Not since the 2014-15 season have Valencia been this good. Those were heady times indeed: Peter Lim took over ownership, promising to reverse the financial problems that had plagued the club in previous years. There was plenty of managerial instability and the departure of big names, but Lim promised fresh air, starting with the financing of a new stadium. There was plenty to be hopeful for, even as Lim brought in his own manager, Nuno Espirito Santo, whose agent was Jorge Mendes, a friend of Lim. Valencia finished fourth in 2014-15, but then fell to 12th the following year. They went through four managers, including Gary Neville’s ill-fated sojourn. Mendes flexed his muscles, but it was not as beneficial as expected.
If Valencia threw money at Mendes’ clients, they sought to resolve that by using the counter approach. It wasn’t really effective as Valencia finished 12th again in 2016-17. That sort of chaos across all facets of the club seemed irreversible over a short period of time, but Marcelino has been the much-needed salve to the club’s wounds. It’s not only been him, of course, but his influence cannot over overstated.
It was a summer of overhaul across all areas: they brought in Juventus’ Neto to replace the bevy of keepers they previously had. Neto has been quietly excellent in between the sticks. Simone Zaza is finally at home after his troubled time at West Ham. Marcelino has also
revived several players who underwhelmed at their clubs for whatever reason: Gabriel Paulista of Arsenal, Jeison Murillo of Inter, as well as Geoffrey Kondogbia of the same club. For the manager, Pogba is not better than Kondogbia, which, if we chose to ignore the obvious hyperbole, is an indictment of the latter Frenchman’s resurgence this year.
And we’re still ignoring the starlet Goncalo Guedes, who broke out of his PSG cocoon with style, or Luciano Vietto, who seemingly has done more for Valencia in two months than he did for parent club Atletico Madrid. Marcelino shipped off half the squad he inherited, with many of the players not good enough for a club of Valencia’s stature. There was plenty of deadwood, and he was not afraid to ship them all out. Vitally though, he energized Dani Parejo, the once-disenchanted captain who was ready to walk out but was dissuaded otherwise by the manager.
Rodrigo, Santi Mina and Jose Gaya have all been impressive in their own way. It makes it sound as though Marcelino is a miracle man, but no Valencian would deny that after the struggles of previous years.
He’s been known to obsess over weight and physical condition, controlling every minute detail, ensuring no player goes above the weight limit. Players were scared to eat in excess; that is if they were allowed to, as excess food was not prepared in the training ground.
They ate what they got, making it more of a military camp than a football club. But through struggle is born success, and given Valencia’s chaotic, laissez-faire attitude of previous years, this was the right wake-up call. As with Parejo, the players all knew this was a man with a mission, who was here to make things right. After years of trouble, the club underwent an overhaul in more than just playing terms: the boardroom had new members, and the blueprints for the Nou Mestalla was dusted off.
Marcelino had the authority to make changes, selling expendable players. He was both obsessive and yet approachable; he knew how to man-manage, and in the process, he was creating a culture of hard work and effort. He had players who had different things to prove, and all were hungry, both literally and metaphorically. The club, so used to shooting themselves in their foot, has returned to the basics. The Brazilian has exceeded his remit, and it is by no complex method: he has not overspent, but simply spent with caution. He looked for disgruntled players at other clubs, the bench players, the ones that need game time. And it’s all with the simple, humble 4-4- 2. Valencia are providing entertainment within solidity; it’s the right combination, led by the right man.
If not for a nightmare run in December and January, where they lost six in nine games, they would be up with Barcelona for the title. It seems fanciful to suggest it’s a lost chance, but that’s how good Valencia have been. Prior to the first loss, they were unbeaten in 13 games, having just drawn to Barcelona. Since their last loss on 4th February, they have been unbeaten. A fanciful title challenge has fallen by the wayside, but there is still plenty to compete for. Valencia have not finished third or higher since 2011-12; they have not finished second or higher since they won the title in 2003-04. They are not fighting for pride – they have already earned it back- but for the restoration of their heritage. Champions League qualification and a Copa del Rey semi-final spot is success enough for one year.
Valencia are getting there, back to the good times, surely but steadily. And it’s been led by Marcelino, the Pied Piper, and his motley crew It’s good for Spanish football that Valencia are back, truly, and one hopes that this resurgence can materialise into something permanent. The fans deserve it.
By Rahul Warrier.