As I rode my bike to RCDE stadium on Sunday afternoon, I noticed that the front tyre was a bit flat. The brake pads also seemed to be sitting awkwardly, their screeching causing passers-by to turn in my direction. Approaching the stadium, I frowned as the first few drops of rain began to spit down on me. Portents can be found everywhere, and these, perhaps, were not the most serious, but, all the same, it did NOT BODE WELL.
The familiar blue and white of the stadium was peppered with pockets of red and white, the colours of Granada. It is common to see fans of both sides sharing stands at Spanish games, and, in Barcelona, particularly noticeable against Andalusian opponents. These are not die-hards who have crossed the country for the match, rather, they are the products of the Andalusian diaspora of the 20th century which more than doubled the Catalan population.
Gallego had opted for a nominal 4-3-3 formation which, for my money, looked more of a 4-2-3-1.
Martínez, in the opposing dugout, had brought in Yángel Herrera, on loan from Man City, for the injured Eteki, and Darwin Machís had earned a starting role on the left, at the expense of Vadillo.
From the start, the home side settled into their familiar leisurely passing rhythm, whilst looking completely susceptible to punishment whenever possession was lost, or gifted away. There had already been a warning shot from Puertas by the time Machís received the ball on the run as the clock ticked past 12 minutes. The Venezuelan didn’t hesitate as he swept inside the flailing Corchia and got a shot off at goal. It was the kind of effort that is unlikely to find the net, but unfortunately Dídac was still staring in open-mouthed admiration as the rebound from Diego’s parry was tucked home by Puertas, slightly more alert than his marker. 0-1.
In the stands, the pitter-patter of rain grew into a heavier shower. The fans sitting in the uncovered parts of the stadium showed less hesitancy than Machís as they scurried for shelter. Some of them were forced to take refuge inside the stairwells, thus missing the action for the duration of the downfall. Evidently, it was not a difficult decision to make.
Espanyol reacted to the setback by continuing with exactly the same approach, exhibiting less penetration than an Ikea hand-drill on a concrete wall (buy the right tools, folks). The game plan seemed to be to get it wide to the overlapping fullbacks. However, with Wu Lei the only target in the centre, crossing opportunities were regularly passed up in favour of a pass back up the line. The lethargic pace and lack of movement in and around the penalty area made it easy for Granada to sit tight and wait it out. Using the latest heat map technology, we can analyse the players’ average positions in greater detail:
It was a case of the stoppable force against the object of untested movability. On the rare occasions that Espanyol worked the ball into a shooting position, they showed a remarkable hesitancy to pull the trigger. Víctor Sánchez rippling the side netting from outside the box was about as close as the home side came to an equaliser. The crowd’s frustration swelled as Granada defended resolutely, and the half-time whistle was greeted by an overwhelming cacophony of whistles directed at referee Soto Grado. The well-publicised fact that this was his first La Liga match as head official probably encouraged the general perception that he had allowed Granada players to repeatedly break up play with niggling fouls.
The skies had cleared and seats had been retaken by the time the second period kicked off. Both sides were unchanged but Espanyol looked hungrier, Darder latching onto a long ball almost from kickoff and playing Wu Lei through on the right. It was the ideal position for the Chinese striker, who inexplicably decided to cut back rather than give Rui Silva something to think about.
Espanyol had upped the pressure and it seemed to be working. Noone in their right mind would say they looked defensively assured, but Granada weren’t able to beat the press so easily. On 58 minutes Vargas stole the ball in the opposition half and played Wu Lei through again. This time from the left, his attempted chip was well blocked by the onrushing Silva. Dídac, inspired by the sight of a shot on target, immediately repeated the trick and required the Portuguese stopper to tip his effort over the bar.
Corchia, who was now playing more as a winger than a fullback, fizzed an inviting cross across the six-yard box on 65 minutes. Wu Lei had got away from his man expertly, but now contrived to arc his body into a perfect convex surface, and send his header spinning harmlessly into the stand. He should have scored, and it would be his last chance to do so. Calleri came on to make his debut, and pericos dared to believe.
It is the hope, they say, that kills you, and so it was to be. Granada captain Germán Sánchez’s wafted ball into the corner was more kick for touch than incisive through ball, but the Espanyol back line was slow to react and immediately looked in trouble. Naldo blocked the initial cross and Marc Roca had an opportunity to clear the danger. Scholars are unlikely to ponder long over what exactly he was trying to do, so we will probably never know why he then picked out the waiting Machis on the edge of the box. Calero scrambled a clearance off the line which in turn fell perfectly for Carlos Fernández to slam into the net. The forward had replaced Soldado at the same moment as Calleri entered the action, less than a minute before. Their luck was wildly contrasting. Those damn portents. 0-2.
For Gallego, it was time for one last, desperate throw of the dice, Ferreyra replacing Víctor Sánchez. In a day of underwhelming impacts, his first touch was to be from the restart after Azeez had extended Granada’s lead. Espanyol’s guard was down and there was a complete lack of pressure on the ball when Machís was picked out on the left of the box. Corchia was understandably reluctant to make a challenge as the best player on the pitch took his time to consider his options. Dídac left the back post open by following his man in a gentle stroll towards the ball when he should have passed him on, and Marc Roca conspicuously failed to track Azeez, who rifled a confident volley into the bottom corner. Tiredness certainly played its part, but it was not a reasonable goal to concede. 0-3, game over.
With supporters flooding for the exits, virtually nothing happened in the final quarter hour (see figure 1a). The final whistle was greeted with less enthusiastic whistles from the decidedly empty stands. It would be optimistic to think that all, or even most, of these were directed at the referee.
It is of course early in the season, but a home defeat of this manner to a newly promoted side is always a hard pill to swallow. Espanyol finished the game with 67% of possession, which will count for absolutely nothing. A lack of creativity and a propensity for individual mistakes is costing them dear, and they now have two weeks in which to find an answer before the next match against Eibar on the 15th. There can be no room for excuses either, with the Europa League qualifiers over and done with. Gallego and the players have to show that there is life in this project yet.
League goals scored: 0
Clear opportunities created in three games: 1
Games left to sort it out: 35
Thumbs up: Calero, Corchia, Calleri.
*Shakes head*: It’s getting crowded in here…
See it for yourself: