How Espanyol are profiting from pragmatist Quique Sanchez Flores
Many would have been surprised when Watford announced that they would not be retaining Quique Sanchez Flores’ services at the end of the last Premier League campaign.
The Spanish coach had guided the Hornets to a 13th-placed finish on their return to the English top-flight, coaxing plenty of goals from strike partnership Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney, after settling things down quickly following a very busy summer upon his arrival in 2015.
“It’s one of those crazy ones,” Deeney told Sky Sports after Flores’ sacking back in May. “His time here has been a success. We’ve had 16 new players and he’s made it seem effortless. [Flores] has brought me on a lot as a player and a person, and I have nothing but gratitude.”
While clearly appreciated by some of the playing personnel, many others outside of the club and even the country would share a similar opinion. Espanyol, fresh off the back of a their own 13th-place league finish and having undergone a take-over, were the potential suitors who pounced first, tying Flores to a three-year-deal just a month after his Watford departure.
Just as a 4-4-2 formation was preferred for the most part of his tenure at Vicarage Road, Flores’ approach and blueprint for stability and competing with any given opponent has remained consistent. Even when his system has evolved into a 4-2-3-1 in recent weeks, off the ball it relies on the further-most two players pressing as a duo just as Ighalo and Deeney did last year.
Flores’ 4-4-2 has been used on 12 occasions in the league, with a 4-2-3-1 deployed more recently for six matches. With two up front, Espanyol have lost just three games in LaLiga, and a shift to 4-2-3-1 has witnessed just a solitary defeat thus far. The Spanish coach likes the methods that have brought him success elsewhere, but intelligently isn’t afraid to tweak and try new things either.
And just as at Watford, plenty of transfer activity left the new coach with a lot to gel together, but his policy of signing experienced players in key areas has helped the acclimatisation process. Not afraid of bringing in favoured personnel who are already familiar with his personality, philosophy and system, Flores has blended Espanyol’s existing youth prospects with talent that would make for great mentors.
Jose Antonio Reyes joined with a wealth of experience at the highest level, with Martin Demichelis - who has since been released - offering a similarly wise head in defence. David Lopez and Diego Lopez were snapped up from Serie A clubs Napoli and Milan, respectively, with both immediately injected into the spine of Espanyol’s tough-to-beat set-up. Diego Lopez, in particular, has been fantastic.
Jose Jurado, one of Flores’ long-term old guard, has fought his way to prominence in recent weeks, with the veteran Javi Fuego given a second-chance in midfield after joining from Valencia. Such experience has complimented the youthful options that Espanyol have nurtured into the first-team picture wonderfully. 19-year-old Aaron Martin Caricol has been ever-present at left-back, deposing the previously-fancied option of Ruben Duarte. 21-year-old Marc Navarro capped his full debut at right-back with a goal the other week, and has since continued to impress further.
Young central midfielder Marc Roca has made an unprecedented 13 league appearances this term, while highly-rated 19-year-old Oscar Melendo has also been given an occasional chance to prove himself. Espanyol may be lacking a promising young striker, but otherwise Flores has given game-time to future first-team stalwarts.
Navarro has scored two goals, picked up two WhoScored Man of the Match awards and provided one assist in his first two league games for Espanyol, and will undoubtedly have the same kind words to say about his coach that Deeney did back last May. Aaron has boasted a consistent 7.03 WhoScored rating and doesn’t look out of his depth in La Liga, while Roca has struggled for consistency since November following a great first month or so of the season.
Key striker Gerard Moreno has continued on the trajectory that many may have predicted when he originally moved into Villarreal’s first-team, after returning to Espanyol where he spent the bulk of his youth career. He has eight goals in 20 league appearances this campaign, shaking off any injury problems and showing a sharpness and technical ability, which should promise a fruitful goal total in the summer.
Pablo Piatti and Hernan Perez offer real talent out wide, with the former’s ability far more tangible in terms of concrete contribution to the cause this season. The Argentine winger has scored six goals and provided seven assists in 15 La Liga appearances, with only strikers Gerard Moreno (2.3) and Leo Baptistao (1.5) attempting more than his average of 1.3 shots per game.
In a system that relies on the strikers to be both pressing tools and a focal point in quick transitions, Flores’ wide men have been impressive, and as such, the blueprint for success should remain intact come the end of the campaign. Espanyol have been solid and organised off the ball, but direct and dangerous on it.
Flores has a definite way of playing and is unafraid to give young players a challenge, as well as having a certain preference and profile in terms of players that fit into the roles within his system. With this set out, their transfer policy should continue to be mostly logical and successful, and his youngsters will only continue to grow in confidence over the coming months.
Stability has been the short-term aim for Espanyol, who currently find themselves three places ahead of their league finish last season, and eight points clear of their points tally at this point of the 2015/2016 campaign. Their mid-term target will be an appearance in the Europa League. Whisper it quietly, but Espanyol appear to be intelligently building for the future, and Quique Sanchez Flores has made himself a vital and unexpendable piece of their long-term puzzle.