The transfer window of 2020 saw the emergence of a large Thiago Alcântara-sized hole in coach Hansi Flick’s Bayern Munich squad. Fortunately, Die Roten board’s proved yet again why they are the best in business as they replaced Flick’s former midfield-maestro with another promising Spanish footballer, Marc Roca Junqué. The bright spot in an otherwise dysfunctional Espanyol side of 2019/20, the 23-year-old Catalan talent has long been considered as one of the best young midfielders in the world.
Roca is an archetypal Spanish midfielder who belongs to an elegant, diminishing class of footballers known as deep-lying-playmakers. Bayern fans are not unfamiliar with the concept, having watched legendary footballer Xabi Alonso and Thiago boss the game wearing the red shirt for the second-half of the last decade.
What is Roca’s playing style, what makes him so good in his position and what will he possibly need to work upon in order to fit-in in Hansi Flick’s starting XI? Let’s have a look.
A product of Espanyol academy, Roca broke into the first team in the year 2016 at a young age of 19 and went on to make 115 appearances for his club.
The Spaniard has primarily played in central-midfield and was one of the key players in the season 2018/19 team of coach Joan Francesc Ferrer Sicilia (a.k.a “Rubi”) that helped Espanyol make a comeback to European competition after 12 years of wait. In the same year, he orchestrated his nation Spain’s UEFA European Under-21 Championship win while sitting at the heart of a star-studded team.
A crafty midfield metronome
Seen as a hybrid of Spanish footballing legends Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, Roca plays in the position of a holding midfielder. He is an ideal representation of an orchestrator and defensive-shield. A calming presence on the pitch, Roca’s technical ability is there to be marveled at.
The former blue-and-white midfielder adheres to the center-back pairing, facilitating the team’s ball progression from deep areas with his omnipresence and genius passing. Averaging 60+ touches in a match and being among the most-intended pass targets (46), the youngster pulls the strings by acting as the central creative hub of the team. (Keep in mind that Espanyol keep much less possession than Bayern)
The 23-year old isn’t a renowned dribbler, but he dictates the tempo with his wide range of passing and instigates attacking moves for his team. Averaging 12 successful long passes per game, Roca’s pinging diagonal passes can come in handy in switching plays or speeding things up on the attacking front (FBref).
When the team moves into the final third, he stays behind and acts as a fulcrum at the base of the structure. The young midfielder provides cover to the attackers and helps maintain possession by recycling the ball with his artful distribution.
One of his trademark moves is when he takes the ball from wider-areas and whips in a curling cross aimed towards the back post. An average of 0.63 crosses per game isn’t too shabby for a holding-midfielder.
The elegant-playmaker can unlock any defense with his ability to serve incisive over-the-top deliveries to attackers making surprise in-behind runs. The thought of Roca combining his ingenious distribution with Thomas Muller or Serge Gnabry’s off-the-ball movement is exhilarating in itself.
Roca proves to be the beating heart of his team and does his work in a simple but effective fashion.
A player with in-game intelligence beyond his years
A standout feature of Roca’s résumé is the intelligence and speed of thought with which he operates.
With his tremendous vision, the left-footed wizard quickly processes the passing options in front of him and picks a vertical pass to break opposition’s lines of play. As a result, he was among the top players to record most progressive-passes (7.1 per 90) and passes into the final-third (6.5 per 90) in La Liga, last season.
His career-best eight passes-made-under-pressure (per 90) isn’t as impressive as Kimmich’s 13 or Thiago’s 17(!) in the Bundesliga. However, the Spaniard has a silky first-touch and is very sharp at releasing the ball at the right moment. As a result, he was dispossessed 0.60 times in a game, as opposed to Thiago and Kimmich’s 0.78 and 0.63 (possession adjusted), respectively.
The 2019 U-21 Euro winner is also astute in his defensive duties and works smartly without the ball. He stays vigilant of the opponent’s passing patterns. As soon as his supposed-marker is about to receive the ball, the 6-foot midfielder sprints towards him and presses from behind, allowing him to win the ball in case that player turns with it.
With an average of 22 pressures and 3.44 tackles+interceptions a game, Roca always puts in a diligent defensive shift. He possesses great stamina to run, defend and press his opponents throughout the course of the play, having accumulated more than 3,000 minutes of playing time in his two previous seasons in La Liga.
The discipline with which he maintains his position is truly remarkable. Unless covered by another midfielder, he isn’t tempted into leaving his ground and is frequently seen filling a void space in the backline when a defender ventures out of position to charge.
Furthermore, he uses his superior anticipation skills to break opposition’s play and can help his side launch a fast break.
Roca’s poise on the ball can be clearly noticed when he demands possession. Furthermore, he guides his teammates by showing them open passing options and his 12 recoveries per game suggests he always stays close to where the ball is being played.
In an interview with El Pais in 2019, he was asked about his role and his answers spoke volumes about his understanding of the game:
Being able to read the game is very important in my position. My role is difficult because I don’t have the luxury of being able to lose possession. In my position, it’s important to be aware of everything, understanding which spaces are there to cover or where the ball might end up.
This is the kind of profile that makes Roca a suitable replacement for Thiago.
Possible areas to improve
Lack of dynamism
Roca has unfortunately also inherited one significant weakness from his “inspiration”, Xabi Alonso. The Vilafranca-born lacks the much-needed dynamism to sustain Hansi Flick’s rigorous system and carry out his industrious gegenpress-ing plan.
In La Liga, the 23-year-old compensated for his lack of pace and physicality with great reading of situations. However, the Bundesliga is an upgrade over his former league and the opponents here are much faster and unpredictable in their style.
His apparent lack of agility and physicality can be exploited by teams in Germany, especially since the deep-lying playmaker will be tasked with shielding the defense.
Another possible area where Roca might have to improve is his defending technique. While he maintains his balance in approaching a ball-carrier, he needs a bit of guidance in deciding the next step of whether to contain or tackle the opposing player.
Although not as aggressive as Leon Goretzka, his tackling might need to be worked upon. Last season, the Spaniard committed 2.4 fouls in a game, which is relatively high as compared to 1.2 and 0.86 fouls registered by Thiago and Kimmich respectively.
Roca doesn’t have daunting weaknesses in his game. However, midfielders nowadays are required to excel in all facets of the game, especially if they aspire to play regularly at a club like Bayern Munich. In any case, Roca should draw inspiration from his predecessor — Thiago. The thing that set Thiago apart was how smoothly he was able to bridge the gap between being a Spanish-maestro and a dynamic German-athlete. The treble-winner was sophisticated with the ball but he was also found in the thick of gritty work without the ball.
At Bayern and under Hansi Flick, Roca will find himself in just the right environment to take his development to the next level. The young Catalonian already ticks many boxes that are required from a typical Flick midfielder: A “vertical” mindset, a hardworking defender, smart off-the-ball movement and an overall effective style of play.
Above all, he is a humble boy with an attitude that has been praised by his former coaches. Can Die Roten faithful expect a splendid Roca-and-Rolla time at the club? Initial signs most definitely point to “yes”.