Valencia have gone somewhat under the La Liga radar this season. After finishing a lowly twelfth last season, they now sit in second, one of only three teams still unbeaten in La Liga and one point above current champions, Real Madrid. Having been regarded as one of the biggest clubs in Spain historically, Valencia have not finished in the top three since 2011-12. So, what has changed at the club, and will it last?
Despite having a turbulent time in recent seasons to say the least, the lowest point being Gary Neville’s 7-0 defeat to Barcelona and, well, Gary Neville’s time in general. Managers, in general, have had a tough time in Valencia, having gone through four in the past two years. These include assistant manager Voro being named caretaker three times, as well as former Italy national team manager Cesare Prandelli.
None have been particularly successful in any sense, especially at being able to get an obviously talented group of players who should be challenging for European positions, to gel and play as a team.
In terms of squad, there is a mix of experienced top-flight players who have won major trophies, as well as young talent regarded as some of the most promising in Spain. Players such as Ezequiel Garay and goalkeeper Neto, a summer signing from Juventus, add an invaluable winning mentality to the team. Garay has won the league title in Portugal and Russia, the Copa Del Rey, as well as finishing runner-up in the World Cup with Argentina and the Europa League. Meanwhile, Neto has twice won Serie A with Juventus as well as domestic cups.
With two such distinguished figures at the back, not to mention having one of the top playmakers in Spain with Dani Parejo in midfield, this allows the young prospects on the wing to flourish. The contrast in age between the middle of the park and the flanks is clear to see.
Wing-backs Jose Gaya (22) and former Barcelona man Montoya (26) provide exceptional amounts of energy and attacking to support to wingers Carlos Soler (20) and Goncalo Guedes (20). Throw in Santi Mina and on-loan Manchester United starlet Andreas Pereira (both 21), and it gives you an indication as to the sheer potential and strength in depth this young, attacking squad has.
It would be harsh not to give West Ham favourite Simone Zaza a mention. Having scored zero goals for the London club when on-loan, the former Juventus striker has just come off the back of his best ever month as a player, scoring his first career hattrick and winning La Liga Player of the Month for September. The in-form Italian has scored seven goals in eight La Liga matches so far this season.
So then, with a team that has only gotten stronger despite mixed fortunes in recent years, why have Valencia only now just started to click?
The plaudits must go to the new manager, Marcelino. Having brought Villareal back to the top flight in 2013, he then lead the club to three consecutive top-six finishes. He only left the club after a disagreement with the board of directors, but Villareal’s loss and well and truly turned out to be Valencia’s gain.
Marcelino has finally harnessed the obvious potential in the squad, creating a solid spine as mentioned, and giving attacking focus to the wingers. Allowing the young players creative freedom means the team is far more dangerous through quick counter attacks and create far more chances for strikers than last season.
The results are clear to see even this early in the season. Valencia have already beaten fellow high-flyers Real Sociedad away, drawn with Atletico Madrid, beaten Bilbao and this week, beat Real Betis 6-3 away in an incredible fixture. This was only the fourth time in the club’s history that they have scored six in a La Liga match. Overall, Marcelino and Valencia could not have asked for a better start, however, their form also relies on the form of the inconsistent Zaza, who they will be hoping can fire them back into Europe come the end of the season.