Had it not been for Barcelona’s dramatic summer, Valencia’s own plight would surely have garnered more attention outside Spain.
In a few short weeks, they went from being potential European contenders to rudderless and lacking any kind of positive momentum. To be blunt, they looked like a sinking ship.
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The exodus included their captain (Dani Parejo), their best centre-back (Ezequiel Garay), their young attacking pearl (Ferran Torres) and their most reliable forward (Rodrigo Moreno). But the real kick in the teeth for fans of Los Che was seeing the paltry return on these departures.
Parejo, the emblem of the club and the man who lifted the Copa del Rey just a year-and-a-half ago, was cast aside for free along with Francis Coquelin to neighbours Villarreal. Tearful interviews demonstrated what the club meant to Parejo but, unfortunately, the sentiment did not seem to go both ways.
Inevitably, he scored for Villarreal against Valencia in their first meeting of the season back in October.
Elsewhere, Rodrigo and Ferran Torres did generate transfer fees but the latter, in particular, should have been worth more than the £21 million that Manchester City paid.
To rub salt into the wounds, Valencia lost another of their starters as a result of Arsenal paying Thomas Partey’s buy-out clause on deadline day. Atlético Madrid were given special dispensation to sign a replacement outside of the window, which they used to buy Geoffrey Kondogbia.
The only big-name arrival at Mestalla last summer was Javi Gracia, taking on the role as head coach. He is used to working within unusual club structures, having been at Watford under the Pozzo family. Gracia was a steady hand at Vicarage Road, lasting longer than most coaches at the club and showing his worth by taking them to a FA Cup final at Wembley.
But Valencia is an altogether tougher challenge, one that now involves having to manage the expectations of an already disenfranchised fanbase. Gracia made it known through multiple press conferences that he expected reinforcements to arrive in the summer, but they never materialised. Step forward Paterna, the club’s youth academy. The Meriton ownership group have cited this cost-saving strategy, allied to the promotion of youth, as a necessary solution to economic challenges only made worse by the pandemic.
Gracia quickly realised that he would have to put his hard hat on and go mining in the quarry of youth, searching for those canteranos who could make the step up. He is having to act beyond his remit of simply coaching the team. He has to bring through these young players, encourage them and integrate them into his system and the first team. They will need guidance as they face the pressures of competing at the top level. In short, he has to be a selector, coach and father figure.
In recent years, Valencia have been inherently unpredictable, capable of exquisite performances against top teams, but then failing to deliver against the lesser lights of La Liga. That has only been exacerbated this season. For example, they won away at high-flying Real Sociedad and hammered Real Madrid 4-1 but also lost to promoted side Elche. Inconsistency is never an ideal environment in which to develop players, but they themselves have to step up to the plate.
With maturity comes responsibility. With trust comes confidence. It has to be the platform on which to start. So who are these players, the vanguard holding the keys to a brighter tomorrow? Maxi Gómez is the best forward at the club, but not one of their own. Himself young at 24, he is feared to be most likely to leave next. While he is there, he needs support, and this is coming from 23-year-old Manu Vallejo. Making his debut last season, Vallejo is already becoming a key component of Gracia’s attack. He scored a brace off the bench to win the derby against Levante at the start of the campaign, and has had to settle for cameos since then.
However, he has a knack of scoring big goals, putting him ahead of the disappointing Kevin Gameiro in the pecking order. Gameiro has been a shadow of his former self and has missed big chances to turn draws into wins lately, notably away at Alavés. Meanwhile, Vallejo started the comeback in that game, and then grabbed a vital equaliser against Athletic Club earlier this month. He is a hungry young forward with a competitive edge and an eye for goal. Only Mikel Oyarzabal and Luis Suárez have a better minutes-per-goal ratio than Vallejo (106) in La Liga this season.
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Local poster boy Carlos Soler and South Korean academy product Kang-In Lee are the primary creators for this Valencia team. Both have registered three assists apiece already and Soler has become a penalty-specialist, scoring a hat-trick of spot-kicks against Real Madrid. Still just 19, Kang-In has matured over the last few months, shaking off a petulant streak, and is now settling into the role as playmaker. In nine appearances in La Liga this season, he has created 14 chances and has a dribble success rate of 90%, completing 9/10 take-ons attempted.
If he can develop greater consistency, he can become the keystone in dictating play and making Gracia’s team tick. Complementing them in midfield is Serbian Uroš Račić, who was picked up from Crvena Zvezda two years ago. Out on loan last season in Portugal’s Primeira, he has plenty of decent experience to build upon. A combative and robust defensive midfielder, strong in the air with boundless energy, this engine can run all day, the perfect foil for Soler and Kang-In.
Yunus Musah is seen as the biggest break-out star, given his Anglo-American connections. Bringing him from Arsenal to Spain was a genuine coup, and his talent is clear for all to see. He is vibrant and direct, a player that gets fans off their seats. In November, he became the youngest non-Spanish player to score for the club, incidentally breaking Kang-In’s record. Recently capped by the US national team, he signed a long-term contract to keep him at Valencia until 2026, and celebrated that by rescuing Valencia with an injury-time goal against fourth-tier Terrassa in the Copa del Rey.
You sense this is just the beginning for Musah. Hugo Guillamón is seen as the future of their defence. A modern centre-back, just as capable of passing as he is making tackles and clearances, Guillamón ticks a lot of boxes. A regular in the national youth teams, he knows how to mix it with the best of his age group, but is now being tested against the elite.
With this crop of talent improving and fusing together with time, the future may look a little brighter for Valencia. With the purse-strings tightened, the club have had to rely on their academy, and the signs are encouraging. Gracia may not be resigned to just chiselling away at the bedrock; instead he is tasked with polishing up some real gems.