Preparing for the worst
The truth was laid bare at Camp Nou. It was cruel. A massacre. But Barcelona was actually merciful with Gary Neville’s men. Or is ‘men’ really the right word? In a match that will be remembered as the blackest in modern Valencian history, to call the eleven white-shirted cones men that night would be an insult to any narration.
“Mercenaries”, “You don’t deserve this shirt” and “Vete ya” were the words of welcome as they returned to Valencia where hundreds of fans have had enough. Many outsiders say Valencia’s fans are particulary demanding. That’s not really true. All they want is a team that give it all. That fight to the death for every ball. The fans had picked themselves up countless times this season. After each and every poor performance hope has been restored going into the next match. Because the team has to be supported. In good and bad. But there’s always a limit. A limit that says is you don’t run with your fat salaries, why should we support you? Do you take us for fools?
So what has gone wrong? Are the players really that lazy and awful? All of them? Okey, they’re not Neymars, Busquets or Messis. But they inhabit qualities that ought to make them much better than the reserve team of UD Las Palmas. And still they can’t dominate their opponents. The confidence from last season has evaporated. Heads hanging. And now everyone fights for themselves, shying away from any responsibility.
It was obvious that hiring Gary Neville was a mistake. First because of his relationship with his boss, who is also his business partner and friend. Second because of inexperience. And thirdly because of differences in language and culture. Fourthly because it was in the middle of the season, hardly the ideal timing to implement a different style. The squad is young and unbalanced. The tactics are wrong. Mendes. The exit of Salvo, Rufete and Ayala. And so on.
But there’s something that has been nagging me for a long while. Why are the players seemingly in such a poor physical form? Why do the better ones keep getting injured over and over again? It’s a feeling that has been consistent even during the halcyon days of last season. Even in the emphatic win against Atlético Madrid early in the last season, the fuel burned out very quickly. It’s fairly safe to say that hadn’t Valencia scored two early goals, and not saved that penalty, the wouldn’t have won. And in the latter half of the previous season, the team nearly collapsed out of the European spots.
This season has been a continuous disappointment, leading up to the exit of Nuno. With him went his technical staff, leaving behind the newly arrived and equally inexperienced Phil Neville to welcome his brother. And the technical staff that now work with Gary is quite a mix. On Valencia’s home page no physical coach appears. They do have one, however. But he’s also new, having arrived after Nuno’s exit. Alongside Phil, Gary relies on the former Valencia star Miguel Ángel Angulo, who is a Rufete man. Angulo used to coach the sub15/16s, and frequented daily with Curro Torres and Vicente, the latter now also a part of the youth development squad.
Preparing the best
So what’s my point? It happens that I’ve helped a coach with his UEFA A thesis lately, focusing on training methodology in elite football, comparing Norwegian clubs with Spanish. In that regard I visited Celta Vigo and Levante, mainly speaking to their physical coach rather than the head one. I asked Valencia too, but a press officer told me that the ‘mister’ had put a veto on any exclusive interviews for the entire team because of poor results. I wasn’t too hurt. I had a feeling Valencia wasn’t that representative anyway. But it would have been interesting to have a look into the dynamics inside the coaching staff.
Reporters usually focuses on tactics, formations and lineups. Or whether this or that player performs according to expectations or not. That’s not strange, since it’s what both the reporters and the public can see with their own eyes. But the true nuts and bolts of a team is made on the training ground. This has always fascinated me since I used to watch Rosenborg get coached under the swashbuckling Nils Arne Eggen in the 1990s. For those unfamiliar with that team, it was basically a bunch of half professionals that had a subscription on league titles and beating teams like Real Madrid, Porto, AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League with attractive and attacking football. Eggen, a school teacher and former defender at Rosenborg was a sight to behold during training sessions. Constantly yelling, correcting and cracking jokes in a mocking way, the players gelled into a telepathic entity where the sum of its mediocre parts was stellar.
That Eggen was inspired by the school of the 1960s’ Ajax was of course significant. But so was his many years as an assistant coach. It took him many years to really be successful. He was also so demanding that the all winning squad at Rosenborg was close to mutiny on more than one occasion. His calmer and very knowledgeful sidekick, Bjørn Hansen, had worked with him for years, and functioned as a moderator that both the players and the head coach trusted completely. It was a perfect machine.
During the thesis field work I could see much of the same both at Celta and Levante. The latter might not have the best of league positions at the moment, but play has improved significantly since Rubi replaced Mendilibar earlier in the season. I had a chat with Xabi Gil, his physical coach, who told me that they had known each other since Rubi was a player. The coaching team is identical to the one Rubi had a Real Valladolid last season too.
At Celta it’s not different. Eduardo Berizzo, who has played under Marcelo Bielsa since he was 13, becoming a league winner for Newell’s Old Boys under ‘El Loco’ at only 19 alongside equally young Mauricio Pochettino and Gerardo Martino, has known his assistants for years. Most of them also served ‘Toto’ at Estudiantes in Argentina and then for the Chilean side O’Higgins, who despite being a small side, won the league, and almost won more going head to head with Jorge Sampaoli’s all conquering Universidad de Chile.
It’s evident that having a homogenous technical staff helps. It’s hard to say how well Valencia’s work together, but there are certainly reasons for concern in this department. And that’s not the only alarming aspect when it comes to those who assist Gary Neville.
Another revelation as I gathered information for this thesis was the dependency on the physical coach in modern football. They might mean as much as the head coach, and the latter certainly can’t do without the former if they want to reach the top. They are the ones who really plan the training session, and who most of the time execute them. And it’s them who do most of the analysis work. The head coach can always watch a lot of video footage and dive into statistics from services like Opta or Squawka. But with all the coaches I talked to, GPS tracking was their favorite tool of the trade. It tells them the speed, direction, positioning, number of high intensity sprints per match, and so on. It is a great tool if used correctly. The challenge, they told me, is to know which data to use, and how. Because if the right parameters are extracted and put into a system, it will tell you exactly who is not performing, who should be put to certain tasks, and who needs to rest in order to avoid injuries.
Physical coaches today, and especially Spanish ones, are highly educated. If you don’t hold at least a bachelor degree in sports physiology, you can basically forget to apply for a job even at Segunda B level. Paco de Miguel, preferred physical coach of Rafael Benítez since the Liverpool era, holds both doctorate and masters degree in various sports related physiology. This is what he told me;
-A sound and thorough training methodology is vital in today’s football as it’s so fast. The best players today are those who are the most explosive. This gives a much harder strain on the muscles than if you were a long distance runner, so precise data is essential if you want to measure who can do the job for you, and when they ought to rest to keep a competitive team throughout a long season. And to process that data properly, you need to know what you’re doing. A head coach can’t do that all by himself. He’s dependent on someone with the correct education for the dirty work, so he can fully focus on developing tactics and managing the squad!
Spanish coaches and physical trainers are abundant. There just aren’t enough clubs to go around for them despite having all the right papers and diplomas. And that’s even taking into account that Spanish coaches are in great demand around the globe. You find them at top level in New Zealand, the Arab Emirates, Bolivia, the US, Caucasus, Libya and China. But also for top clubs in leagues like Bundesliga, Serie A and the English Premier League.
A third lesson was something a couple of the head coaches emphasized to me. Experience is very valuable at top level football because by age and experience you learn to trust yourself, and not to pay too much attention to what everybody else think you should do instead. Young coaches tend to experiment much more, at the wrong times, instilling a sense of uncertainty both in themselves and their players. It was telling that Arsene Wenger, a coach Gary Neville has criticized while being a pundit, gave the former Manchester United fullback the advice to stick to his original plan instead of desperately searching for the magical tactical trick to remedy a difficult situation.
It’s clearly not working for Gary. It looks inevitable that he won’t last much longer. The players’ poor form is not helping him, and it timely to ask what the hell happened during preseason (which wasn’t his fault, of course). Still, you’d expect things to improve over time, despite a taxing two-matches-per-week period. Is the training methodology from Nuno to Gary that different? Does Valencia lack the proper expertise in their technical staff? Or do the players simply not believe in his system? Or themselves for that matter?
The lesson ought to be learned by now for Peter Lim. On the face of it, his project looks much like Rufete and Salvo’s. Faith in the youngsters. But Rufo’s plan was much more than that. It was exactly about the nuts and bolts. Building an identity on the pitch, from the toddlers to the first team, and not just in the marketing department. Hiring Gary Neville gave Valencia an attention in international media it hardly had seen before. But I wonder if Lim thinks that all publicity is good publicity right now. It’s time to learn, Mr.Lim, that success in football isn’t the glossy bonnet, but the greasy engine under it.
*To have a look at a proper physical coach under work, no better than a flashback to Alejandro ‘El Loco’ Richino. He’s about to take on the Chilean national squad now as Juan Antonio Pizzi has replaced Jorge Sampaoli. Arturo Vidal will never know what hit him :)*