No league wins in six months and only two from a possible 21 points in play, with destiny yet to be sealed against the “big two” and other challengers (Sevilla, Valencia, Malaga, etc.) for UCL and EL positions… The 2012-13 LigaBBVA season may only be 7 games old but the sound of alarm bells emanating from Cornellà El Prat can be heard as far as Australia!
At this point should we be asking what’s going wrong at Espanyol? Or should we leave a more thorough assessment for the close of the winter transfer market? For a team that’s only been in the 2nd tier of Spanish football for 4 individual seasons since La Liga was created in 1928/29 panic has a tendency of setting in earlier than usual.
Arguments abound for immediate action, but rather than hyping-up the situation, creating unnecessary distraction and destabilising the team, let’s adopt a more methodical approach and analyse what’s going on behind the scenes of Barcelona’s blue and white La Liga team.
Pochettino’s job in blending the team during the pre-season has been hindered by several factors, one of these have been the notable lack of any quality opposition, with Montpellier HSC – the current French champions – and perhaps Real Zaragoza being the only exceptions. Playing against much weaker teams several divisions lower usually isn’t a problem if you balance it with a range of quality opposition.
Another factor that had a direct impact on the Club’s pre-season preparation were the huge Alt Empordà forest fires that raged close to Hotel Peralada (Girona province), coinciding with the latter stages of Espanyol’s pre-season preparations.
Putting aside friendlies and ‘Acts of God’ (or man) let’s get to the heart of the matter:
The exodus of quality players, notably those of Coutinho, Weiss and Uche, the departure of Javi Marquez to Mallorca (involving a swap deal with Sergio Tejera), the long-running soap opera into Alvaro Vazquez’s eventual exit to Getafe (with an official complaint due to non-payment of wages thrown in for good measure) and rising-star Dani Nieto’s sudden transfer to Alcorcón, all seemed to take their toll on the fans’ morale. The loan deals of Jordi Amat (to Rayo Vallecano) and Thievy Bifouma (to Las Palmas) have raised further questions as to why they were not retained? After all, these were quality, tried-and-tested players!
The replacements that arrived during the summer are best described as a mixture of veteran and unknown young players. Colotto, Capdevilla, Wakaso, Simao, plus the last-minute incorporations of Longo and Stuani have yet to instill – with respect to the players – confidence amongst the fans. Perhaps this is partly due to witnessing the departure of so many quality players on June 30, but also perhaps in the manner in which these new additions were acquired by the Club, described as ‘patchy’ and ‘uncoordinated’ by the sports press.
Another dimension to this equation is the continual uncertainty surrounding contractual negotiations for several key players – Joan Verdu’s connection with MLS team Seattle Sounders is of note – increasing the fans’ anxiety and eroding their belief in the team’s ability (or inability) to compete at the top level this year.
Three games into the season with zero points to show for it and affected by the latest result against Levante (0-2 up before eventually going 3-2 down), around 40 members of the vociferous La Curva supporters group headed by Ricardo Fernandez, turned up at a training session at the Football Academy to request a meeting with Pochettino and the four captains.
During their 25 minute meeting, the fans voiced their concern at the teams’ performance and asked the players to give 100% commitment, and reiterated theirs from the stands. The general consensus established that afternoon, did not translate into victory in the match that followed, and once again after being 2-0 up, this time versus Athletic de Bilbao, the team succumbed to a 3-3 draw. Despite opening Espanyol’s account with their first point this season, the result had a bitter taste of frustration. Did victory slip due to the lack of cohesion, bad luck or inexperience?
Youth development / cantera
Based at the Ciutat Esportiva in Sant Adrià de Besòs, to the north of the city, the Espanyol Football Academy has long been regarded as one of the top centres of footballing excellence in the country. However, since the dismissal of Ferrán Manresa (coordinator) and the resignation of Antonio Morales (Board member and Director of the Football Academy) both in March 2012, a succession of appointments – and subsequent resignations – have taken place, threatening to destabilise the the whole structure if not sorted out soon.
This news may come as a surprise to some, but essentially the effectiveness in the management of older cantera players is being compromised by ongoing internal disputes and the apparent lack of foresight. For example, a majority of the players that won the Juvenil “A” (16-18 year olds) league and cup double with coach Dani Poyatos in April this year, have moved on as there was just nowhere else for them to progress at Espanyol. Much to the disappointment of many fans, Poyatos, despite his success – and for a number of other reasons – has also left, trying new ‘pastures’ in the Gulf state of Bahrain.
Another issue that has become plain for all to see, is the over-reliance on the fruits of the youth development structure. Put in layman’s terms: if you raid the pantry too often it eventually means a trip to the grocery store, but without a decent vehicle it’s difficult to go shopping. Whilst quality still abounds, it is becoming harder to replace players who leave the Club of their childhood, all too often disenchanted and occasionally on acrimonious terms. As we all know, the overall aim of any cantera is to nurture, grow and develop kids’ potential to become the new heroes of the Club, without the excessive need to buy into the market. But the oppressive economic reality dictates its own terms…
It appears that Espanyol’s austerity measures in reducing their €140m debt, whilst commendable, have also had the negative side-effect of not being able to retain key players at the Club. The top salary – termed “ficha” – is estimated to be around the €800,000 p/year mark, but only a few players currently receive this amount. High “fichas” have often been a burden for Espanyol and understandably so, in the existing economic climate the Club is wary of signing any high-paying long-term contracts. Tamudo, Kameni, Luis Garcia, were all players on the upper end of the salary scale and all either left on a free or for a bargain-basement price.
In terms of success stories, there are the signings of Nico Pareja (€3m from Anderlecht – €10m to Spartak Moscow) and Dani Osvaldo (€5m from Bologna – €17m to Roma), who on both occasions were financed from the pockets of then President Dani Sanchez Llibre and Ramon Condal. The sale of both players did not necessarily translate into massive net earnings for Espanyol, as both investors set to recoup the costs of their initial layout, plus other ‘sundry expenses’ and paying off some of the debt.
This situation however is not unique to RCD Espanyol, many Spanish clubs in Primera and Segunda Division are facing similar economic dilemmas, even extinction. The dreaded word “Hacienda” pops up several times a year with – in Espanyol’s case – an annual tax bill of € 7-8 million often requiring a last minute rush to sell players in order to balance the books.
Pochettino is and has been a fantastic asset to the Club, despite what a faction of pericos may say. After arriving in January 2009 when the Club was bottom of the league and beating FC Barcelona 1-2 at the Camp Nou during his first game in charge, was nothing short of legendary. Pulling off a great escape that same year with a few matches to spare, when pretty much everyone else left the Club for dead ,is perhaps one of the most emotional episodes in Espanyol’s recent history, especially as relegation would have spelled economic disaster for a club that had just finished building a brand new stadium with mounting debts to pay off.
‘Poche’ is ‘un hombre de la casa’, a man of the house and the fact he’s almost been there four years, is a testament to his staying power and love for the Club. He is one of the highest paid managers in La Liga (sacking him would set the Club back €4m), he has the support of the current board of directors and, dare I say, most of the fans.
Yes, there have been many things said about his style of management, both positive and not so positive. He has received his fair share of criticism on over-relying on the cantera (23 players to date) and of course, there will always be a section of the perico faithful, who will never forgive him for the way he handled the whole Raúl Tamudo affair. But one thing is for certain, if results don’t come quickly, the challenge of 2009 will be dwarfed in comparison.
We will perhaps never know what really goes on behind the scenes between Pochettino and the RCD Espanyol board, but despite there being elections on November 19th his position, for the moment, looks quite secure.
This is where it gets interesting… When initially faced with the barrage of fans’ discontent, the directors’ response was to dissolve the board and call elections for November 19th, no surprises there given the precarious situation of the Club. Ramón Condal, the current President, decided not to stand for re-election, but 24 hrs later had a change of heart, much to the amazement of those present at the official announcement.
Then, in-steps former President and major shareholder Daniel Sanchez Llibre who met with Ramón Condal. He declared 24 hours later not only would Condal not be running, but both men were going to sell their holdings in the Club – around 30% combined – ending all financial involvement with the Club, a tie that pre-dates Dani’s first term in office, circa early-to-mid 90’s (coinciding with the first ‘Dani’ shirt sponsorships).
Who will be the 27th RCD Espanyol President? Many people are hoping it would be Joan Collet, the current CEO, who would become the first fully-salaried executive in the Club’s history. His appointment would, in the minds of many, be the perfect catalyst to usher in a new modus operandi and with it a breath of fresh air. He has the support of both Condal and Dani, but what remains to be seen, is whether Vice-President Sergio Oliveró will contest the same position.
Things are changing on a daily basis and there is a lot of speculation surrounding this hot topic at the moment, so all that can be done is to sit it out and wait and see (and check the official RCD Espanyol website from time to time!).
The only certainty is that 31 finals remain. The situation can be turned around, but unless a couple of the youngsters “explode onto the scene” (Condal’s own words) the Club will need some form of capital injection to sign a “killer”: a striker that puts all those chances in the back of the net. It will need a stronger, tighter defence to keep clean sheets (so far: zero). Most importantly, it will need the unconditional support of the ‘aficiò del miracle’, the unity, vision and spirit of “tots junts podem” (together we can) that miraculously kept this team up in 2009.