The Defining Moment
Most Valencia fans will not remember Malaga’s 3-0 victory against Zenit in the Spanish team’s first Champions League match on September 2012. In fact most will not want to remember, as this was the first match where Francisco ‘Isco” Alarcon demonstrated his talent to the World. Isco single handedly won the match for Malaga with his magic and wizardry, in the process scoring two goals. Isco’s maturity and sheer genius on the pitch made it seem like he had been doing it for years. Media and football fans around the world went wow and within a short time the Spaniard walked into the shortlist of some of Europe’s elite clubs. That night Valencia (starved of superstars) realized what it missed out on. Fingers were pointed at coach Unai Emery who was rumored to have written off Isco. Others felt this demonstrated the incompetence and lack of strategic thinking of President Manuel Llorente and Sporting Director Braulio Vazquez. By losing Isco, Valencia not only lost a player who could help them win, but someone whose sale could have boosted the club’s fortunes (Malaga later sold him for 30 Mill Euros). Valencia lost yet again, another homegrown player.
Along with Isco, Valencia has lost quite a few homegrown players in recent years including: Jordi Alba, Pablo Hernandez, David Silva, and Raul Albiol. By the end of 2012/13 campaign, Valencia retained only 3 homegrown players in Guaita, Albelda and Bernat though none of them guaranteed starters. The management of the club simply didn’t realize the importance of having homegrown or local players in the team. They were keener on selling to balance the books, and finding cheap bargains from around the world rather than promoting from within.
Losing Isco was a kind of a turning point for Valencia, a defining moment in which it realized it needed to protect its youngsters. The lackluster, spiritless performance, plus lack of sincerity of many foreign recruits also made the club and its fans realize why it needed more homegrown and local players.
The Cantera Prerogative
Fortunately current President Amadeo Salvo has identified this as one of his most important projects. Call it Valencianismo or Gloval, Salvo has pledged to strengthen the quarry and build the team around more local and regional players.
Although there is no theory to prove it, one can assume in comparison to a foreigner (who may have not even know much about your club) a homegrown player will play with a bit more drive, commitment and heart. They may grow up supporting the club, and know the history, the supporter’s passion and expectations. They might play with more pride and honor, more for the jersey and badge in front than the number at the back. Such players may also represent the face of the clubs inspiring fans and youngsters who one day may want to play for the club. Perhaps this could be a reason why a team like Real Sociedad plays with so much fervor and spirit. 14 of the Basque teams 23 players are from the club’s youth system. These fiercely loyal players seem to be unified and driven towards a common purpose. They play like lions and more for their club than themselves. Maybe this is also a reason why Manchester United often edges many of its big spending rivals given its long standing strategy to promote from within.
If one logically thinks about it, promoting homegrown players also saves the club millions in the transfer market. Consider the example of Pablo Aimar, who Valencia bought for 24 Mill Euros in 2001. Aimar was replaced by David Silva a product of the club’s youth system who offered no less than the Argentine playmaker. By the time Valencia sold Silva, they could have had a replacement in Isco, yet again from within the system. But the management didn’t realize the importance of succession planning. Today if Valencia wants a player of Silva’s or Isco’s quality and potential they will have to end up spending big like they did with Aimar, clearly a luxury they no longer have.
The Emerging Prospects
Valencia might not have a ready made replacement for Soldado or Silva, but they do have a group of promising youngsters. Usually Valencia only has one breakthrough player from the youth system in the span of a year or two. But over recent time, Valencia has accumulated a group of such players, almost like a golden generation. With the right guidance and exposure many of these players could very well reach the heights of David Villa, Silva, and Mata.
Paco Alcacer is the brightest prospect not only at the club but also in Spain and possibly in Europe. The striker from Torrent was considered a prodigious talent from his early years. Alcacer has represented Spain at all youth level teams and has won the UEFA Under 19 Championship twice, and was the highest scorer in the 2010 UEFA Under 17 Championships. Alcacer has also netted 42 times for Valencia B in 64 appearances. Alcacer is blessed with the attributes and traits of both a classic 9 and 7. His sharp off the ball movement and ability to finish, makes him a potent goal scorer. Paco also has the technical finesse to beat defenders, create and bring others into play much like David Villa. Last season, Valencia sent him on loan to Getafe to get him much needed first team experience. The loan stint may have given him some experience, but perhaps not enough to warrant a place in Valencia’s first team. Valencia has gambled by keeping him with the first team this season, rather than sending him on loan.
Young Paco will have to work very hard to win a spot from Postiga, Pabon and Jonas. Not too long ago Valencia had another similar talent in Aaron Niguez (now playing at Elche), who too was a star of his age group level and played for all of Spain’s youth teams. Some bad loan moves and a career threatening injury put Aaron off course. Paco is probably a more talented and proven player than Aaron. But if not managed well, Paco could have the same outcome. In Alcacer, Valencia have a striker who could rise to the heights of Mario Kempes or David Villa. The raw potential is there, the ball is in Valencia’s court to groom and nurture him and prevent other clubs from poaching him away. But is Djukic and co willing to give him the chance to prove himself?
Nobody considered Carles Gil to be a candidate for the first team. It is almost like unknowingly digging your backyard and finding a diamond. From the time Paco Alcacer was 16, everyone knew he would be a future star. The same cannot be said about Carles who in a short span of time won the fans over with some sizzling performances at Elche (On Loan). Now playing in his second year with Elche (and at La Liga level), Gil is showing signs of becoming a top player. The attacking midfielder is also attracting interest from top clubs like Barcelona and Manchester City. In fact, City boss Pellegrini, who is a keen admirer of Gil, wanted him to replace Isco at Malaga. Although Gil can play anywhere in the attacking half, he is most effective from the right. A tricky, pacey midfielder, Gil cans be menace for the opposition with his darting runs, and ability to cut into the box. Valencia has no shortages of left sided players. But the team badly lacks a right winger who can add width and pace. Hopefully with another good season with Elche, Gil will be able to take over the right wing role from Feghouli next season. Not only will Valencia have a threat from the right, they will not need to spend on a right winger. Not too long ago, Braulio was considering moving for Vitolo (at Sevilla) and Ebert (at Valladolid) something which will no longer be required, allowing the club to divert the resources to a weaker area of the team.
Juan Bernat forced himself into the first team after an excellent pre-season in 2011/12. But the youngster couldn’t carry his pre-season form in actual La Liga matches so he was eventually relegated to Valencia B. Since then Bernat has been in and out of the first team. In the few opportunities he was given, Bernat has impressed enough to be considered more often. However the club’s approach in managing him has been questionable. Bernat is blessed with a combination of electrifying speed and tantalizing dribbling ability. His low centre of gravity allows him to twist and turn and skip past defenders with ease. He often does this to get into the box, and sometimes to go past defenders and send in accurate low crosses. Much like Jordi Alba, Bernat can play anywhere on the left – from defence to the wing. Valencia is renowned for its left sided players from Kily Gonzalez to Vicente to Silva to Mata to Alba. Bernat has the potential to carry on from these former legends. These days Valencia often resorts to attacking midfielders like Jonas and Canales on the left, who may be better technically but lack the speed. A natural winger like Bernat can add width and pace to Valencia’s dull and predictable attack. Hopefully Djukic will realize Bernat can fill this void and add a new dimension the team’s game. Bernat has represented Spain in all youth groups, and most recently as a left back. There is also an inherent risk in this as Valencia has two other hot prospects for the left back. For this very reason, Bernat should be played more as a winger than fullback.
When a virtually unknown player, playing in a foreign league is called up to an Argentine Under 20 team, he has to be good. The legendary team which has produced stars like Maradona, Messi, Riquelme, Aimar and won sixteen championships, usually picks the cream of talent from home or some of the elite clubs of Europe. Federico “Fede” Cartabia was neither. But in Fede head coach Marcelo Trobbiani saw a mature and versatile player who was more about hard work than natural talent. Good performances with Valencia B, and a good preseason with the first team has earned him a place in Djukic’s squad. One would be mistaken to immediately draw comparisons with Silva or Mata, as he may not have the same sharpness. As of now, Fede seems more like an engine room type player who will play a deeper playmaking role. Fede benefits from a great technique and vision which allows him to dictate tempo and play a distribution role. He is also known to be useful with set pieces. Fede’s versatility is another important asset. The Argentine can play from the middle of the pitch, behind the striker or on either flanks giving a plethora of options to the coach. Without any doubt, Fede has the potential to become a future number 10 or 21 of Valencia.
Jose Luis Gaya is yet another left sided prospect of Valencia. An attacking fullback of Brazilian flavor, Gaya is equally comfortable playing at the back or in a more advanced winger position. Known for speed, movement and sound technique Gaya is one of the key players of Valencia B. Gaya has already debuted for the first team and has done well for the Spain youth teams. His performances haven’t gone unnoticed with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona taking interest in recent times. If Gaya is able to work on his crossing and final ball, he could be Valencia’s new Fabio Aurelio.
The Valencian left sided production continues with Salva Ruiz. Introduced to the first team in a preseason friendly at the raw age of 16, Ruiz was tipped for stardom quite early. Older than Gaya by just a week, Salva is more of a classical left back. Ruiz may not have the pace and movement of Gaya and Bernat; but he is physically stronger and more robust. Like most modern fullbacks, Ruiz is not shy at pushing forward-but his strength lies in his defensive duties. Valencia’s coach will have quite a challenge juggling Bernat, Gaya and Ruiz in two positions.
The Road Ahead
President Salvo has already suffered from a major blow when the club lost one of its hottest young prospects Pedro Chirivella. The 17 year old midfield sensation was considered a rising star in his age group level and once even turned down the chance to join Barcelona. But Liverpool’s offer was too good to refuse, and given the situation in Spain and the growth of the EPL Pedro made his move. Could this be signs of things to come? There is no guarantee Valencia will be able to retain any of the pearls identified in this article. If Paco Alcacer continues to get ignored, there is every possibility he will take the path taken by Isco.
Salvo’s decision to appoint Rufete, Baraja and Curro Torres to develop the quarry is commendable. But what benefit is the nurturing and development if such players end up getting snatched by Liverpool’s and Malaga’s for paltry compensation? The club needs to be proactive with such players. A contract should not be offered after another club declares interest. Whenever the club sees potential in players they must tie down their contracts with large enough minimum release clauses like how Real Sociedad does. A plan also must be chalked out for each player, perhaps a season or two with the B team and then 1-2 loan stints, first at a Segunda club then at a La Liga club. For instance, unlike Silva or Alba, Juan Bernat has not been sent on loan, and has spent lengthy periods warming the bench. Jonathan Viera suffered from the same fate with no coordination between the sporting director and the then coach. Alcacer’s loan move to Getafe was also debatable. Paco started only in 7 games for Getafe, while his other 16 appearances were more as a late substitute. Whereas Carles Gil had 31 solid games with Elche. Perhaps a move to a good Segunda club with more guaranteed minutes would have done more for Paco’s development.
Finally while coaches may have freedom in player selection, they must also be convinced to give opportunities to youth. When the fate of a match is already decided or is a dead rubber it is often better to give an opportunity to a youngster than bring on a deadweight player who will might leave the club next season. Valverde thought otherwise, and Djukic seems to be intent on carrying the tradition on. There should be no saying like “The player is too young or inexperienced for the situation.”
With the club’s debt piling, the financial crisis in Spain and poor performances on the pitch, there is no end in sight in Valencia’s rocky topsy turvy road. But if there is one silver lining or light at the end of the tunnel, the emergence of the fine talent from the club’s youth system. These youngsters can change Valencia’s fate on the pitch and win more supporters by giving them something to be excited about. But if the club continues to handle its youngsters the same way as it’s predecessors, there will be more casualties like Isco, Alba and Pedro Chirivella. For the time being, all Valencia fans will be hoping Salvo’s Gloval project is more than just talk.
By Jeeshan Mirza