The last 12-18 months have been horrible for Valencia fans. One of the truly great sides in LaLiga, who broke the duopoly not once but twice in a three season period, were reduced to being a laughing stock. Local rivals and those who profited from the club’s mismanagement were keen to rub further salt into the wound. There was unbridled joy as Valencia slipped further and further down the table.
Their fans are one of the most passionate and loyal in all of Spain. Demanding, yes, but they know the value the badge carries. The history, the pride, the passion. Sometimes the expectations from fans were unrealistic and they too have made mistakes. But when you see your club relegated to the comedy sections of newspapers domestically and abroad, who wouldn’t be angry? Valencia supporters didn’t, and don’t, deserve the mess seen at the club in recent times.
Whether they were teething problems or a steep learning curve, Peter Lim largely dropped the ball with Valencia. The success on the pitch in his first season only delayed the growing concerns off it. Under pressure it felt he opted to pick people he knew and trusted as opposed to the best man for the job.
TV presenters, unproven coaches and the wrong men controlling the finances all made Valencia look like a tortoise on its back. Unable to get upright, the vultures were picking away at their soft underbelly. Like a death scene in a Saw movie, you didn’t want to watch but you couldn’t look away.
Lim is learning from his initial mistakes
Then Lim finally saw the light. This wasn’t – with the greatest respect – a Malaga, a Granada or a Las Palmas who could afford to spend a season or two floating around in the abyss. Valencia needed structure, organisation and a clear plan going forward. They needed to compete.
Mateu Alemany came in to oversee the general dealings of the club. His influence when it comes to transfers, alongside Jose Ramon Alesanco, saw the club offload the highest earners this summer. Diego Alves, Alvaro Negredo, Luis Nani and Enzo Perez all left. None of them generated a huge income for the club but it freed up wage space to bring in fresh, younger players. Mario Suarez, Joao Cancelo and Aymen Abdennour were also moved on.
It’s important to have a coach who values the academy
And perhaps the most important change was the arrival of Marcelino. The former Villarreal coach was unable to from join in 2016 due to red tape following his preseason dismissal. Marcelino demands the maximum from his players and if they demonstrate that, you’ll have a place in his squad. If you want to leave or demand greater playing time without wanting to prove yourself, out you go. Zero tolerance. You’re either with him or against him.
Valencia’s squad was filled with overpaid players who didn’t, or couldn’t, do enough to justify their cost. Marcelino felt these high earners were denying squad places to the youngsters at the club. He wanted to slimline the squad and incorporate the academy players who were ready to make the step up. “We need a smaller squad so these youngsters, who deserve a chance, are given one.”
“It’s clear we need to support the academy because these players have a positive feeling, a connection with the supporters.” Without European football it makes sense to clear out the squad and give those third and fourth choice spots to players who love Valencia. Toni Lato, Nacho Vidal and Carlos Soler are now key members of the first team squad. A key identity of Valencia is giving youngsters a chance and not seeing them leave in order to play elsewhere. This was the case with Toni Martinez, now at West Ham, and could happen again with Rafa Mir.
A year on, Valencia look like a team again
On the pitch the performances are in stark contrast to what happened last season. Unbeaten five matches in, sitting on nine points and with three clean sheets. At the same stage of the 2016/17 season they’d lost their opening four matches and hadn’t kept a single clean sheet. The improvement this season is even more impressive which you consider they’ve already played Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.
The defence is key to this rebuilding process. Martin Montoya and Jose Luis Gaya remain the first choice full backs but it’s centrally where there’s strength in depth now. Ezequiel Garay is important due to his experience but he’s joined by new signings Gabriel Paulista and Jeison Murillo. Younger players but ones who speak Spanish, something crucial for Marcelino. Communication matters. So we can safely rule out a move for Gareth Bale then.
It’s worth pointing out that a lot outsiders were surprised by the decision to let Diego Alves leave. The penalty-stopping king was a fan favourite but was also on high wages and becoming more error prone. His replacement, Neto, deserves praise for his performances so far.
Kondogbia frees up Parejo at last
Just ahead of the defence is Geoffrey Kondogbia. By all accounts the Frenchman lost his way in Italy after being a star at Sevilla. Marcelino needed someone to shield the defence, a role which was unsuccessfully handed to Enzo last season. Maybe there’s something in the water over in Spain but Kondogbia looks exactly like he did when at Sevilla. Strong, intelligent and a la Steven N’Zonzi is a threat at both ends of the pitch.
The arrival of Kondogbia has another positive effect and that is it frees up Dani Parejo. The club captain, who endures a love-hate relationship with Valencia fans, now looks a different player. With time and space on the ball he’s a constant thorn in the opposition’s side.
Errors and mistakes will happen when you take chances but allowing him to be a playmaker and not a jack of all trades is a masterstroke. Parejo even admitted that he wanted to leave this summer but after seeing Marcelino in training, chose to stay.
With Marcelino opting for a 4-4-2 it means Soler is on the right wing now. The pearl of the academy products is loving life under Marcelino. Soler has been involved in more goals (4) than any other midfielder in LaLiga so far. Starting out wide he has more space to drift inside or get in behind the fullback and cross into the box.
Three different strikers but all are off the mark
Rodrigo Moreno and Santi Mina were in and out of the side last season but both are key squad members under Marcelino. Rodrigo, who is still searching for confidence in front of goal, is someone the coach admires a lot. “Since I’ve been here he’s the striker that’s run the most, worked the most and helped the collective the most.” Rodrigo has two goals in two games now, further rewarding Marcelino’s faith in him.
Mina replaced Simone Zaza against Levante and scored the opening goal. The Italian was reportedly unhappy at being on the bench but Mina justified his place by getting on the scoresheet. In the match last night versus Malaga Mina was paired with Zaza and between them they scored four goals. Mina’s pace and workrate adds another dimension to the attack. Marcelino backed him in the summer when many people wanted him gone. Once again, the coach got it right.
And Zaza, oh Zaza. The €16m signing from Juventus didn’t take well to being on the bench for the match against Levante. The player and coach exchanged words and at the end of the game Zaza didn’t go over to the away fans. Later he apologised. However, more than any apology, the best response is to score goals – and he did. An eight-minute hat-trick last night meant he left Mestalla with the fans chanting his name.
Dreaming of the Champions League
The fine start to the season has caused fans and media outlets alike to suggest a run at the Champions League places isn’t out of reach. Marcelino, while ambitious, is keen to take things one game at a time and not put too much pressure on his team. “There’s 33 games to go. We’ve only played five so there’s a long way to go. Going five games unbeaten deserves credit but we must continue with the same humility. We won’t score five goals every week!”
Right now, Valencia don’t need to score five goals every week to please the supporters. They’ve rediscovered the pride in the team they love and that’s priceless. Quite where this Valencia side will end up is unknown but the initial signs are positive. And if you ask anyone in the street who is responsible for that, they’ll all respond with the same answer: Marcelino.