Chen Yansheng had only just been handed the keys to his new club when he proclaimed that, “I am sure the city of Barcelona can have two strong clubs. I hope to have the club debt-free and in the Champions League in three years.” Almost three years on and it is beginning to look like there may be a hint of life in the Espanyol owner’s highly ambitious statement.
It was January 2016 when the Chinese businessman became the owner of Barcelona’s second club. Since then they have been closer to relegation than the highlife Yansheng had predicted, but this season is different. As the third international break of the season comes to an end and gives way to the most testing part of the domestic season, Espanyol are in fifth place in La Liga. Just one month ago they were second, one point behind the leaders Barcelona, and now they are ready to pounce.
It is in contrast to their form in recent seasons; since Yansheng took over, Los Periquitos have finished 13th, 8th and 11th – in many ways they have become synonymous with mid-table mediocrity. There was little on the pitch to suggest that the owner’s statement was anything more than rhetoric. Ambition, character and courage were often lacking and, frankly, it was all rather dull in Cornella-El Prat.
With the ownership increasingly agitated, Quique Sanchez Flores was gotten rid of from the dugout and in the summer was replaced by Rubi. Having just coached Huesca to their first promotion to the Spanish top-flight, the former winger opted for a new challenge and Espanyol certainly represented that. The 48-year old anticipated the work that needed to be done but also the foundations that could be built on.
The loss of star striker Gerard Moreno didn’t help matters as Espanyol’s top goalscorer in the past two seasons departed for Villarreal. Out of Espanyol’s measly tally of 36 league goals in the last campaign, Moreno scored 16 of them. Taking away nearly half of those goals was a worrying proposition, added to that the departures of promising Marc Navarro to Watford and home-grown left-back Aaron Caricol to Mainz along with the talented goalkeeper Pau Lopez to Real Betis, it was believed that this season would be more of a struggle than the last.
However, Espanyol have coped and during the first quarter of the season most definitely improved. Rubi is never one to stay at a club for too long – having moved from Ibiza-Elvissa to Benidorm to Girona to Valladolid to Levante to Sporting Gijon to Huesca and now to Espanyol in the space of 10 years – but Los Blanquiazules will hope that he remains in Catalunya for a little while longer.
He has not added flair, nor brought more creativity but he has developed Espanyol into a more competitive side. Efficient and clinical, their position is not deceiving. Espanyol were never capable of wracking up goals – or even goalscoring chances – under Flores, and that has in many ways continued this season. Even now, sitting two points behind Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and Alaves, they have only scored 16 goals in 13 matches.
El #RCDE, protagonista als premis Marca.
Rubi, millor entrenador i l’Infantil A femení, premi Jarque-Puerta a l’esportivitat.
— RCD Espanyol (@RCDEspanyol) November 12, 2018
Nevertheless, Espanyol have tactically improved under Rubi; his work on the practice pitch and the discipline of his players is increasingly evident. They put themselves in the correct positions to see out victories, and it’s working. Last season, many a La Liga expert dubbed Espanyol as ‘Atletico Madrid Lite’; although they deployed Atleti’s tactic of relying on a strong defence and counter-attacking with Moreno at the head, all too often it was ineffective.
This season, however, they are credible impersonators of Diego Simeone’s side; attacking efficiently and defending resolutely, the blue-and-whites really are mirroring the red-and-whites. One of the most important elements of Rubi’s side has been the midfield and one that is capable of dictating the pace and tempo of a game. The new coach has been able to count on the strong contributions of Esteban Granero, Marc Roca and Sergi Darder in the middle of the pitch. The trio complement each other very well indeed.
Roca and Darder have showcased an ability to both win possession in difficult areas and also provide accurate passes when progressing further up the field. Former Real Madrid player, Granero, has enjoyed flashes of brilliance when presented with opportunities in the final third and has also contributed with two important goals – one helped deliver a vital win against Valencia in August. The signing of Borja Iglesias from Celta Vigo has softened the blow of losing Moreno, having already scored seven goals this season so far. His sharp runs at the opposition defence have earned him plenty of plaudits and Rubi has certainly got a striker that he can count on in his setup.
Rubi’s formation of choice is 4-3-3, having tinkered and changed during his 18-year long coaching career, he has snubbed the ‘diamond’ formation in favour of a more measured approach. The players maintain the formation with a strong positional awareness and they stay alert defensively by closing down space with intensity.
Defensively, though, is where Espanyol have truly excelled this season. They have only conceded 10 goals, the fourth least in the league, and according to the Expected Goals Against (xGA) count, they should have conceded four more given the quality of their opponents’ chances. Diego Lopez has brought a reliable and stable presence in goal, and his experience married with those of Didac Vila, Javi Lopez and David Lopez in defence is invaluable.
The balance is fine, but Espanyol know how they want to play and although their attacking firepower still leaves much to be desired, they have taken advantage of critical moments in matches to grind results out. It is perhaps the attention to detail along with the renewed ambition that is ensuring Rubi’s start at Espanyol is making people sit up and take note.
“I’m very happy that we do not look down [towards relegation], if we take a few more points, the bottom will be forgotten, but the 40 points do not fill me, I want more,” said Rubi. “We are on a good roll, we’re here to make people happy, we aim to carry on the momentum, maximum ambition and always look ahead.” Two home Catalan derbies are on the immediate horizon and, although challenging, will offer Espanyol more opportunities to shine.
Yansheng’s early ambition has been contrary to what has happened on the pitch for the majority of the past three years. His words may well have been outlandish, aiming to stir more so than anything else, but now it does appear that Espanyol are moving in the right direction. With Rubi at the helm, Espanyol are showing that there may still be life left in the owner’s statement.