Even David Moyes had a better start than this. The last British manager to try his luck at a La Liga club had won twice and taken ten points from his first eight league matches.
New Valencia manager Gary Neville, on the other hand, has yet to win after eight league fixtures and has amassed a grand total of five points. Not only is Neville’s record worse than that of Moyes, but it is worse than in his predecessor Nuno’s final eight matches. The man dismissed in November won four, drew two and lost two of his final eight matches to take 13 points out of 24.
As much as Neville is a familiar, well-spoken and likable figure, there can be no more denying the fact that Valencia have regressed under his management. So what exactly is going wrong?
Firstly, it must be pointed out that Valencia had chances to win in Sunday’s 1-0 loss to Sporting Gijón, a team that was in the relegation zone prior to kick-off. The home side dominated possession and had 16 shots to Gijón’s seven, but those chances were squandered, particularly by Álvaro Negredo. The former Manchester City man had five shots at goal, but could not convert any of his attempts.
A fiery Gary Neville turned on reporters in his press conference and even took a subtle dig at his players’ wastefulness, telling the media: “You cannot explain how it’s finished 1-0 against Valencia, we were the better team from the first minute until the last minute. It could have been 5-1.”
Yet it is Neville who decides which strikers he wants to put his trust in to convert those chances and it was the Mancunian who brought Negredo back in from the cold upon his arrival at Valencia. The striker had been left out of the previous seven league squads, but has featured in all eight of Neville’s league matches and has even been given the captain’s armband in the last two outings after Neville controversially took it from last season’s captain Dani Parejo.
The fact that Negredo has scored just twice in the eight league matches since his return makes Nuno’s decision to drop Negredo all the more understandable. It was reported that the pair had fallen out, but Nuno insisted that the decision was tactical and the fact that Negredo is far from the player he was in his first half a season in the English Premier League makes the claim believable.
Perhaps Neville reinserted him to please the fans – who had been calling for his return – or to please the club’s hierarchy – who had shelled out €30 million on Negredo, making him the club’s most expensive player. However, comparing him with Valencia’s other attacking options, Negredo does not deserve to automatically start.
Yet Valencia have a bigger problem than Negredo’s poor finishing.
The idea that Gary Neville’s Valencia is creating chances, but simply not converting them is a false one. Before his first league match against Eibar on 13th December, Valencia has created more than eight chances in a match four times. Since Neville’s arrival, they have done so just three times.
Looking at chances created per match, the total was eight per match before Neville’s arrival and remains eight per match since that first match against Eibar. Not only has Neville started giving playing time to a striker unable to convert chances, but the team is failing to create any more chances than they were previously. That is a recipe for disaster.
Defensively, Valencia have also had more problems since Neville’s arrival. Given how great a defender he was as a player and how defensively aware he appeared in front of a Sky Sports tablet, it is strange to see a Gary Neville team so defensively unsure of itself.
Of the 23 league goals conceded this season, 12 have been conceded since Neville’s arrival. Calculating the number of goals conceded per game, the pre-Neville Valencia conceded 0.8 per match, while the post-Neville Valencia is conceding 1.5 per game on average.
In Neville’s defence, a key factor in Valencia’s impressive early season lack of goals conceded was the division-leading play of goalkeeper Jaume Doménech, who had made more saves per 90 minutes of all keeper to have played at least ten La Liga matches.
That made it all the more surprising, therefore, when Neville dropped Doménech for Australian Mathew Ryan three weeks ago. Although he made a Youtube-worthy triple save against Rayo Vallecano in his first game back, Ryan has– unsurprisingly – been no improvement on the league’s standout keeper.
A comparison between the two young keepers shows Doménech to be the better per 90 minutes. The fact that he is also a local boy and a fan favourite means it made little sense for Neville to switch his starting keeper and his bold move is yet to yield the miracle improvement in defence you expect he was hoping for.
Nobody can accuse Neville of not trying. He is reportedly one of the first in and last out of Valencia’s training complex each day and he is learning Spanish in an attempt to improve communication with his players. Tactically, he is testing out new players, such as Negredo and Ryan, even if they haven’t had the desired effect. He is also trying out new formations, five so far – 4-3-3, 5-3-2, 4-4-2, 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 – in his eight league matches, but it is almost like he is throwing a handful of darts at the board in the hope that one of them hits the bullseye.
It simply appears that Neville does not have the answers to the club’s far more deep-rooted problems, which is hardly surprising for a novice – just as it was with Nuno. However, it will be Neville’s head to fall if things keep going the way they are.
The relegation zone is just five points behind Valencia, while 4th place – the one the club occupied last season – is a huge 19 points away. The Copa del Rey, which has given Neville his only wins so far, is probably Valencia’s best hope of qualifying for Europe next season. They play the first leg of their semi-final on Wednesday against none other than the high-flying Barcelona.
Things could yet get worse before they get better.