting Director Fran Garagarza in January. Barcelona are reported to have the right to buy him back at twice the price, but reports say that they will not do so and will instead look for a more experienced full-back to support Alba. It echoes what Valverde has also said.
“He’s having a good season, he’s playing in a position which we have well covered and not the one that he went there to play, but it’s good news.”
A hugely promising talent, there is still a long way for Cucurella to go. Barcelona fans may feel that he has not done enough to justify returning this summer, but Eibar fans will be delighted to see him remain. How he progresses and adapts to his attacking role, adding in a more clinical edge in front of goal, could determine whether he ever makes it to the very highest, elite level that the Catalans sit at. Even if he doesn’t, Cucurella’s spell at Eibar has shown that he certainly has plenty to offer a La Liga side pushing for Europe.
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