Saturday, January 13, 2024

Valencia and Baraja's stats so far

When RubĂ©n Baraja was appointed Valencia manager few people were excited. His previous managerial record was not so good with short stints at a number of Segunda clubs, none of which lasted more than a season. The feeling was that he'd be like many ex-players who'd taken the role: a stopgap until a more permanent appointment. But with Valencia staring at relegation, there was not exactly a big queue of people wanting to take over. Baraja has spoken about his early coaching here and about his first year at Valencia here.

Yet, to general surprise, including my own, Baraja has done much better than expected. I thought the team would perform similar to last season and expected a long, difficult and nervy fight against relegation this season. At the halfway point after 19 games last season Valencia were 1 point off relegation

Table after 19 games last season

and only survived on the last day. Now, Valencia have 6 points more than at the same stage last season, are 11 points above the drop zone and can even dare to eye European qualification.

Baraja has been helped in all this by the emergence and promotion of a number of talented youngsters from the academy (some of it forced on him due to Meriton refusing to buy anyone) like Javi Guerra, Mosquera, Gasiorowski, Diego Lopez, Fran Perez etc. But the team also has what it's lacked for a long time: a local identity.  Instead of mercenaries and loanees who we're developing for other clubs we are cheering for a group who care about the badge and that helps us punch above our weight. In the last game against Villarreal, our starting 11 featured 4 academy products and 2 more players (Canos and Pepelu) who have been Valencia fans since childhood, while all 5 subs were academy players.

A knock-on effect of that is that the atmosphere in Mestalla is as positive as it's ever been. I went to watch Sociedad during the Emery era. Greizmann scored the only goal of the game against us and the 2nd half was filled with whistles, boos and white hankies. I went earlier this season to see us play Sociedad. We lost by the same scoreline but the fans applauded the players off, the feeling was we'd played as well as we could. This is reflected in the attendances. 43,833 is the average for this season. That's the first time we've broken 43,000 since 2006/07 and the highest attendance since the 2004/05 season (when we were defending league champions.) 

As for Baraja himself, he's now lasted 39 games. He's 5 games away from equalling his longest managerial tenure. He overtook Javi Gracia in the previous game, will equal Voro in the next game and Celades the one after that. By March he'll have overtaken Bordalas' 46 games in charge, which would leave him behind only Nuno's 63 games and Marcelino's 110 in the Lim era. Baraja has won 41% of his games in charge, again that puts him behind only Nuno and Marcelino, a credible achievement when you consider all preceding coaches had better squads. It does admittedly see him still well behind some of his contemporaries like Pellegrino and Djukic, who both managed a nearly 48% win record. That winning 41% of games is seen as good or acceptable is a sad comment on our decline in the last decade. 

Tactically, Baraja has mostly used a 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-1-3 up to now, with a double pivot. (Pepelu has been a perfect addition for this.) The team has usually used a high press, effectively defending from the front. The team has focused on speedy counter-attacks, helped by the youth of the team. In more recent games, Baraja has shown signs of moving to a 4-4-2. It's in attack where Baraja has shown his limitations as a coach. The team hasn't added much beyond the "flank and cross" approach we've used in recent seasons, with over-relance on Gaya in particular. Another problem has been the team dropping off in the later part of games, throwing away points by conceding late goals. That's down inexperience but also needs coaching to fix.

Overall, I think Baraja has significant limitations. If this was the Valencia of 10 years ago or even 5 years ago, then we'd hear more calls for Baraja to go. I also think if we ever got an owner with clue, who was prepared to invest, then Baraja's days would be numbered. However, the Valencia of 10 years ago has gone and for now, we're stuck with the diminished version. That version needs a coach who is good with working with young players and who commands the respect of Mestalla, so that the home support don't get jittery and impatient  when a few results don't go our way. Baraja has both: he added to his legendary player status by putting his neck on the line to save us last season and has produced much better than expected results this season. Ultimately, unless results take a significant downturn, I don't see any reason why he shouldn't be in charge at the beginning of next season. The Valencia manager job is a poisoned chalice and it's difficult to imagine any top level coaches being interested. A bit of stability is what is needed for now.