With the understandable excitement in the British press surrounding Gary Neville’s appointment at Valencia churning out overwhelmingly positive spin, it’s worth taking a step back and actually looking at what would actually constitute success in his first job. The most obvious issue Neville faces is whether or not he’s actually much of a coach: being one of the few pundits given the platform to actually go into any real detailed analysis on television doesn’t make him England’s answer to Pep Guardiola, but this is probably the least complicated of his issues – if he knows his stuff, he knows his stuff, and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t. The second issue is the language: even if he does know his stuff, he needs to be able to communicate it to the players and it might be difficult to do so when his contract is ending just about when he should be getting a basic grasp of Spanish. However, it is also 2015 – lots of people speak English and translators are readily available, so the language barrier is likely to be just a bit awkward rather than a genuine headache.
The most complicated problem he faces is where he falls in Valencia’s political landscape. It’s worth pointing out Nuno Espirito Santo wasn’t really doing all that bad a job – Valencia made the Champions League last year and while their quality has dropped off this year, they were still only five points off fourth and haven’t been that bad – instead it was off-field developments that saw Valencia’s notoriously prickly fanbase turn against him. They were hoping to push up a gear yet saw star defender Nicolas Otamendi leave for Manchester City and only a handful of teenagers join the club over the summer, with question marks appearing over just how much influence agent Jorge Mendes has over Valencia’s business. On top of this, popular figures Amadeo Salvo, Francisco Rufete and Roberto Ayala all left the club and Nuno, along with Peter Lim and Mendes, was suspected to have had a role in pushing them.
Where Neville fits in to this isn’t really all that clear. Valencia fans wanted someone more experienced like Frank Rijkaard or Michael Laudrup yet have ended up with someone with even less experience than Nuno, who at least had a decent spell at Rio Ave to fall back on. Nuno also became unpopular due to him appearing as a company man but his replacement clearly only has the job because of nepotism – Neville and Lim business partners at Salford City. On the other hand, Rufete is no longer there to fall out with and Neville doesn’t appear to have any questionable links to Mendes to further rile the fans.
Nevertheless, as with any managerial role, it’s mainly about getting results and playing well – the politicking is just there to establish how quickly things sour if he doesn’t start well. And start well he did not, dropping out of the Champions League in a 2-0 loss to Lyon. The aim for Neville’s tenure is probably requalification for next year’s Champions League, but given the circumstances you would probably be better off spending your money on casino.com than a Valencia fourth-place finish. If Neville turns out to be the great coach he’s hoped to be, there’s no reason Valencia couldn’t make it, but a solid upper mid-table finish would be a very good and probably more realistic start to his coaching career.
As far as introductions go, Eibar aren’t a bad test of Neville’s La Liga chops. Although below Valencia, Jose Luis Mendilibar’s men have had a reasonable start to the season, lining up for this game in a 4-4-2. Neville opted for a 4-1-4-1 on his domestic debut, yet despite the differences in shape there wasn’t really much in the way of a strategic battle, rather it was a matter of execution.
It was clear to see what exactly Neville has worked on in his few training sessions. When Eibar played it out from the back, Valencia looked to push up and limit passes into the midfield, with Paco Alcacer chasing down the man in possession. However Eibar were competent at getting around this: the centre-backs split, widening the play, and the full-backs bravely pushed on in support of their wingers. Valencia’s style of pressing had them looking to get close to their opposite man, so their wide players ended up quite tight to Eibar’s full-backs. The result of this is that their midfield ended up quite stretched, making it easy to play passes between the central and wide midfielders either for Saul Berjon and Keko tucking in or for David Junca and Ander Capa to run onto. The pressing was partly intended to stop Junca and Capa receiving the ball to feet, yet looking to get so tight to them opened up passing angles to reach them in more dangerous areas since they had the confidence to bomb on from deep.
Pressing in this organised manner is one of the more difficult things to do, so even though it didn’t actually work it was fairly impressive how quickly Neville managed to set it up. Nevertheless, while his attackers were fairly well drilled, his backline was frequently found wanting. Both full-backs were left isolated with Eibar’s wide players doubling up on them, while the strikers were doing a good job of splitting the centre-backs – Sergi Enrich’s willingness to drop off the front posing constant problems. This, combined with Aymen Abdennour not appearing to even understand the concept of defending crosses, meant that Eibar were able to pose a frequent threat from the flanks and they could have been three up from similar situations before they finally took the lead just before half-time.
While it was clear to see what Valencia were trying to do defensively even if it didn’t work, their attacking was less obvious. Early on they seemed to want to pass it out short from the back, although these moves nearly always ended up back with the goalkeeper. They each took at least two touches and positioned themselves in straight lines, meaning it was easy for Eibar to adjust, work their way up the pitch and cut out the few passing options Valencia allowed themselves.
With that not working they looked to hit the wings directly, although that wasn’t much more successful. With Eibar’s full-backs pushing so high, Joao Cancelo and Rodrigo De Paul were having to come very deep to offer their full-backs defensive support, even though they were always far too late to make any real difference. As a result, they were always too deep to pose any attacking threat when Valencia looked to break quickly. The harsh sending off could easily have extinguished what little fire remained, but the reshuffle to a 4-3-2, with Alvaro Negredo alongside Alcacer, actually made their direct play work better than it had for most of the match (although that’s admittedly not saying much). It’s difficult to think of a single real chance Valencia produced in the entire game – their late equalising goal was a goalkeeping error that could easily be construed as an own goal despite Negredo’s neat control to set it up, while their creative thrust for the afternoon added up to little more than a load of hopeful crosses from deep.
It was by no means a bad start to Neville’s managerial career, but Valencia were very fortunate to be coming away from the game with anything. While far from perfect, there were obvious bits and pieces to the defending that will improve with time, however there was little in the way of an offensive plan. If Neville wants to pass out from the back, there needs to be lots of work on ensuring there are options to pass to, but if he wants Valencia to be more direct, he needs to work out how he can keep attackers up the field – in this game there was little of either.