When Unai Emery decided to resign at the end of 2012/13 campaign, there was a sense of relief amongst fans. Despite him being the longest serving coach in over 40 years and despite guiding Valencia to a third place for the third consecutive time amidst financial meltdown, presidential changes and sale of star players; fans were no longer satisfied. They wanted a bit more; they wanted Valencia to become a better challenger in the Spanish duopoly. The appointment of club legend Mauricio Pellegrino produced mixed emotions amongst fans. A section of fans were deeply concerned about Pellegrino’s lack of managerial experience. While others were more optimistic likening his appointment with that of Guardiola. Unfortunately for Valencia, the Argentine was no Guardiola. Under him Valencia got off to a terrible start and showed poor and inconsistent form. The club flirted with mid table, and eventually by December, Pellegrino was sacked. Valencia didn’t take long to bring in the experienced Valverde who changed things instantly. But Valverde couldn’t do enough to help Valencia regain the much needed Champions League spot. At the end all that separated Valencia from the 4th spot were a couple of points, and eleven points from 3rd. When one looks again at the results, Valencia dropped critical points at home against Deportivo, Rayo Vallecano and cross town rival Levante in matches it should have won. To make things worse, they also lost at home to Real Sociedad and Sevilla in critical fixtures. The club also lost points in numerous away matches in which a win should have been the more probable outcome. Add all these up and the club could have been easily ahead of Atletico Madrid. Making things worse, Valverde who was responsible for rescuing Valencia’s season, decided to move on. Fans were left wondering whether it was worth letting Emery go after all.
Off the pitch the pressures from the club’s precarious financial situation continued to mount. Club president Manuel Llorente resigned after four years in charge. Failure to qualify for Champions League meant the club needed to sell to survive. It was time for another star player to go, and this time it was Roberto Soldado. If one looks at the glass half full, it hasn’t been all bad news. New president Amadeo Salvo has impressed and excited fans with his visionary “Gloval” strategy. Unlike his predecessor, Salvo seems to be more intent on long term growth by investing in cantera, focusing on local players, and buying cheap uncut gems – the Borussia Dortmund style. Salvo has backed up his talk by instantly strengthening the club at grass root level with the appointment of former players Rufete, Baraja, and Curro Torres. The signing of Miroslav Djukic as the new coach was also a clever move. Unlike Pellegrino, Djukic has over 6 years of solid coaching experience including a couple of very successful seasons with Real Valladolid. The Serbian’s humble, down to earth character and attitude towards hard work and discipline, fits perfectly with the clubs culture. Having played for Valencia for nearly six seasons, Djukic also takes immense pride in the new job something he passionately demonstrates in every training session, match or press conference. Whether Djukic will be Valencia’s new Benitez, only time will tell!
Five players have left the club – Albelda, Soldado, Gago, Tino Costa, and Nelson Valdez. The departure of Pablo Piatti and Aly Cissokho also seems imminent. Valencia is also likely to sell Diego Alves as the dual goalkeeper approach has been detrimental to the team and the players. Guaita will be given preference being a home grown player, and Salvo’s strategic direction. Adil Rami is also rumored to leave (given his depreciating buyout clause), however this is something Valencia may avoid with little time to find a replacement.
Valencia has also brought in four new players – Javi Fuego, Michel, Oriol Romeu (Loan) and Helder Postiga. Valencia President Amadeo Salvo has promised to bring in a high profile striker to replace Soldado, something which could prove to be challenging given Valencia’s financial situation. Salvo knows the importance of this, not only will it help him win points with the clubs fans, it will also give them something to be excited about. If Diego Alves is sold, Valencia will have to sign a backup goalkeeper. This too will be difficult as Valencia doesn’t intend to spend on a goalkeeper, and most Bosman options have already signed with other clubs.
Paco Alcacer returns from a reasonably satisfactory loan stint at Getafe. Bernat and Jonathan Viera will almost be like new signings, having been frozen under Valverde. Young Argentine playmaker Federico Cartabia, fullback Gaya and right winger Ibanez are the Mestalla players, who could break into the first team.
Squad Depth, Strength, Formation
In comparison to previous seasons, Valencia will be very midfield heavy this season. For the first time in a while, Valencia will have two robust defensive midfielders. This was one of Valencia’s biggest weaknesses last season. David Albelda was the only option, but the club legend was never in the physical state needed to meet the clubs intense schedule. Valverde often resorted to three central midfielders to add much required solidity. Valencia lost possession often, opposition ran through the midfield and the likes of Banega had to focus too much on ball winning that they couldn’t carry out their main playmaking responsibilities effectively. The signing of Fuego and Romeu can overturn this weakness instantly. Their presence gives Djukic plenty of options – give both Parejo and Banega a free playmaking role, only play one of Parejo/Banega, and play two strikers or an advanced playmaker. Or another option is to even play both Romeu and Fuego in those tough encounters where the opposition have great potency in attack. Fuego in particular can be one of Valencia’s most important signings in recent years. According to whoscored.com Fuego has a far superior tackling and interception statistics than any other player in Valencia, and is among the best defensive midfielders in the league. But what’s more impressive about Fuego is the difference he can bring to the teams possession, ball control and tempo. Fuego has produced an average of 52.3 passes per game at an accuracy of 82.1%. Dani Parejo puts in around 49.1 accurate passes per game, Tino Costa 43.7, Banega 42 and Albelda 35. So Fuego will not only win the ball, he can also hold up the ball, distribute, and give room to Banega and co, allowing them to play their more natural playmaking game. Valencia is blessed with three talented central midfielders in Banega, Parejo and Michel who can play deep or a more advanced role.
Joao Pereira will be the undisputed started for right back with Barragan playing a fringe role. Rami is likely to accompany Ricardo Costa as the central defenders, with Victor Ruiz and Cesar Delgado as backup options. Mathieu has proven his versatility last season with solid performances as a centre back. The Frenchman could partner one of Rami/Costa or play in his natural left back position. When Mathieu doesn’t play as a left back, Djukic can choose from Guardado, Bernat, Gaya – all mobile left sided players.
Valencia will continue playing Feghouli on the right, and one of Jonas/Viera/Bernat/Guardado on the left. While Jonas and Viera add creative spark in the final third, Bernat and Guardado add much needed pace and width, something Postiga can benefit from. Every Valencia fan will pray and hope for the recovery of Sergio Canales. Whenever the Spanish playmaker gets on the pitch, Valencia plays well. His movement, vision, passing brings a totally new dimension of Valencia’s play, whether he plays behind the striker or the left. Fede who is tipped to be an upcoming star, can also be slotted anywhere in the attacking half.
It is still unclear who will start as a striker. Much of this will depend on whether Valencia makes another signing, or how the team’s tactics shape up after a few matches. With the current lineup, Jonas is the clear favorite to start as a lone forward having scored an average of 20 goals the last two seasons. Perhaps with increased responsibility and greater service, Jonas can increase his tally. Where a bit of height and strength is required, Postiga can step in. Paco Alcacer will serve as a backup to Jonas and Postiga.
Given the depth Valencia has in all departments, Djukic has the luxury of choosing different formations depending on the opposition and situation. A classic 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 or even a 4-2-2 is possible. If Valencia wants to go gung-ho they can play both Jonas and Postiga up front. If they want to play attacking football they can play Canales/Viera/Michel behind the striker. If they want more caution they can play Banega and Parejo in a three man midfield. For an over conservative approach both Fuego and Romeu can play.
The versatility of players can also come in handy. Valencia is blessed with many players who can play in multiple options giving Djukic a lot of depth and cover.
Improvements Required From Previous Season
Valencia’s defensive record was appalling last season, conceding 54 goals (Ranked 9th in goals conceded below Sociedad, Malaga, Osasuna, Celta Vigo, Espanyol) in comparison to 44, 44, 40 over the last three seasons. Perhaps these 10 extra goals conceded cost Valencia the Champions League spot. The last two times Valencia won La Liga, they had conceded only 27 goals and had one of the meanest defences in Europe. Fans will be having high hopes Djukic (who was a member of that mean defence), will be able to organize the defence better than his predecessors.
Although Valverde got results, he was guilty of not utilizing his entire squad and being too predictable in terms of lineup, formation and strategy. Any opposition coach could name the Valencia starting lineup and predict how they will attack and what their vulnerabilities would be. With the talent at his disposal and depth in the squad, Djukic should constantly bring tactical surprises to make the team more penetrative, less boring and unpredictable.
There is a saying it is better to have a champion team, than a team of champions. But when the chips are down and everything is looking gloomy; sometimes you need a champion to bail you out – something like David Villa, David Silva or Mata did on countless occasions. Unfortunately the current Valencia team lacks such match winning, game changing players. The good news though is Valencia have players who have the potential to be game changers. Ever Banega for instance has intermittently shown his magic and wizardry since signing for the club more than three years ago. Rami, Feghouli and Jonas are also players capable of winning points on their own. Unfortunately such players seem to have inner demons, which prevents them from performing at their optimum. The onus will certainly be on Djukic to work with them on an individual level and get the best out of them.
Stay tuned for Part II next week, footy fans.