COLUMN: Darder-dependencia migrates to Mallorca

In the inevitable post-mortem that follows relegation, it would have needed a compelling case to include Sergi Darder among Espanyol’s issues last season.   

An unintentional soloist on a sinking ship, the context surrounding Darder – as impressive as he made it look – wasn’t the way anyone intended it to be. The 29-year-old spent most of last season in troubleshoot mode, exploring the limits of his influence in a team who needed every last bit they could get from him.  

Darder wasn’t racking up the shots or demanding a monopoly on touches, as if bestowed by a sense of hero-ball. His obligation – as it quickly became clear to everyone – was to shape his side with the ball and put them in the positions to succeed, as much as was possible. That ability to direct games made for a peculiar type of individualism; one that was more rooted in helping others than himself. 

He played more minutes than any other midfielder in LaLiga last season, and was on the pitch for 97% of Espanyol’s total game time. Within that, he led his team in just about every possible method of distribution: touches, completed passes, chances created, expected assists, through balls, successful take-ons… you name it.  

And so before, during, and in the wake of the 2022-23 season, we had all repeatedly returned to the same question: how good would this guy be in a more competitive team?  

In theory, his move to Mallorca grants us that reality. Javier Aguirre’s side finished ninth in La Liga last term, just three points behind the seventh and final European spot. Indeed, the only teams who won more games than them (14) were all sides who will play in European competition this term. 

By any possible metric, Sergi Darder is now playing in a better team. And yet, at the same time, there’s also plenty of reason to doubt whether we’ll get an answer to our original question. 

There are few teams in LaLiga for whom Plan A is as well established as it is in Mallorca. Aguirre’s side live between the margins, and are typically onto a good thing if they can get themselves 1-0 up. That altered game state reinforces their 5-3-2 shape, removes the necessity for initiative, and drags opponents into their world where they are the code to be cracked. Since the start of last season, Mallorca are the team whose possession recoveries come closest to their own goal on average (38 metres). 

The challenge for Aguirre’s side is getting to the game states that favour their defensive strength – and doing it over the long term. They’ve scored 40 goals in 41 games since the start of last season, while their xG of 40.5 is the lowest of any side in this period. Sustaining top-half performance on those numbers over a period of time is a no mean feat, and if their start to the new season is anything to go by, it’s a battle in which they’ve begun on the back foot. 

Mallorca have taken just one point from their first nine available in 2023-24, despite playing two promoted sides within that. Indeed, their lone point to date was rescued in Las Palmas, with Darder coming off the bench to assist their equaliser just a day after joining the club.  

He started on the bench for Mallorca’s first two games of the new season. And by half time in both, Aguirre had brought Darder on, scrapped Plan A, and changed the shape to try and ignite some form of initiative – either owing to being behind on the scoreboard or purely devoid of an attacking foothold. In Las Palmas on week one, it was 1-0 down with 24% possession in the first half; a week later at home to Villarreal, it was 0-0 at the break with 31% possession and 0.06 xG to their name. 

The situation into which Darder has arrived isn’t one of a team whose attacking threats aren’t well-defined or competent. In fact, if anything, they are so well-defined to the point of being one-dimensional, as we’ve seen in their start to the campaign. The main problem, however, is that the cast who propped up those methods last season aren’t in place anymore, and there’s a big resulting onus on Darder to pick up the tab. 

After the summer sales of Kang-In Lee – who created a league-high number of chances for Vedat Muriqi last term (19) – and to a lesser extent, Inigo Ruiz de Galarreta, Mallorca are living with the fact that crucial connections between creators and finishers have been severed this summer. Without Darder’s presence on the pitch in the opening weeks, Aguirre’s side haven’t been able to manage the ball with meaning, or produce the service to Muriqi which they sustain themselves through. 

Despite only playing 180 minutes across three games so far, the 29-year-old already leads all Mallorca players for passes completed in the opposition half (37) and final third (21). He has played into the box a team-high 23 times too, with the only other players in double figures being Pablo Maffeo (18) and Jaume Costa (10). Outside of crosses from the wing backs, Darder is already figuring to be the both the leading provider – as well as the most varied – in terms of feeding the penalty area.  

The native of Arta is stepping into Kang-In’s shoes in that sense, but there are two main obstacles to fully replicating that. The first is that Darder is an orthodox central midfielder who will have to move with the team to get up the pitch, as opposed to the South Korean who often played up front with Muriqi and had the dynamism to generate attacks individually. And secondly, after the signing of Cyle Larin to pair with Muriqi, Mallorca have only heightened their need to generate clear and diverse links between creation and the point of finish. 

The solution to both of those things is, of course, Sergi Darder. We’ve seen him do the heavy lifting at this level before, but already we’re left with the sense that he’s the solution by virtue of having a capacity to create and associate that is way beyond the next-best things in the squad around him. Even with the mercurial Kang-In striking up a crucial relationship with Muriqi last term, Mallorca still lived right on the cusp of generating just enough to preserve their performance. 

Ahead of what might well be the final, determining move of his career – and the one many had hoped would surround him with talent to dim his own a little – Darder won’t be spending too much time asking what you can do for me. Once more, it will be what can I do for you?


More of Jamie Kemp’s work can be found on La Pausa pod, where he and co-host Robbie Dunne break down some of the top talking points in La Liga.


Tags Espanyol Real Mallorca Sergi Darder
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