Espanyol and Barcelona; two great clubs with great history. One is a giant of the game, the other, a sleeping giant. Sitting in 19th place having finished 7th and achieving a Europa League spot the season before, there is not a great deal to be excited about for Espanyol, and are more and more sadly considered the second club of Barcelona.
We want to shine the spotlight on an Espanyol player, 23-year-old defensive midfielder, Marc Roca.
The Spaniard had piqued the interests of many teams in Europe following his performances in the 2018-19 season. But with Espanyol near the bottom of the table, what can we say about Marc Roca’s season so far?
Despite the poor results of the Espanyol team, Roca, who has a £40m release clause, has been linked with both Arsenal and AC Milan this season.
This article will give a profiling and report on Roca’s skills and deficiencies, as well as some personal remarks on whether he would be an astute signing for both the interested parties.
What kind of midfielder is Marc Roca?
Roca is a deep-lying playmaker who plays mostly in a 4-4-2. Roca. He covers a lot of the middle third of the pitch but prefers to sit deep on the left-hand side. This position allows him his preferred passing angles into the midfield or switches into the righthand flank.
Roca roams the midfield following the movement of the ball to make sure he is open as a passing option, and to provide necessary support should the ball be turned over. In the traditional Spanish way, Roca will look to join the centre-backs during build-up, allowing the full-backs to push higher up the pitch, forming a 3-5-2 formation. Here, Roca can begin to pull strings and initiate an attack from deep.
The two photos above show the common areas where Roca picks up the ball and takes it out the defensive line. He then looks to spread the play from deep to wide areas through his excellent ability to hit pinpoint long balls.
What does the data tell us about Roca’s season?
Passing and Technical ability
Roca is an extremely elegant player; he is stylish and very confident with the ball at his feet. It is a shame that he is playing for a team who averages such low possession as this takes out his main strength, passing.
Roca has an excellent passing range. He loves to open his shoulders and spray balls to wide areas; this is the standout feature of his passing game. The data proves this, showing us that he is making 8.14 long balls per 90 at an outstanding accuracy. It is also positive to see the amount of successful through balls that Roca is making.
Roca is excellent at playing balls in behind the defensive line which he showcased on two occasions in the recent game against Alaves. Thus, Roca would be capable of providing long balls to a target man or balls in behind for a quick striker.
There will be a compilation of his long passing on our twitter account that you must watch as it is a masterclass in technique and precision.
Roca does a good job of progressing the ball from deep areas; he takes the ball off the backline and always looks for passing options in front of him, through the heart of midfield. He has good vision to spot options in front of him, but will often choose to go into wider areas due to the opposition congesting central areas of the midfield.
His forward pass accuracy is slightly below the median but having watched many of Roca’s games; it is more likely a representation of the difficulty of the passes he makes, rather than poor technique. He ticks many of the boxes that we want to see from a deep-lying playmaker on the ball, such as progressive passes, and passes into the final third. This shows he is setting up his team to be in attacking positions.
Unfortunately, Espanyol have struggled for creativity this season once they receive the ball in this area. Roca plays in such a deep position that he is not very involved in the creation of chances in open play. His second and third assist highlights this deeper position, as well as key passes, and touches in the box numbers.
When he does advance further forward, he will occasionally put crosses into the box. The example below shows excellent vision and execution. Wu Lei met the cross well but aimed it straight at the goalkeeper. Roca often takes free-kicks which provided an assist in the same game against cross-town rivals, Barcelona.
So far this season the opposition has looked to give Roca time on the ball, and he has not been pressed a great deal which is surprising. It suggests that teams are happy for him to spread balls into wide areas as long as their shape remains intact. This is understandable; however, Roca is not overly press resistant.
The Spaniard does not possess natural dribbling abilities, quick feet, agility, or a low centre of gravity to evade any potential press. I would like to see more games where Roca is really put under pressure with the ball, to see how he copes and what methods or adaptations he uses in his game to counter this.
If I use Rodri as a counter-example, and look at his pressure passes at Atletico and Villareal; he was making 12.9 passes while under pressure per 90 (Fbref), compared to Roca who has made 7.28 pressure passes this season. Teams who are often pressed in possession should perhaps bear this in mind when considering Roca as a signing. He may have got used to having time and space to play his expansive passes which may not be allowed should he move to a different team.
Defensive and physical ability
As a defensive midfielder, at a team averaging only 43% possession, Roca spends most of the game out of possession. Espanyol’s 4-4-2 shape often becomes a diamond in midfield when out of possession. Either Roca or his midfield partner will press the man on the ball. One will screen the defence, and one controls the space in front of the back four.
The data shows us as expected that Roca has a high volume of defensive duels owing to his role in the team as the one who breaks up attacks in the midfield. Nevertheless, he is averaging below the median for his success rate of those duels, which can be explained in several ways. One reason is that Roca is committing lots of fouls which counts as a failed duel attempt; evidenced by the data.
Roca is not always the cleanest of tacklers. He is aggressive and throws his whole body weight into duels. This is better than being limp although it does often give the referee the chance to call for a foul due to the excessive force of his duels. A lot has been said previously about Roca’s defensive ability, and no doubt being aggressive, and committed is an essential aspect of defending. However, I would like to see Roca choose the right moments to engage in tackles and duels.
Roca would be better off jockeying his opponent in certain circumstances in less favourable areas of the pitch, rather than consistently attempting to turn the ball over as soon as possible. Roca most likely does this as he is tasked with breaking up play and stopping attacks before the ball moves into dangerous areas.
The result of his actions can work against him as opponents with good dribbling ability want to bait him into a tackle, knowing it will leave the defence vulnerable should they move past him. The right moment to engage these tackles depends on his initial positioning and proximity to the player who has just received the ball.
Against Barcelona, Roca did an excellent job of dispossessing Messi on multiple occasions. However, he was able to do this because he was standing on Messi’s toes when he had received the ball. When the opposing player has a slight run on Roca, the Spaniard does not possess the necessary change of pace or direction to keep up with attackers in a 1v1 situation. Due to this, Roca chooses to engage quickly, which often leads to fouls or being dribbled past.
To improve this, Roca could attempt to have a lower centre of gravity and more side-on positioning. The Spaniard stands very upright and confronts attackers square on and flat-footed, limiting his mobility and making him easy to get past. Roca must improve his awareness of when he can win the ball and when to jockey. These are some of the potential explanations as to why Roca’s duel success is lower than the median.
If you want to see some video evidence of what has been explained, make sure to view our twitter account @GenZscouts.
To further back up my scepticism of Roca’s defensive output, I have used a Footballslices.com comparison of Rodri’s 2018/19 season at Atletico Madrid, and Roca’s 2018/19 season.
Both played in 4-4-2 pivots, and both teams had successful seasons. The possession adjusted statistics also consider any differences in possession skewing the numbers. The makeup of these profiles shows the two have similar styles in many ways; however, the defensive numbers are quite telling. Of course, it should be noted that Rodri had a fantastic season at a team who specialises in strong defensive structures and solidity.
With regards to positional work and defensive awareness, Roca is rarely caught ball watching. He covers his teammates well and can snuff out dangerous moves before they happen. An example of this is shown below. The centre is dragged out of position, leaving a gaping space to be exploited. Roca noticed this danger even before Messi and was able to make the interception. Had he not been aware and concentrating, this would have been a near-certain shooting opportunity for Messi. In this sequence, Roca showed he has decent speed over medium distances, his long strides helping him.
Roca has shown in some games that he is very competent defensively, most notably, the Barcelona fixture in January, where he was excellent. What I have noticed is that he is weak when facing dribblers with speed and agility, often diving in at players feet which is perhaps not the best way of defending these scenarios. This section of the article may appear to be quite critical, but Roca has a £40m release clause and has many big clubs looking at him, so it is important to point out that he is not world-class defensively.
As mentioned earlier, if you want to see some video evidence of what has been discussed head to our twitter account @GenZscouts.
Roca to Arsenal?
I will try to keep these thoughts succinct. The main issue here surrounds Granit Xhaka. He seems to be a polarising figure among Arsenal fans with some longing for his departure. Roca would only join Arsenal if it meant Xhaka was to be transferred out of the club. So similar are their profiles and styles that there’s very little chance they would fit together. I don’t think Roca would be an immediate upgrade on Xhaka, who has been regularly picked by the last three Arsenal managers, showing the value placed on him at the club. Replacing Xhaka is not a primary need for Arsenal. They should be looking for a suitable partner for him, as well as a creative midfielder.
Roca to Milan?
Another rumour that I don’t consider to make a huge amount of sense for Milan. Milan already have an excellent deep progressor and tackler of the ball in Bennacer. If Roca joined Milan, it would mean Bennacer would likely move higher up the pitch. Why change something that has worked so well already? The two Stats Bomb graphs can help us compare Bennacer and Roca this season. We should bear in mind that Roca has been playing for one of the worst teams in La Liga. Why would Milan choose to tinker with Bennacer after the excellent first season he has had?
That leaves the question of where should Marc Roca move? The truth is, I do not have a clear answer for this question. A team like Spurs, where Roca could control the ball, join the defensive line, and contribute from deep in the Alderweireld role, could be explored. My initial thoughts are that it is possible, Roca can play direct balls or progressive balls to feet when Kane drops deeper. He has defensive ability, but as mentioned in the article, there are still weaknesses in that regard.
Another option; on the face of it, he could potentially fit well at Roma. Likewise, more analysis and research would be required to see if these are realistic and appropriate destinations for Roca.
To conclude, Roca is undoubtedly a capable, stylish, and talented player. The extent to his talent, however, is something I have expressed small concerns about in this article. It is expected that he will secure a move away from Espanyol this summer and he would make an excellent deep-lying playmaker for many teams. Although, he will need a solid midfield partner with him who can inject added energy, mobility and physicality.
Written by James Beagley – @GenZscouts