In one of those redemption opportunities that almost always come up in football, RCD Espanyol de Barcelona has gone from its first relegation in three decades to a hopeful return to the elite in just 304 days. A journey from dejection to joy embodied by Raúl de Tomás, who became the top gunner in the silver category after the inconvenience that caused him to miss decisive duels last season, or Diego López, aspiring to the Zamora trophy after being the third goal most thrashed the previous year. They are some of the stars of a metamorphosis to which, out of the spotlight, another team determined to find the formula to return among the best and never leave has contributed. Here they discover their particular laboratory where, thanks to a new methodology based on the big data Already a new way of working with talent, they have distilled a kind of Espanyolista DNA that, when inoculated in any soccer player, guarantees their success with the blue and white jersey.
It all started last June, at the gates of joining LaLiga SmartBank, with a never-before-seen proposal. Rufete, the perico sports director, picked up the phone to offer Hugo Blanco, then head of LaLiga Sports Projects, an unprecedented position in Spanish football: that of director of sports identity. In that moment of change, it was urgent to return to the roots, thought Rufete. Define how they wanted to play and what values they wanted to project on and off the field. Defining, in short, a model aligned with the sports history of the club and that would identify the more than 400 players of the institution, from the first team to the youngest, thinking about “the future beyond short-term objectives.”
That was the challenge that Blanco took up as a link between the technicians and sports managers. He came well prepared, since he had spent the last six years knowing in detail the structures of the main Spanish clubs with the mission of soaking up their methods and applying them in the hundreds of academies that LaLiga has around the world. Oblivious to the summer sun, he set to work under the dim light of an office where he studied encounters and recorded information.
He also surrounded himself with other technicians from the lower teams and Rufete himself, with whom after hours and hours of work he lit up a style book that collected the best of Espanyol and the dozens of teams that he had analyzed: an extensive document that establishes Point by point the fundamental features of the collective game of the parakeet team and, even, mark for each position, from the central defender to the striker, what functions it must fulfill and what indicators will be taken into account in its analysis and development work in the club.
There are few better candidates than Javi Chica to explain and exemplify what it means to feel at RCD Espanyol de Barcelona. Born 35 years ago in the Catalan capital, the full-back went through all the lower categories of the club until he reached the first team, where he played more than 100 games and lived through memorable moments such as the 2007 UEFA Cup final. An experience and significance as a parakeet symbol, prestige earned with his faultless sacrifice and dedication, for which the club made him an offer to join grassroots football after his professional retirement.
The now coach of Cadet A tries to transmit that philosophy that since the arrival of the identity director has tried to stimulate. “The kids see you as a reference. They know that you have played up and that you do not lie to them when you tell them that the train only passes once and that it is only achieved with effort. The values that we defend here are humility, sacrifice, self-improvement “, lists the ex-footballer, who shares an opinion with another former parakeet player, Luis Blanco, who is in charge of Espanyol B.” Knowing the house gives us an advantage to transmit its essence ”, he assures. “We care little about age, but rather the skills and attitude of each player,” he adds.
Chica is aware of the transformation that a quarry is undergoing that she joined before the construction of the Dani Jarque sports city, in Sant Adrià del Besós, where the club is in the process of renovating and digitizing the facilities. He had to play hard on dirt fields, combine training sessions in fields located at opposite ends of the city and suffer some of those cold showers that are so unpleasant in winter. Little to do with technology, such as GPS devices, with which today they measure the talent of future stars.
This soccer gospel that does not forget the values and the attitude inside and outside the green became the cornerstone of the new sports project. Not to condition the method of the first team coach, Vicente Moreno, who joined shortly after Blanco, and who confesses “to count on grassroots football a lot because of the quality of the players and the club’s own culture. Rather with the aim of reinforcing a “feeling of belonging” among the newly landed and above all to facilitate and accelerate the leap to the highest category of young people, indicate those responsible for the sports area. Molded in a series of basic principles, those who come from below will know what is expected of them and will know the style inside out regardless of who the instructions come from in the dressing room.
That is the main strategy of the team to establish itself in the elite. After making the largest investment in history in incorporations, when RDT, Cabrera and Embarba landed for about 40 million euros in January 2020, Blanco and Rufete put the focus on “one of the quarries with the greatest capacity and tradition to train professionals ”. An opinion supported by the history of the second team that has won the Youth King’s Cup the most times since 2000 and that achieved its last great trophy in the professional category, the 2006 King’s Cup, with the participation in the final of six aces of home.
Luis Vicente Mateo, head of the academy blanquizul landed in Barcelona after an experience in Israeli football, reflects: “Our priority is to train players for the elite, accelerate the steps in their development and expose them to situations similar to those they will find when they reach the first team. This season we are being very brave with a subsidiary of just over 19 years on average in which several youths train and play regularly ”.
Big data to accelerate the leap of new promises
This season, four homegrown players (Darder, David López, Pedrosa and Puado) were among the ten players with the most minutes until matchday 38, according to Transfermarkt data, and three promises (Max Svensson, Omar El Hilali, and Jofre Carreras) They have made their league debut. In addition, the 22-year-old pearl Javi Puado has emerged as one of the team’s main assets with 12 goals and eight assists.
With the aim of finding new talents, Blanco has implemented a methodological revolution based on the big data creating a platform in which all the areas —medical services, psychologists, technicians— pour records of the youth and the players of the subsidiary and the male and female first team. The tool reaches a surprising level of detail, incorporating assessments of the mental strength of the team and of each of the players in the matches. “Before, as in many clubs, all the areas worked separately and what we have done is unify them to have a 360-degree vision. The objective is that within a few years we will know each case in detail to know when we can accelerate development stages taking into account a large amount of quantitative data plus the qualitative assessment of the technicians ”, says Blanco.
Working with data analysis is also essential for Espanyol’s coaching staff, argues coach Vicente Moreno: “There is a brutal amount of data that is monitored and that offers us opportunities when making decisions, reducing the margin of error.”
Having overcome the suffering of the relegation campaign, in which he assumed the responsibility of directing the team in the last days, Rufete believes that in these months the foundations have been laid for the Blue and Whites to consolidate their status as a historic Spanish football team. “I think we took a painful step back but we got up and came back having taken two steps forward. The passage of time will tell if the correct path has been marked, but I believe that now the club is going in a good direction ”, the sports director concludes.