Espanyol’s admirable resurgence under Javier Aguirre

Posted: April 5, 2013 in La Liga


After just 13 games played at the beginning of this season in La Liga, Espanyol found themselves rooted to the bottom of the table and searching for a new manager. Mauricio Pochettino’s contract was terminated in November, and the search for a new manager began. Fast-forward a few days later and Espanyol had announced the appointment of Javier Aguirre, a manager with vast La Liga experience, having previously managed Osasuna, Atlético Madrid and Real Zaragoza. An appointment which, at the time made sense, is now being perceived as a masterstroke by the Espanyol board.

As of writing this, in the first week of April, Los Periquitos have shot up to 12th in the La Liga table and have all but confirmed their safety, having amassed a mighty 27 points under Javier Aguirre; they only had nine points in 13 when Pochettino got the sack. So, in 16 games under Aguirre, Espanyol have won 27 out of a possible 48 points. When looked into in even more depth, those numbers get even more impressive: since Aguirre’s arrival, Espanyol have only lost three games (one of them against Barcelona too); seven wins, six draws and three losses. Aguirre himself recently said, after the 2-2 draw with Real Sociedad, “I would have cut off my finger had you told me when I took over that we would be 12 points clear of the relegation zone at some point this season”.

Aguirre has been able to squeeze up to the last ounce of quality out of each and every single Espanyol player. We’ve seen the fluid, joyous understanding between Espanyol’s deadly forward-four of Stuani, Verdu, Simao and Sergio Garcia, we’ve been treated to the solid performances from defensive-midfielder, Víctor Sánchez and left-back, Javi López. Aguirre has implemented a resilient mentality into all of his players, mixed with the clichéd winning mentality.  With brilliant set-piece takers like Simao and Verdu, it’s not surprising when you see that 16 of Espanyol’s 36 league goals this season have come from set-pieces (pictured below). All six goals and two assists that Sergio Garcia has contributed to the side’s overall tally have come since Aguirre arrived at the club – the Mexican put Sergio Garcia back into his preferred position, centre-forward, and the Spaniard has shone ever since. Aguirre’s phenomenal use of journeymen like Stuani and Diego Colotto has really aided his side’s rampant rise up the table. Stuani has in fact scored four and assisted three since Aguirre’s arrival; much like Sergio Garcia, Aguirre decided to use Stuani in a different position, one he believed would be more adept for Stuani’s qualities with the ball, so he’ deployed him as a right-midfielder who’ll constantly move into a centre-forward role when Garcia drops deep to receive the ball or instigate attacks. Whereas before, Espanyol midfielder Joan Verdu would’ve been the spotlight of the Espanyol side, Javier Aguirre has made it so that the team now play as a collective. Almost everyone has played a huge part in this revival, and Aguirre must take a lot of the plaudits for that. He’s picked up the players’ heads after a demoralising start to the season and made them all vital components to this resurgence.

Espanyol's impressive 16 goals from set-pieces. Broken down into different set-pieces.

Espanyol’s impressive 16 goals from set-pieces. Broken down into different set-pieces.

There are two players in particular who I’d like to take an in depth look at. I’ll start with Joan Verdu. Verdu has always been the star of the show at Espanyol ever since joining the club in the summer of 2009; Verdu signed a four-year contract with Espanyol which, if you’ve been doing the math, means he’s available on a free this summer. It’s a weird one because Verdu has said himself that he wouldn’t mind staying, but the club have apparently offered him a new deal which is in the balance. At the age of 29, with a lot of experience under his belt, it’s no surprise that teams like Wigan, Swansea and Sevilla have been taking a look at the La Masia product. Verdu comes into the team with a knack for scoring from midfield positions; netting seven this season. He tends to sit just behind Sergio Garcia with Simao and Stuani either side of him. His understanding with fellow Catalonia team-mate, Sergio Garcia (he too is a product of La Masia), is a joy to watch. They seem to have an almost telepathic understanding on the pitch, which has seen Espanyol come to life in the final third under Aguirre. Verdu’s goals usually come from him being a late arrival in the box, meaning he’s hardly ever picked up because the men in the box have their minds on the players currently in it. Verdu brings a calm, serene ambiance on the pitch, with the ball at his feet. The Espanyol captain backs up the ‘calm’ tag having scored all three penalties Espanyol have been awarded under Aguirre. One of his attributes that always slips under the radar is his almost flawless tackling – of the 30 tackles Verdu has attempted, a whopping 24 have been successful. Verdu is a player who brings an all-round complete-midfield play and has been, as usual, one of Espanyol’s best players this season.

Verdu's goals, as mentioned before, come from in and around the box.

Verdu’s goals, as mentioned before, come from in and around the box.

One player who hasn’t failed to impress me in every Espanyol game, since Aguirre took over, this season is Kiko Casilla. When Aguirre arrived at Espanyol, Cristian Álvarez was the first-choice ‘keeper with Kiko Casilla very much in and out of Pochettino’s plans. When injury hit Álvarez, Aguirre was forced to play Casilla; since then, the Spaniard hasn’t lost his place, having played 14 consecutive league games and amassing a phenomenal eight clean-sheets over those 14 games. Álvarez returned from injury but couldn’t get a look-in ahead of Casilla; he’s now out on loan in his home country, Argentina, playing for San Martin. Casilla’s reflexes and shot stopping are two of his strongest traits, whilst he’s also very good at catching  and punching the ball from set-pieces. A strong, vocal presence between the sticks paired with phenomenal ability, it’s come to no surprise that he’s been shortlisted as a possible replacement for Victor Valdes at Barcelona. Casilla has picked up six ‘MVP’ awards, or man-of-the-match for those of us oblivious to the abbreviation ‘MVP’,  from the official club polls. He’s become a fan favourite at the Cornellà-El Prat and, in my opinion, deserves to be ranked amongst Málaga CF’s Willy Caballero and Atlético Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois as a contender for goalkeeper of the season in La Liga.

Kiko Casilla's flawless catching from corners - yet to drop the ball. 100% claiming success.

Kiko Casilla’s flawless catching from corners – yet to drop the ball. 100% claiming success.

It’s been brilliant watching Espanyol under Aguirre this season. He seems to have brought a new lease of life at the club and that has rubbed off onto the players who, as a collective, have been very enjoyable to watch. It’s mind-boggling to hear that Aguirre has yet to be offered a contract extension, but I’m sure the Espanyol board will be discussing that with him at some point this season. It’d be great to see him at the helm next season, being able to recruit some players of his own and mix them in with the exceptional quality that he has at his disposal.


  1. savagegooner says:

    A good read Chris. I remember when Aguirre took over I was interested in seeing how he did. I expected an upturn in form, but I didn’t realise until now how impressive it has been. Do you think the main changes has been psychological, or how he has tinkered with players and their positions?

    • gb1886 says:

      He’s definitely tinkered with their positions. Sergio Garcia was moved back to CF, where he’s found some true goal scoring and assisting form. Bringing Kiko Casilla in and not dropping him when Alvarez returned from injury was also a very good move. I think he’s tinkered more than he’s given a psychological boost.

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