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Behind Enemy Lines: Valencia CF

Valencia just experienced one of the most traumatizing summers in its history. How are they doing now and how do they match up against Real Madrid?

Real Sociedad v Valencia CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Background, Transfers, and Expectations

Within a year, Valencia owners Meriton Holdings—led by Singaporean business magnate Peter Lim—dismantled one of the most promising projects in Spanish football. Under the leadership of coach Marcelino García Toral, Valencia made it to La Liga’s top four for two years in a row while also beating Barcelona in the 2019 Copa del Rey final. However, for Lim and friends, loyalty matters a lot more than actual results on the pitch or even money.

At the beginning of last season, Marcelino and sporting director Mateu Alemany finally left the club amidst tensions with Lim and Meriton. Albert Celades became the new coach, and in some ways he tried to give continuity to what Marcelino was doing, but the team never really regained its defensive organization. Valencia ended the league in ninth place and away from European spots due to this chaos, but the trauma was far from over.

With no European tournaments and the COVID-induced economic crisis, Valencia were short on cash. In this context Lim and Meriton chose to make a quick buck by selling the club’s biggest stars as well as punish players who had supported Marcelino and criticized club higher-ups. Dani Parejo, Valencia’s captain and one of the best midfielders in Spanish football for the last three years, was handed off for free to local rivals Villarreal. Rodrigo Moreno, the key striker in Valencia’s attacking system, was sold to Leeds United for just 30M euros. Ferrán Torres, one of the biggest young talents Valencia had seen in the decade, left to Manchester City for just 23M euros. Key midfielders Geoffrey Kondogbia and Francis Coquelin were also sold to Atlético and Villarreal, respectively, for a combined total of about 20M euros. Center back Ezequiel Garay, another big Marcelino supporter, did not have his contract renewed.

All of these moves were done with little regard for Valencia’s future and with little regard for good financial management too, because Lim and co. could have fetched higher prices for all these players. The mindset behind how they run the club was best summarized by an Instagram post from Lim’s daughter: The club is ours and we can do anything we want with it and no one can say anything.

Lim and Meriton did not bring in any new signings to replace any of the key players they kicked out. The only incoming transfers for Valencia this season are loanees who returned and young players who are being promoted from Valencia B. Having gutted their squad like a fish, Meriton’s Valencia must completely recalibrate their season expectations. It would be a miracle for the club to qualify for Europe this year, and relegation, while unlikely, is not out of the question. New coach Javi Gracia arrived in this shocking context, and he has quite the job ahead of him.

Valencia’s incoming transfers

Lineup and Game Plan

Personally, I’m a big fan of Javi Gracia, whom I consider one of the most adaptable coaches in Spanish football. Gracia has shown to be a pragmatist who will always try to optimize for available player talent in squad instead of sticking to a strict game plan and philosophy.

Valencia’s usual 4-4-2 shape and lineup

For the case of Valencia, Gracia has chosen a 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1 lineup and shape. Club management looked determined to also sell goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen, but an injury ultimately put a stop to the transfer. Therefore Cillessen stays one more year in Valencia, but the injuries have prevented him from starting. Jaume Domenech has thus started all the league games for Valencia up to now.

As the center back duo, Valencia normally have the aggressive pair of Gabriel Paulista and Mouctar Diakhaby. The latter in particular has been on a performance roller coaster with Valencia, having some good games over the last two years but for the most part disappointing. Diakhaby will often go for the player and the ball instead of defending the space behind him, which goes against the usual center back principles.

On the left back position, poor Jose Luis Gayá somehow hasn’t been sold yet and is now club captain after all the departures. Daniel Wass played the right back role in the first few games, but after Gracia moved him to midfield, the young Thierry Correia is now the starter in this position. Correia is still young and has a lot of faults as a defender, but his offensive performance has been slowly improving and giving more to Valencia lately.

Midfield has seen some changes due to the late sale of Kondogbia, who started the first few games in the league. Right now the starting double pivot seems to be the creative Carlos Soler, who is moving away from his usual position in the wing to center midfield, and the multi-functional Daniel Wass. Gracia still hasn’t found his preferred option for left wing, rotating among Gonçalo Guedes, Denis Cheryshev, and Álex Blanco. However, he’s very clear on who the starting right winger is: 17-year old Yunus Musah.

ESP: Valencia CF-Getafe CF. La Liga Santander. Photo by Pressinphoto/Icon Sport via Getty Images

Born in the USA, Musah grew up in the Arsenal academy and was signed by Valencia last year. He has played for (and captained) the English national youth team and was just called up to the the senior US national team. Musah is a box to box player who despite his pace, considers his passing to be his best asset and admires Paul Pogba. He’s good at moving into the opposition box from midfield positions with speed and timing, and he just scored his first official goal with Valencia in the latest game against Getafe. Musah represents the hopes of Valencia this season: having kicked out their more experienced players, Valencia now needs Musah and other youngsters to step up this season.

Up front, the starting center forward continues to be Maxi Gomez. Back in 2017 the Uruguayan striker looked like a star striker bound for a big team, but he seems to have slowly regressed since then. However, he still has great timing for running behind defenders and remains a somewhat consistent scorer. Gomez is usually accompanied by Gonçalo Guedes—another player who looked like a superstar potential but hasn’t progressed—and the young Kang-in Lee—another one of Valencia young hopes.

For now, Gracia and Valencia are sticking to a conservative 4-4-2 low or mid block plan for defense, trying to pounce on the counter with the pace of Musah and Guedes, the creativity of Soler and Lee, and the striking power of Guedes and Gómez. Unfortunately for them, the plan is not giving out the best results for now. Defensive personnel (particularly Domenech, Diakhaby, Correia) are struggling and Valencia are one of the five worst defenses in the league. All in all, their underlying expected goal numbers are those of a relegation candidate.

Current Form

Valencia’s results and league standings in the last eight games.

After the wins against local rivals Levante and then Real Sociedad gave them some hope, Valencia lost three out of their last four games and drew against Getafe. Betis throughly outplayed and outshot them (2-0 in goals, 17-5 in shots). Gracia and Valencia came up with a more aggressive pressing plan than usual, but the Andalucian side managed to overcome the press, keep the ball and create chance after chance until they scored. Valencia barely got opportunities to counterattack.

In the local derby against Villarreal, things were a bit more even. Villarreal couldn’t control the game so well and both teams constantly traded punches throughout the game. However, Villarreal were still the more solid defense, the more prolific chance creators, and the more efficient team, thus earning the win. And as the cherry on top, the winning goal was scored by none other than Dani Parejo.

In the following game, Valencia were shut down by the newly promoted Elche during the first half and barely produced a shot. Meanwhile, Elche continued to be ruthlessly efficient and scored 2 goals out of 3 shots during that first half. Afterwards, Elche just sat back during the second half and defended their result. Valencia got close, especially thanks to the impact sub of Kang-in Lee who assisted a goal, but were unable to draw the game.

Finally, we have their latest game against Getafe which featured a thrilling ending with three goals in the last 10 minutes. Valencia struggled against the Getafe press, but they managed to create good counterattacking chances once they broke through. This led to Valencia scoring early thanks to an outstanding Musah, who got the ball in from behind the halfway line, outran his defender all the way to the goal, and scored. Around the 55th minute, right back Correia got himself sent off. Valencia almost managed to survive the avalanche of Getafe crosses and even had chances to pick them off on the counter, but they couldn’t capitalize on these chances. Getafe punished Valencia’s poor finishing and Domenech’s goalkeeping mistakes and turned the game around in the last ten minutes with goals from Hernández and Ángel. Fortunately for Valencia, their final attack saw Gómez being fouled in the box, and Soler scored the ensuing penalty to end the game with a hard-fought 2-2.

Matchup against Real Madrid

From Real’s side, Odriozola and Carvajal are still out due to injury, while Casemiro and Hazard will be absent due to COVID infections. This means that Lucas Vázquez will surely continue to start in the right back position, while Fede Valverde will most likely play as the number 6. Fortunately, Martin Ødegaard is finally back from injury and let’s hope he can get some minutes. As the front three one would expect the trio of Vinicius - Benzema - Asensio, but Rodrygo has had some impactful sub appearances lately, like the midweek one against Inter. It shouldn’t be surprising if Zidane decides to start him instead of Asensio.

On Valencia’s side, Correia is out due to his red-card suspension while Cillessen and Diakhaby are out injured. This forces Gracia to rebuild his side’s defense and midfield a bit. Daniel Wass, the Swiss-army knife of Valencia’s squad, will move from midfield back to the right back position, while the young Hugo Guillamón will play alongside Gabriel in central defense. Meanwhile, the Serbian midfielder Uroš Račić is expected to play alongside Soler in the double pivot, with Musah and likely Cheryshev on the wings. Up front, it will be interesting to see if Gracia chooses Kang-in Lee or Guedes to accompany Gómez. The young Korean has had more impact than Guedes lately, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him start this one.

Real’s expected 4-3-3 lineup against Valencia 4-4-2 deep block.

This will be a game where Real have most of the possession and midfield control and chances, but they must watch out for Valencia’s counterattacks. Musah will likely try to attack the channel between Mendy and Ramos, especially when Mendy is attacking high up the pitch. Meanwhile, Gómez will try to pin down Varane and Ramos and create more room for Valencia’s wingers and midfielders to attack. Finally, if Kang-in Lee starts, he will be Valencia’s key threat when it comes to through balls. He will try to draw Real’s defenders in and then slip a through ball to Gómez or his wingers. Lee will likely operate in Valverde’s number 6 zone, so watch out for that duel too.

Valencia v Real Valladolid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

The other side of the pitch will be interesting because, in my opinion, Valencia actually defend better without Correia and Diakhaby, who are their theoretical starters. However, Gracia still hasn’t turned Valencia into a really solid defense, so one would expect that the usual combo of Kroos’ passing and Benzema’s interventions in between the lines should be enough to disorder Valencia and create chances against them. Gabriel is a rather aggressive defender, so one would expect that Benzema will try to draw him out and create space behind him that Vinicius can attack.

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images


If you want to read more about Valencia’s crisis, I’d recommend this great piece from Astorre S. Cerebronè.

If you want to read more about Yunus Musah, go for this excellent piece by Sid Lowe

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