Catalonia and Barcelona are a hot-bed of midfield talent as FC Barcelona have hoarded all the talent in the area for decades, but Espanyol have developed a talented generation of their own. Marc Roca is the typical Spanish deep-lying playmaker with his straight-backed body shape, constantly demanding possession with an innate sense for threading balls through tight lines of pressure. The elegant left-footed midfielder has been a constant for Espanyol at the base of midfield as he has earned a place in the Spanish U21 side. He is a component of Espanyol’s talented 97-98 generation which includes Aaron Martin, Javi Puado and Oscar Melendo who have all made their way to the first team with Martin becoming a strong performer for Mainz in the Bundesliga.
Quique Sanchez-Flores lobbied for Marc Roca to be promoted from the Cantera in the 2016/17 season as he became an undisputed starter. An injury deprived Espanyol of his metronomic abilities as he has also played under David Gallego and Rubi. Under Rubi, Espanyol have a more methodical build-up approach where the young deep-lying playmaker has enjoyed his football with increased responsibility within the team and more opportunity to dictate the side’s style of play.
Roca’s technical and ball-playing abilities stand out as he can influence play with his passing through the lines to instigate attacking movements. His ability to play diagonals and switch balls in tight areas allows Espanyol to evade opposition pressure and work quick attacking moves to progress play. Roca is left footed but is impressively comfortable in passing with his right foot too as his one touch passing is phenomenal. The youngster who joined Espanyol from local rivals Barcelona at the age of 11 has an innate awareness of where he is on the pitch at all times as if he is positioned higher, he can calmly win possession and play a pass, all in one move. If he receives possession from his centre-backs, with a marker charging towards him, he will calmly side-foot the ball to a teammate on the opposition flank to beat pressure.
Spanish defensive midfielders are well-versed at dropping into defensive three-chains in build-up routines to work the ball out of pressure and also in defensive situations to support their centre-backs when the ball moves out wide. The 22-year-old is deployed in a midfield with Sergi Darder and Esteban Granero where Melendo could sometimes feature in Espanyol starting line-ups. Roca plays as the pivote in this system as Granero will drop deep to support him situationally as they work the ball out of pressure while Darder/Melendo are positioned in the pockets where they can use their dribbling ability to create space. In attacking situations both, Granero and Darder will push up as Roca will be tasked with providing press security and retrieving possession as he recycles the ball effectively with his vision and poise in possession.
Espanyol’s midfield metronome is a deep-lying midfielder who thrives when he is behind play and can see the whole pitch as his initiative allows him to speed up the attacking tempo when the ball is worked back to him in attacking situations. Roca can also play higher as in a match against Real Valladolid, Rubi pushed him higher to act as an attacking fulcrum. He managed to thread a through ball for Puado in behind for his fellow Espanyol youth product to have his shot saved while he worked an exemplary disguised pass to Hernan Perez in the pockets. The speed at which he scans the field, assesses his opportunity for a pass in between the lines and releases the ball is phenomenal.
The stability he brings to Espanyol allows them to play with many different formations as he sits at the base of midfield. Espanyol’s usual defensive shape is a 4-4-2 but they can press or have a 4-1-4-1 medium block with Roca marshalling the space in front of his two centre-backs. The pivote is alert to danger as he can move to close down space rapidly while he provides crucial interceptions which allow him to work the ball forward for a counter attack at pace. The midfielder has no qualms about pushing up into the opposition half to win possession in the pressing or counter-pressing phase. He is a very careful tackler as he will not be over-enthusiastic about diving to ground as he will normally stay on his feet and usher an opponent into the wide areas or make a well-timed challenge on his feet.
Although Marc Roca prefers to keep the ball on the ground, he can play delicate chips to teammates to evade pressure or create opportunities. His chips are normally disguised as he will open his body and hips to imitate a diagonal pass before quickly swivelling and lobbing the ball of the ground with his toes. Against Valladolid, he chipped a ball which was inch perfect and nearly dropped into the path of Wu Lei who was adjusting his body for a volley before a defender headed the opportunity away. There was another moment where he was positioned deeper and chipped the ball over pressure to Wu Lei who tapped it into the path of Sergi Darder in the pockets.
Espanyol are not at the top of the Spanish football food chain as they have to sell their players at cheaper prices to teams who are not at the top echelon of European football. Aaron Martin’s move to Mainz was an example of this as it is rumoured that Marc Roca and Mario Hermoso could be transferred to Benfica due to the good relationship between the two clubs according to Mundo Deportivo. Roca could represent a steal in the modern-day transfer market, especially for a midfielder with his refined skillset in his position.
“I am so happy here that I do not think about anything and I live in the present with the desire to continue growing, to help my colleagues and enjoy,” said Roca to Mundo Deportivo earlier this month.
Marc Roca is the first player to don the number 21 since Dani Jarque as he has honoured the shirt as his predecessor did. Spain have an intelligent crop of young deep-lying playmakers bursting through with regular game-time in La Liga as there will certainly be life after Sergio Busquets. In 2016, Marc Roca signed a contract till 2022 with a 40 million euro release clause which would prove a bargain for clubs because of his age and his high footballing intelligence.