From the Handbook: Marc Roca
This profile was originally published in Scouted Football Handbook: Volume II. Unfortunately, the print edition as sold out, but you can buy the digital version here for the price of a pint.
Written by Jamie Kemp
CAREER IN REVIEW
After being introduced to the first-team at Espanyol during the 2016/17 season, Marc Roca looked to have found a steady trajectory within the professional game. With some solid – if unassuming – performances early on, the young midfielder seemed to be following the traditional path of a youth product finding his way at senior level. Yet after some early protagonism, Roca’s minutes on the field eventually fell away, leaving him on the outside looking in at the start of 2018. Indeed, it was not until the end of April that he made his first appearance of the year for Espanyol, while only one further start would follow by the end of the 2017/18 campaign. All this despite a rather unanimous call from fans and neutrals for Roca
to see more playing time.
Fortunately, the second half of 2018 saw Roca’s career receive a much-needed realigning. Following the arrival of Rubi as Espanyol’s manager at the start of the current campaign, Roca has not only seen increased playing time, but has become a genuinely integral figure for the Pericos. At the time of writing, the youngster has made 35 starts and played 3,100 minutes in
all competitions this season – almost twice as many as he had in last two campaigns combined. In fact, this season he has played the most league minutes of any outfield player at the club, such is the value he brings.
The change in philosophy between Quique Sánchez Flores and Rubi has benefited a number of players in the Espanyol squad, including 23-year-old Mario Hermoso, though few quite as much as Roca. With the team now less restricted by the previous coach’s rigid 4-4-2 system, the Pericos are a more expansive team in possession, with Roca right in the thick of the action.
STYLE OF PLAY
In addition to the changing of manager, Roca has seen a changing of role within the Espanyol side. Under Quique Sánchez Flores – who generally employed a counter-attacking 4-4-2 style with focus on recovering the ball in central midfield – the 22-year-old had little scope to show his true strengths. Espanyol were a side who rarely controlled the game through possession; instead focusing on how they could counter-attack once they managed to win the ball back. In the midst of this, Roca’s influence on the side was diminished.
Thankfully for the youngster, things are different now. The current template for Espanyol revolves around Rubi’s 4-3-3 system, which is designed around being able to show control of the game both in and out of possession. With the ball, the Catalan side use well-structured spacing and patient build-up – highlighted by their highest possession rate (49.7%) in La Liga since the 2011-12 campaign. Without the ball, they defend in a 4-1-4-1 that looks to restrict meaningful space in their own half. Roca’s role in this system is as the deepest of three midfielders in the 4-3-3. It is from here that the youngster bears the responsibility for much of Espanyol’s structure, both in managing the build-up of play and strengthening the team’s ability to recover the ball and prevent counter-attacks.
The Catalan midfielder possesses a high level of technical ability, which is most often demonstrated in his use of the ball. The central figure of Espanyol’s midfield has averaged 57 passes per 90 minutes in La Liga this season, completing 87% of those. However, as is often accused of midfielders who regularly post high completion rates, Roca does not need encouragement to show ambition with his pass selection. He constantly looks to play forward through opposition pressure, particularly through central areas. It is from this area between Espanyol’s penalty area and the halfway line where he performs much of his duties in possession, working closely with his centre-back pairing to establish the team’s build-up of play. Roca moves between spacing himself centrally beyond the opposition’s front line and dropping back inside the centre backs if the situation requires. If Espanyol are able to successfully play out and move themselves up the pitch, the youngster then looks to offer himself as a solution to sustain their possession in the opposition half: whether it be helping his full-backs as a short option when forward routes are blocked, or acting as a relief option for the team to evade immediate pressure and look to build in a different area of the pitch.
Marc Roca completed more long balls than any other player aged 23-or-under in the 2018/19 La Liga season
Despite his lack of experience, the midfielder has a calming influence on Espanyol’s play - often performing simple actions that do not make highlight reels but do improve the team’s collective proficiency. It bodes well for the future given how closely experience is linked to the performance of an organising midfielder, and Roca still has many years to reach his prime. Playing time will help the him improve the weakest areas of his game, most specifically his defensive work. As a player who is not notably athletic or physically dominant, Roca’s off-ball duties are fuelled by his anticipation of play and natural reading of situations – facets of the game that are only in the early stages of development, in terms of the span of his career. He
could echo the development of cross-town reference Sergio Busquets, who learned to operate as a reliable defensive player in spite of his physical deficiencies via his refined interpretation of situations.
FORECAST FOR THE FUTURE
Roca’s talent lies in his ball-playing ability, but if he can gradually develop the weaker parts of his game - especially defensively - he could find himself among names considered for a big move in the future. With Espanyol’s season all but wrapped up and the team out of relegation danger, the focus will now turn to those individuals the club are hoping hope to keep hold of, with Roca at the head of the pack. The club have lost a number of previous graduates for little return in recent years, with the likes of Joan Jordán, Aaron Martín and Marc Navarro all leaving prematurely. They will not want to suffer the same fate with Roca, but a potential exit could be difficult to stop.
A move away from Espanyol this summer should not be an immediate priority. As he closes in on his first full campaign at the professional level, the combination of his performances and his protagonism in the team mean he has a strong foundation to progress and become one of La Liga’s most recognised midfielders. The only objective for this summer should be to ensure that his trajectory stays on the same path.
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