Nuno Espirito Santo, Voro, Gary Neville, Pako Ayesteran, Voro again, Cesare Prandelli, Voro again. Despite a strong first season, the exit of Rufete as sporting director saw the fans turn against Nuno, who was seen as a pawn in Jorge Mendes’ attempts to exert his influence over the club. All Valencia have seen since is failure. The churn of coaches never resulted in an improvement in form and even before Prandelli’s fuori rant, criticising the efforts of the players, there seemed to be problems running much deeper than whoever was sat in the dugout.
Peter Lim was a saviour on arrival, rescuing the club from a crippling stadium debt, yet it soon became clear that running the Spanish club was beyond him. Even before his acquisition, there looked to have been something inherently wrong with the club.
Yet here we are. Eleven games in, Valencia sit in second, above reigning domestic and European champions Real Madrid and only behind the country’s other superpower Barcelona. Unbeaten despite having played against Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao.
So what’s the secret to the turnaround? New coach Marcelino had spearheaded an impressive few years at Villarreal and is now being given greater authority than his predecessors enjoyed. Before the season, the coach decided it was “necessary… to change a negative run, there are players we had to get rid of”. Thirteen players left in the summer as he looked to refresh a squad that had become toxic – Jose Luis Gaya and captain Dani Parejo almost let go too -replaced by nine new faces.
In addition, the coach monitors each player’s weight constantly and if their body fat index goes over 9.5, they don’t play. This strictness has led to stories of players starving themselves and spending hours in the sauna to avoid falling foul of the scale, however it isn’t merely about instilling discipline in the squad – fitness is fundamental to his way of play. Inspired by Arrigo Sacchi and Rafael Benitez, Marcelino wants to play intense, agile football, getting from front to back quickly with counter-attacks, and that style requires stamina.
Valencia set up in a 4-4-2 formation, rarely pressing high as they look to sit back and protect the centre of the field. Despite such a high turnover of players in the summer, Valencia hit the ground running by simplifying their play early on: their opening games had them often marking more man-orientated than the zonal system they would develop, however there remains some holdovers. They sit back in the narrow two banks of four that has become common amongst teams trying to negate possession football, filling the middle with so many players the opposition is forced into playing the ball down the wings. Once the ball is forced into the wide areas, that side’s winger and full-back will rush across to defend against their marker.
The tactic isn’t particularly new at this point, with Atletico Madrid being the most notable example of a side that seeks to lure their opponents out to the wing then trap them there. Valencia are different however as the defenders receive far less support than their contemporaries. Typically, these attempts to win the ball back are given a shield by a centre-midfielder moving across to help out, yet Valencia keep the other three members of the midfield and defence more central, protecting the centre of the pitch at all costs.
This asks a lot more of the wide players defensively, requiring them to be strong in their one-on-one battles as there’s generally no cover if they lose them. As a result, the full-backs tend to stick very close to their mark, following them high up the pitch to ensure they can’t turn and run at them, and while the wide midfielders are less man-orientated in their marking they can often get dragged high up the pitch, far away from their teammates in the middle too. With the two widemen being the only players in this area, it generally makes more sense from an attacking perspective for the opponents to pull their full-backs deeper rather than have them push up as it draws Valencia’s wingers forwards, opening a space on the flank behind them – having the full-backs join the attack only drags the winger back, enabling them to help out their full-back when they could easily isolate him instead.
This system is fairly vulnerable to anyone trying to outnumber Valencia in wide areas, as it essentially leaves two players to defend the flank while six stay in the middle – if the opposition simply moved a third player out to the touchline, then who would pick him up? The near-side centre-back helps to alleviate this issue by moving across and marking tightly anyone who pops up in the area between him and the full-back, following them all the way to the touchline if neccessary. This was most obvious in the Real Madrid game where Karim Benzema would constantly move out to the channels, followed closely by either side’s centre-back. This was a striker moving laterally though, making it more obvious for a centre-back to move across – a third man run from midfield may be a good way of attacking this space between the defenders that Valencia’s opponents haven’t really exploited so far.
Few teams have really tested out the holes in the midfield either. This could be in part because they are not particularly useful: you may have space but it’s out wide and the goal is in the middle, meaning you either have to dribble inside where there’s six players defending or cross into the box where there’s three defenders and a goalkeeper ready to knock it away. Teams like Atletico cede the flanks but they do it based on the idea they can regain them later by stopping the opposition from playing back inside – it’s essentially a trap. Instead Valencia seem to genuinely cede the flanks defensively as they have limited attacking use, using those defensive resources to ensure the centre is covered at all times.
Unlike many teams today, Valencia’s centre-backs are very much defenders first and foremost, with their primary focus defending their box. Even when the line gets dragged up the pitch, they are always looking to drop back off again, positioning themselves side on so they aren’t left stranded on the turn. Or if the opposition break through the midfield, the centre-backs generally won’t engage them until they reach their area, instead giving the midfield the opportunity to recover rather than risk the space behind them being exposed. They are expected to step up and win their individual duels against attackers but the rest of the backline will drop off and narrow to protect the central area behind in the event that they don’t.
Likewise, the midfield pair ahead of them have little creative duties and mainly look to shield their defence. Geoffrey Kondogbia is excellent for this: big and strong enough to outmuscle most opponents while also intelligent enough to always block passing lanes into players behind him, making it very difficult for teams to play through the middle. Captain Dani Parejo is more of a passing midfielder so his inclusion doesn’t make as much sense on the face of it, but his extra mobility is useful, allowing him to step forward and press midfielders, stopping them from turning when they receive the ball with their back to goal. Only Goncalo Guedes is a real winger in the squad, with the other wide midfielders repurposed central players like Carlos Soler and Andreas Pereira, adding more solidity in the middle – Marcelino even preferring full-back Gaya to an attacker on the left wing against Madrid.
While they initially shield the midfield and in certain situations press the oppositon centre-backs, once the ball progresses past Simone Zaza and Rodrigo, the forwards push up onto the shoulder of the defenders and wait for counter-attacks. Pretty much all of Valencia’s attacks are long balls either up to Zaza to flick on, who is good enough in the air to win headers against most Spanish defenders, or behind the opposition backline to chase, with the wingers also pushing very high up against the opposition defence – pretty much all Spanish teams play with a back four, so they are left without cover against some very quick, technical players. Valencia’s defence always dropping off protects their box, but it also beckons the opposition forward, opening up more space behind them for Valencia’s pacey forwards to attack.
These attacks do have a tendency to be percentage balls though, so they have a couple of worked moves that can be played along the ground as an alternative. The ball is played around the defence until an opening can be found to pass the ball through to one of the four attackers, typically Rodrigo, dropping off the frontline. Dragging one of the defenders with them, the others attack the space left behind, or, in the case of a wide player dropping off, a full-back pushes forward into it. They then either turn on the ball and play the ball behind the defence for their teammates to run onto or lay it off to Parejo for him to play forward. A large chunk of their goals come from wide areas, where the full-backs run untracked or outpace their markers to overload the defence.
Valencia’s gameplan foregoes the general Spanish desire to dominate the middle of the pitch and instead focusses on attacking and defending the boxes. They use their speed to outnumber and strike directly at the opposition’s defence, while maintaining a strong base that ensures the opposition can’t attack this same space against them. There are some clear flaws that are yet to really be exploited, along with a weakness at set-pieces that needs ironing out, however the talent of their players and a gameplan that works as an antithesis to so many Spanish teams should see them continue to perform strongly for the first time under Lim.