- Valencia, one of Spain's most successful clubs, has fallen on hard times in recent years, but it's been reinvigorated by a new approach and a series of loan moves that have paid off in a big way.
In order to truly define just how good Valencia, La Liga's surprise content, is playing right now, let’s first go back a week and examine the club's intense league encounter against Sevilla.
It’s the 42nd minute and the score is 0-0. The hosts, backed by their own fans, are pushing for an opener as the visitors, who had a bright 20 minutes, are now struggling to hold on. It’s nearly halftime, but Valencia, which features the youngest team in the league, keeps pressing, running and intoxicating the opposition as if the match just started.
The home crowd, on its feet, senses a goal is coming.
Enter Gonçalo Guedes, the 20-year-old winger on loan from PSG, who he picks up the ball in the center circle thanks to a great pass by Rodrigo Moreno, drives the ball to just inside 18-yard-box and scores one of the best goals you’ll see all season.
Italian striker Simone Zaza, who struggled when he was on loan with West Ham United last year, then scored his eighth goal of the season, three behind the overall leader Lionel Messi.
In the end, Valencia won 4-0 and remained second in La Liga leaving Los Che four points behind league-leading Barcelona. It was the team’s fifth consecutive league victory, and it would go on to secure a sixth straight in all competitions with its ensuing 2-0 midweek win against Real Zaragoza in the Copa del Rey.
The Mestalla, one of the most iconic stadiums in Europe, is alive once again.
This is a remarkable turnaround for Valencia, taking in mind that at this point last season, after nine matches, the numbers told the complete opposite story. Valencia was in 15th place with six losses and three wins, just two points safe from the relegation zone.
The season did not improve, as Cesare Prandelli, who had just become the club’s fifth manager in less than a year, resigned in December. In January, the club’s sporting director, Jesús García Pitarch, also resigned, and relegation seemed certain. Thanks in large part to interim manager Voro Gonzalez, the club escaped the drop, ending in 12th place, the same spot as the previous season.
After a grueling six months, Voro confirmed that he didn’t want the job moving forward, so Valencia was back to square one.
If this were any other team that was used to mid-table obscurity, then this would not be all that noteworthy. But Valencia did not used to be like this.
The club is one of Spain's most successful, with six La Liga titles to its name. They include two in three years, in 2001-2002 and 2003-2004, under manager Rafa Benitez and featuring players like Rubén Baraja, David Albelda, Vicente Rodriguez, John Carew, Pablo Aimar and Mista.
Valencia has cultivated Spanish talent thanks to its youth academy, with players such as David Silva, Raúl Albiol, Isco and Paco Alcácer rising through its ranks, and it provided the world with the great striking partnership of David Villa and Fernando Morientes.
After years of mismanagement that brought inconsistency, the club was lost, without an identity and lagging behind the headlines that are normally dominated by Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid.
So what has happened this season? What has propelled the team to be doing so well? It actually began this past spring when the well-respected Mateu Alemany, Real Mallorca’s former president, took over as general director in March, and a month later, Anil Murthy was introduced as the new president.
Alemany knew that if Valencia was to get back to winning ways, it didn’t just need to bring in a new manager who could make tactical changes, it needed someone who could change the entire way of doing things. There was a need for a revolution.
This is when Marcelino García Toral took charge as manager after four years with Villarreal. Alongside with Alemany, Marcelino redesigned a new squad, focusing more on youth and cohesion as opposed to reputation and experience.
Nani, Enzo Pérez, Álvaro Negredo and Diego Alvez were gone.
In came players such as Zaza, Gabriel Paulista, and loanees Guedes, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Jeison Murillo. Marcelino did not bring in anyone over the age of 26, but he wanted those who had something to prove, players who believed they deserved a shot.
Alongside academy graduates like the highly rated Carlos Soler and the well-traveled Rodrigo, this team clicked instantly.
The Valencia of today is a fast, dynamic counterattacking team that believes that possession is only important if it amounts to something; having the ball for the sake of it is not enough. Whenever in attack, something must come of it.
Marcelino also wants his players to suffocate the opposition, which is why he is obsessed with physical and nutritional restrictions. If you watch a Valencia match this season, you’ll discover that his players rarely run out of steam.
This is, however, not a perfect team as this sense of intensity can often be a double-edged sword. There are certainly times when Valencia can lose control of the game. But thanks to its relentless pursuit of the ball after immediately losing it, it has the capability of correcting its mistakes very quickly. Transitional defense is a key part of Marcelino’s strategies.
Valencia is also an extremely aggressive team, averaging more fouls than any other team in the league so far, which is statistic that could end up hurting the squad in the long run as suspensions could be hurtful over the course of a long season.
Nevertheless, the good times are back at the Mestalla, and the energy can be felt across the entire club.
A month before a massive test at home against Barcelona, Valencia's young, vibrant squad is finding success for the club again, and it is doing everything possible to bring back the golden years.