Two years ago, almost to the very day, Marcelino García Toral was sacked by Valencia.
That it had been coming was an open secret after a turbulent period of bitter conflict and discontent between the sporting staff and the ownership led by Peter Lim and president Anil Murthy. Marcelino, the man who had won Valencia their first piece of silverware for 11 years, was dismissed just four months after that Copa del Rey triumph over Barcelona.
The key figure behind the scenes, sporting director Mateu Alemany, was soon sent on his way too, severing all the positive changes made at the club over their respective tenures.
Fast forward two years and Valencia are resurgent under another new manager in José ‘Pepé’ Bordalás, the fourth separate coach to fill the hot seat following Marcelino’s departure. Are Los Che back? What makes Bordalás a more suitable coach compared to the like of Albert Celades and Javi Gracia who came and went before him? And is he able to cope with a board who have stripped him of many assets, and are intensely unpopular with the vast majority of Valencia fans who have demanded their departure?
The appointment itself was a controversial one, splitting opinion among fans. Valencia and Getafe, Bordalás’ former club, have developed an intense rivalry in recent seasons, and there is certainly no love lost between the fans. The coach from Alicante knows what he has walked into.
The fixture computer produced a mouth-watering opening night: Valencia vs Getafe on Friday 13 August. When Hugo Guillamón was sent off inside five minutes, Valencia fans were fearing it would indeed be a night to forget. The ‘here we go again’ memes were in full flow and another long, arduous season seemed probable. But Valencia recovered to win that game through a Carlos Soler penalty, and they now sit among the upper reaches of La Liga, unbeaten, and level on points with the Madrid powers. The positive impact has been instantaneous.
Bordalás is having to maximise his resources following an exodus in recent transfer windows. Ferran Torres was the first to go, followed by Rodrigo Moreno, both to the Premier League. The summer of 2020 was particularly chastening for valencianistas. Not only did they fail to sign anyone for a fee, they lost captain and referential midfielder Dani Parejo to neighbours Villarreal for next to nothing. Francis Coquelin followed him too, and Geoffrey Kondogbia not long after. The spine of that Copa del Rey-winning side was ripped out in brutally quick fashion. To emphasise the incoherence, Kang-In Lee, the promising South Korean only just out of his teens, was allowed to leave and join Mallorca this summer, a player deemed a pillar of the club’s youthful model less than two years ago.
There have been new arrivals, including Omar Alderete at centre-back and attacking options in Hugo Duro and Marcos André, essential for the club to increase its depth. Carlos Soler and José Gayà, who both shone for Spain in September, are the new leaders of the team, emblems of the academy and the focal point for supporters.
But the most impressive thing is the speed of adaptation to the Bordalás approach. La Liga fans will know all about his aggressive style: the unapologetic, no-nonsense, in-your-face football which Getafe exhibited so reliably over recent seasons. In an interview with À Punt, he embraced the tag of ‘Bad Boy’.
“I’ve always taken that as a compliment rather than a criticism,” he explained. “If they’re speaking about you, it’s because you’re doing things well.”
He has already transmitted those ideas to the squad. Last season, Valencia were a vanilla team, pretty safe and largely sterile, easier to play against than they should have been. Reacquainting themselves with steely toughness is a clear Bordalás stamp on the side. After just four matches, some statistical trends are beginning to emerge to support this. Valencia have committed more fouls (70) than any other LaLiga side, just as Bordalás’ Getafe did in each of the past three LaLiga seasons. It really is a trademark of his teams.
Bordalás has introduced some fascinating tactical interpretations too, which are notable changes from previous seasons. The aforementioned Guillamón, a rising star at centre-back, has been deployed as one half of a double-pivot alongside the versatile Dane Daniel Wass. The latter was often playing at right-back last season. This combination of Wass’ energy and dynamism together with the robust but composed Guillamón has the makings of an effective defensive screen.
Carlos Soler, Valencia’s best player last season, has moved out to the right side, where his crossing ability can be more regularly utilised. This was demonstrated in their equaliser against Osasuna, with Soler whipping in a pinpoint low cross for Maxi Gómez to finish. The formation is nominally 4-4-2 but there is room for flexibility depending on the opposition and game situation.
The role of Gonçalo Guedes is the fundamental element of the Bordalás scheme. In just four appearances, he has developed his all-round game immensely and proved that, when at his best, he is virtually unplayable. On opening night with Valencia down to ten men early, he had to sacrifice his attacking desires and work tirelessly for the cause. The willingness to continually track back must have been reassuring for his new coach and his fans, who yearn to see him at his peak.
Since that game, Guedes’ natural game has flourished. Playing up top as part of the forward pair, or drifting deeper and floating between the lines, he has been differential. He backed up a goal and an assist against Alavés with another strike against Osasuna, as well as provoking an own goal. Additionally, his ball-carrying is a useful tool. He is the most-fouled player in the league after four rounds of games, drawing 15 already, including four in the final third. Ball retention and drive will be key for Valencia to progress from defence into attack, and the Portuguese is ideal for that role.
Despite growing optimism, a note of caution is advisable. Valencia have had a relatively gentle start to the campaign, playing against teams currently 19th, 17th, 20th and 11th. Tougher tests are clearly in store, starting with a rampant Real Madrid at Mestalla, followed by Sevilla away. Those two games will help evaluate how sustainable this new-look Valencia is. But so far, the tentative conclusion is that they are finally heading in the right direction.