Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review of the first half of the season, part 1: The club

The season’s halfway point finished with Valencia going down 0-2 against a weak Sociedad team which had been heavily affected by injuries. It was the type of frustrating day which will be all too familiar to anyone watching us this season: only marginally better against a team which has much weaker players than us, failing to take our chances, losing to a couple of soft goals from poor defending and losing players to injury. Positive emotions from a good performance in a previous game erased by a poor result. How did we get here?

The seeds were laid in the summer. The civil war over control of the club ended with the departure of Salva and Rufete. Nuno, who found himself the winner of that battle, would ultimately go on to lose the war. Transfer policy at this time also proved highly questionable, with Otamendi sold, Abdennour (and Santos) replacing him and three young “prospects” coming in: Danilo, Mina and Bakkali. Aside from the signing of Ryan to cover the injured Alves, Valencia entered the new season with largely the same squad that had fought the previous campaign, but with the added responsibility of European football. Friendlies rang alarm bells, with Valencia’s games against teams like Porto, Roma and Bayern showing clearly that they were not yet up to the challenge of taking on top clubs.

In Europe, Valencia got the worst possible draw: AS Monaco. Although, the team won 3-1, the problems were clearly there, with the team being outplayed for large periods and being fortunate to come away with a 2-goal advantage. In the league things just didn’t happen. Even though we were handed an easy run of opening fixtures, points were dropped in lacklustre displays against Rayo, Deportivo and Betis, with only a last minute goal against Gijon salvaging something. This would be followed by further weak displays: losses at Bilbao and Espanyol and the team making a meal of home victories against Granada and Levante.

In Europe, things went little better. Having qualified for the group stage, Valencia drew one of the easiest possible groups, avoiding most of the tougher sides in each section. However, a devastating defeat at home to Zenit set the tone for things to come. A win at Lyon, against the run of play, was the exception as the team then struggled to beat Gent at home, before producing one of the worst performances I’ve seen in 13 years following the team in the away leg. This proved the beginning of the end for Nuno, as massive supporter discontent had built up and only a sustained run of wins could have turned things around at this point. It wasn’t to be.

Even though the following game saw Valencia’s best win of the season: 5-1 at Celta, this result flattered Valencia, as we only had 5 chances the whole game and the match fit into the general pattern, as this good result was quickly followed by three poor ones, which resulted in Nuno resigning. While he was, to a large extent, the focus for unhappiness over Mendes influence, Nuno made some questionable decisions. Ostracising DePaul, Negredo and Orban, constantly rotating players and, very often relying on inexperienced line-ups, with the call-up of Rafa Mir to the first team squad for a key champions league game particularly dubious.

After speculation about the replacement, with Rijkaard, Laudrup and Bielsa mentioned as successors, to considerable surprise, Gary Neville was unveiled as the new manager until the summer. The change has made little difference to results, which if anything, have been worse than under Nuno. Fortunate to scrape a draw at Eibar, conceding silly goals to draw at home to Getafe and losing games at Sociedad and Villarreal where we failed to take chances. There have been bright spots: at home to Barcelona and Real Madrid, Valencia displayed more passion and commitment and were probably unlucky not to get a win from one of those. But those have been exceptions rather than the rule. The team is weak in away games and the players only ever seem able to raise their game against the big Spanish clubs.

Where has it gone wrong? In a number of areas:

1)      The political situation clearly affected the team for much of the early months. The negative atmosphere at the Mestalla won’t have helped the players perform and this has resulted in a change of managers, which will also affect things, as players need time to adapt to a new manager and new playing style.

2)      The overall transfer and squad policy has been very dubious. It seems to be focused on having as many young players as possible and hoping that they’ll develop into star players, but often their inexperience shows and we have no old hand players that will make a difference.

3)      A by-product of that is that we seem to be rotating far too much in order to try and develop as many players as possible. The result is that we don’t have a settled team, players have to play with different teammates each game, which can’t help understanding and anticipation. At this point last season, we’d used 18 players, this time we’ve used 28.

4)      Transfer policy needs to be more balanced. Signing the occasional hot prospect is fine, but the team’s focus going forward should be adding more experience, so that we have mentors for all these youngsters, otherwise it’s like having a class of school kids and no teacher.

5)      Mendes. I think we need to take a more balanced view than simply “Mendes bad.” Yes, we overpaid for Rodrigo, however, the fees for Abdennour and Enzo were fair market value for the time. Cancelo seemed expensive, but it’s hard to see us not making a decent profit if we sold him, same with Mina. Gomez for 15m and Bakkali for free are bargains. The sale of Gomez alone would easily recoup any losses on Enzo/Rodrigo/Aymen combined. Obviously, though, we need to cast our net further than Casa Mendes and keep his involvement to a reasonable level.

6)      Injuries have also taken their toll. Every game, there seem to be several players missing, which makes planning ahead difficult. We must work more on fitness, players like Paco often look tired at the end.

7)      Managers. Nuno made questionable decisions and alienated the fans with internal politicking. Any manager succeeding him would therefore have a big reservoir of good will to draw on. It’s far too early to draw conclusions on Gary Neville, but, unless the team starts winning, fans will turn against him (and Lim.) If that happens, a more experienced manager will be needed.

8)      Tactics have often been too predictable, allowing teams to counter us easily. The team almost always plays 4-3-3, getting overrun in midfield. At least the team has moved on tactically from some of the early games, where the sole tactic seemed to be to endlessly cross to a lone striker.

9)      The defence, the bedrock of our previous successful season, has looked especially suspect. It’s very clear now what a world-class player we had in Otamendi. Without him, goals have been conceded which wouldn’t have been last season. Suarez’ goal, at least one of the Zenit goals, the Gent goal, Martinez’ goal for Atletico are just some which spring to mind. Poor passing out of defence and mistimed tackling has allowed weaker teams to get results.

10)   Most of all, the biggest problem has been the players, who, talented as they may be, have often disappointed on the pitch. In the second part here’s I’ll look at how the players have done so far.