Top 10 features the top ten stories from the previous month from across the footballing world. The featured articles may be about a massive headline or a result from the previous month, or a culmination of a particular story that needs to definitely be noticed and discussed about. This feature is to bring a different flavor to the breaking news we see and talk to others about and aimed at constructively looking at the point in discussion. The stats used in the article below are accurate as of November 30, 2017.
“We will compete to be at the top, which is what Valencia CF’s history demands of us.” Those were Marcelino’s first words during his unveiling as Valencia’s new head coach. Vibes of ambition and determination stemmed from the Spaniard’s first press conference; a factor that was missing for Valencia in their past two seasons as its board of directors switched managers as quick as shuffling a deck of cards. A sense of positivity filled The Bats’ fans since they knew what Marcelino can bring to the table, proven by the way Villareal had played under his tutelage. Quick football on the counter with electrifying pace were the main factors that one can expect whenever Villareal was expected to play.
Image Credits: Yahoo Sports
During the summer transfer window, Marcelino rejuvenated his squad with players who failed to prove themselves at their own clubs, while letting go of the ones with big egos and not exactly the optimum attitude. The player profiles he wanted to bring were those who fit the bill of being a “hard-worker”, “ambitious”, “hungry”, “and “technical”.
The list of players brought to the club included the likes of Kondogbia, Guedes, Gabriel, Pereira, and Murillo with impressive academy call-ups such as Lato and Nacho Vidal. Meanwhile, the top two names at the club Nani and Negredo were let go in what was considered a bold move from Marcelino since those players might be considered as a building-block to depend on for some managers.
In this piece, my main focus will be on analyzing key aspects of Marcelino’s Valencia and how they have managed to be arguably the most impressive team thus far.
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Marcelino’s go-to formation is the classical 4-4-2 with extreme organization, compact defending, and blistering counter-attack mentality. For each team to succeed there should be a back-bone in place, and Valencia have just that: Garay at the back, Parejo and Kondogbia dominating the midfield, and Zaza upfront.
Complementing the back-bone is a mixture of youth players and experienced players who had bad seasons with their previous clubs as mentioned above. Such combination gives birth to a sense of unity and determination among the players that ensures teamwork is always the first thought to achieve a good result and hold out against tough opposition, just like what happened against Real Madrid away and Barcelona at home.
Usually the 4-4-2 is chosen when the coach decides on a style of play that depends on transitions. In other words, focusing on closing down space and using the pace of the wingers and full-backs to hit opponents on the break; a style of play made famous by Simeone’s Atletico Madrid who went on to snatch the 2013/2014 La Liga title from the two Spanish giants. However, a manager can’t simply adopt this philosophy without having the key personnel to apply it on the field; and Marcelino definitely knows that, proved by the active transfer window the club made this summer.
Usually I start my analysis speaking about the attacking aspect of a team. However, Valencia’s system depends on its defence before going into attack; it’s the basic foundation of their system, that’s why I will talk about it first.
Marcelino demands from his players to be compact horizontally and vertically as much as possible, restricting spaces between each midfielder and between each defender (horizontal), and restricting spaces between the lines (vertical). Zonal-ball-oriented defending is applied meaning that zones to be occupied change according to the ball position; this is done in the aim of closing options in the middle and forcing the opposition into the wings, then the players apply their pressing scheme because the space is now smaller and try to intercept the ball to attack on the break.
Points to look at from the above image:
Both strikers drop deep to close any channels to the center as well as being a “backward pressing” element that catches opposition off-guard. Notice how Rodrigo (#19) is positioned at a different vertical line than Kondogbia and Parejo, thus closing down the channel between them forming an invisible defensive triangle.
Since Guedes (#7) is the closest to the ball, he pushes up towards the ball-carrier and presses him.
Behind him sits his midfield players but definitely not in random positions, the other 3 midfielders form a diagonal chain that ensures the channels between them towards the center are well covered. This keeps the ball-far opposition’s winger free to receive the ball, but it’s considered a less dangerous option than to access the Zone 14.
- Full-back and wide midfielder orientation:
The usual sight we see when watching defensive teams is that the full-back sits narrower than his fellow wide midfielder. It is done to close down the half-space channel that many teams try to exploit, conceding the wide areas for his winger to cover. However, Marcelino has another way of looking at it; let’s see in the video below:
As seen above, when the ball reaches the left full-back, Valencia’s Montoya rushes to the touchline to press him, Soler covers the space behind Montoya, and Garay takes over the marking duties from Montoya. In traditional defensive teams, the winger is the one who presses the ball carrier on the touchline and not the full-back. Marcelino thinks that the midfield line should be horizontally compact and be extremely aware when to cover the space left by the aggressive full-backs.
This is done to prevent line-breaking passes towards the center from the opposition and always push them to the side. It goes without saying that the humble attitude Guedes and Soler show in tracking back and supporting their fellow full-back is key for Valencia to appear as a formidable force in defense.
- Wing defensive coverage
After forcing the opponents on the wings, there’s a possibility that 4 Valencia players provide defensive coverage and pressure: the winger, the full-back, the striker, and the central midfielder. However, not all 4 are pressing the ball-carrier; the full-back and winger press, whereas the midfielder and the striker support on each side covering the passing lanes.
Notice the work ethic from the striker before anyone else, backwards pressing in the aim of closing down a back pass puts the opposition in a difficult situation. Parejo (#10) is shown to provide support behind both Gaya (#14) and Guedes (#7) who are performing the press. Such movements give the fans a sense that this Valencia team is different from the rest; this team is being drilled day in day out on specific defensive movements and tactical awareness to which we are seeing its result in the league games.
“A big team cannot concede 65 goals, it is the first thing that has to change,” mentioned Marcelino during his press conference. And up until now, his plan seems to be working by ensuring that Valencia puts in a decent defensive performance in each game. Looking at the numbers, we see that Marcelino’s team conceded just 12 goals since the start of La Liga; when compared to previous seasons this figure is extremely good and definitely one of the factors that helped Valencia maintain its second place behind league leaders Barcelona.
After talking about the defensive aspect, we move on to the attacking ideas that Marcelino asks of his players to adopt on the pitch. Keep in mind that Valencia’s attack works only if the defensive facet is carried out in perfect coordination and harmony. This is said due to the fact that Marcelino’s style of play falls under the reactive category, the same category that includes the likes of Mourinho, Simeone, Ranieri, and Heynckes.
So, how is it a possible that a defensive team like Valencia managed to score 33 goals in La Liga this season, only 3 goals behind Barcelona and 8 goals ahead of Real Madrid? Let’s have a look:
- During Transition
Used by several coaches with Sarri being the most famous this season to adopt it but in a possession-oriented team, verticality is the main attacking concept when Valencia switches from defence to attack. This tactic perfectly suits the profiles of Rodrigo and Zaza, the two main strikers of the team sitting at the shoulders of the opposition’s defenders.
When the ball is recouped by Valencia’s midfield, a quick line-breaking pass is done via Parejo to Zaza, who is brilliant in holding his marker physically and playing with his back towards the goal; Zaza then lays it off back to Parejo for a one touch lob towards Soler attacking the space behind opposition’s lines. To further clarify it, watch the video below:
Amazing tactical awareness from the players: Zaza saw an opportunity to drop deep, Garay couldn’t find Parejo immediately but knew that the ball would eventually reach him if he passed it to Zaza (since the Italian has better access to Parejo), Soler found space behind the opposition’s full-back and made a sprint towards it trusting that Parejo would find him with a beautiful lob pass.
This is one type of verticality, Valencia doesn’t want to hold the ball as much as possible; Marcelino wants his players to take advantage of the opponent’s unorganized structure when in transition and reach the ball to the front lines as quickly as possible, something reminiscent of how Leicester played in their title winning season under Ranieri.
- During build-up
However, when the ball is with Valencia’s goalkeeper Neto, this doesn’t mean that verticality is abandoned. The beautiful thing about Marcelino’s team is the alteration of their positions without letting go of the principle idea and that is attacking with quick vertical passes and lay-offs. The video below shows a scenario where Valencia’s players are pressed during a goal kick:
Top positional awareness from Kondogbia in providing his team a numerical superiority at the back by dropping deep to collect the ball, Parejo moving behind opposition’s lines to occupy them, Guedes offering himself as an option to lay it off to the moving Gaya; verticality at its best.
The two plays shown above are examples of how Valencia transition from defence to attack using their vertical passes and lay-offs. It is a dangerous tactic since the chance of opposition intercepting a vertical pass is very high, thus leading to Valencia being open to dangerous counter-attacks. However, Marcelino drills his players specifically to avoid such mistakes. This is proved by the coordinated movements starting from the defender to the midfielder to the striker ending with the full-back attacking the space created by his teammates; a perfect chain movement symbolizing Valencia’s work ethic and pleasing teamwork.
- Guedes-Gaya electric partnership
Image Credits: Skysports
Valencia’s left flank is in its finest form thanks to Guedes, on loan from PSG, and Gaya, Valencia’s newest “left-back factory” product. Both are young, fast, technical, and fearless when coming up against opposition’s defences. Marcelino has identified huge potential in them and started working on their chemistry when attacking. That’s why we have seen the team using the left-flank as an alternative route whenever the middle was closed by the opposition.
However, given how things are playing out, the left flank has ceased its “alternative route” status and started becoming the go-to route for Valencia’s players. Of the 33 goals Valencia have scored, Guedes scored 3 and assisted 5 whereas Gaya assisted 3. That’s totaling to 11 goals which is one-third of Valencia’s this season.
How exactly does this partnership works? Well, there are two plays that the duo can perform when in attack:
- Gaya overlap Guedes
– The first one is Gaya performing the overlap exploiting bad defensive coordination from the opposition; the key here is the timing of the pass and Guedes is excellent in knowing exactly when to pass the ball and release Gaya while he is still onside.
As seen above and previously in this article, Kondogbia and Parejo have a major role to play in Marcelino’s team, they dictate the tempo and find teammates with brilliant passes. Here Kondogbia finds Guedes alone on the wing and Gaya sprints immediately when realizing a potential chance. The overlap is done and Rodrigo slots it home.
This move was carried out in similar fashion against Barcelona which resulted in the first goal of the match. If it can be effective against the Catalan giants, then why not making it the main attacking option?
- Guedes as second striker
The second one is Guedes cutting inside becoming a second striker, Rodrigo dropping deep into midfield, and Gaya becoming a traditional winger hugging the touchline. In some cases, Kondogbia joins the triangle to transform it into a rhombus in case the team needs extra men to open up passing lanes.
The above goal is one of the best for the Portuguese, it encapsulated everything good about him. His intelligent positioning, his timing of the third-man run, his speed, his dribbling, and his shooting technique. This is an example of Guedes cutting inside abandoning the left wing for Gaya to occupy and become an available option, thus adding to the opponents’ marking duties.
3. Simone Zaza
Image Credits: valencia.eldesmarque.com
Ridiculed for his penalty mishap in the Euro 2016, Zaza is now silencing all those who laughed at him and rained him down with criticism. Credits to Marcelino in not only improving Zaza’s psychology, but also in creating a system that best suits his abilities. Boasting incredible finishing technique and strong physicality, Zaza has grown to become Valencia’s top goal-scorer with 9 goals falling behind Messi who has 12; an impressive record for the Italian who had poor stints with West Ham and Juventus.
Zaza acts as a target man who holds up play and lays off passes to his teammates who are coming from behind, creating a temporary numerical superiority against his marker – since the marker will be tasked with marking Zaza, he wouldn’t be able to cover Valencia’s midfielder sprinting at him – and creating a dangerous chance on goal. Without Zaza, Valencia’s verticality wouldn’t be as efficient as we are seeing weekly against the Spanish teams, both weak and strong.
What we are witnessing in La Liga somehow resembles what we saw from Leicester City two years ago. Nobody had the slightest clue that come December, Valencia would be the ones ranking 2nd behind Barcelona ahead of the mighty Real Madrid. My fellow readers, this is the result of determination, hard-work, humility, harmony, intensity, talent, and desire to bring football’s historic teams back on the podium after a very long absence. Some may be skeptical regarding Marcelino’s ability to maintain this beautiful run of form. However, credit should be given where it’s due; a team that managed to remain unbeatable infront of the three Spanish Giants remains a feat to be admired.
Looking at the lives of Valencia’s players, most of them suffered from setbacks and upsets during their footballing careers: Kondogbia with Inter, Guedes with PSG, Zaza with West Ham, Gabriel with Arsenal, Garay with Real Madrid, Montoya with Barcelona, and Neto with Juventus. The reason I mentioned this is to highlight how failure is never the end, it can be the spark that enlightens our path and inspires us to rise from the ashes, just like the rebirth of a beautiful Phoenix.