What happened at Valencia the last two days of the transfer window may have looked like total madness to its fans and other football followers alike. How can you make that many changes to the squad in the middle of the season? How could you sell Sergio Canales? And Ever Banega? Wasn’t Dorlan Pabón deserving another chance?
Sitting on the phone and following twitter, I envisioned Rufete as a sort of football’s Billy Beane (Portrayed by Brad Pitt in Moneyball). After realizing something had to be done to follow through on his ideas, Beane started trading players based on their statistical performance and how they had calculated the road to a win. It lead to a record series of straight wins in the MLB after a horrible start to the season with a coach not believing in his ideas and players that were not fitting into the model he had made. He even traded the club’s biggest star, the only one who had performed.
Rufete also realized he had to do something. It is said the moves were partially financially motivated, but there was most certainly also both tactical and psychological reasons behind the busiest winter transfer window in Valencia’s history. It started Thursday when Postiga, Guardado and Pabón all left on loan, freeing up a non-EU spot. Out of nowhere, and in what must be Valencia’s first transfer not leaked to the press in advance since the 50’s, Seydou Keita signed from Chinese Dalian Aerbin. The ball was rolling.
The rumours of further changes flourished, and most of them proved accurate. After winning a fight with Villarreal, Sergio Canales was sold to Real Sociedad. Ever Banega chose to turn former club Atletico Madrid down and was in the end loaned out to Newells, his boyhood team. With Rubén Vezo already signed along with Napoli loanee Eduardo Vargas, Rufete and Pizzi, who admits having been consulted on every move, continued to surprise. First, while everyone was eagerly awaiting the signing of Nicholas Otamendi, in came Swizz international Philippe Senderos – again out of nowhere. Never meant as a substitute for the Argentinian, he was rather an addition of experience in a defence, meant to come in even with Otamendi signed.
In the middle of the defensive drama was also Ricardo Costa who after interest from Besiktas, was asked whether he would be interested in the move – and replied he was open to any suggestion the club had. The key to it all was Daniel Pablo Osvaldo, who was frozen out at Southampton after beating up José Fonte during a training session. After a couple of days of both sides insisting the Italo-Argentinian wanted to go to them, he eventually ended up in Juventus. With one free non-EU spot, Valencia now turned to Mirko Vucinic who turned down both Arsenal and Valencia to stay at Juventus, despite the club wanting him to leave. The third choice was long term target Vinicius Araújo – a Brazilian.
Valencia were now in a squeeze, after not feeling reassured by Otamendi’s Italian passport and fearing the defender would also count as non-EU. The choice in the end was between the defender and the attacker, and Pizzi chose the latter. So instead of Otamendi, it was Araújo. Well that was the story of it, but why?
If we go back to when Rufete was hired as General Manager, one of the first things that was said was; “Rufete wants a team with the same disposition, spirit and philosophy that was employed under Rafa Benitez”. That means a 4-2-3-1 where the two most defensive midfielders (the Albelda – Baraja) are much of the key to the success. But one should not forget the energetic wingers Vicente and Rufete and the ability of all those four and Aimar to convert defence into attack in an instant. For that you need vertical players with the ability to transport the ball quickly. Ask yourselves why Piatti all of a sudden is a given starter after being ridiculed by Djukic.
How was the current Valencia squad built? Braulio and previous coaches poor overall planning aside, it was and partially is a squad built for possession football. Valencia wanted to be Barcelona, without having the sufficient quality. The team largely consisted of players that each on their own had great technique and flair, but that were unable of consistent performances. Very often players like Jonas, Banega and Canales spent a lot of time on the ball, transporting it sideways. It was a patience game, waiting for an opening in the opposition defence. It worked, as long as Soldado’s vertical runs and ability to convert existed in the team. With the striker sold it just got too stationary.
Even with Juan Antonio Pizzi’s changes to the playing scheme, Banega and Canales especially fell into old habits, slowing down play when attacking. A Banega out of form often looses possession where he would shine among the very brightest when on form. In the end he was sidelined, beaten to the starting spot by Dani Parejo. It was obvious after a few games, that the initial spark that arose from the change of manager, slowly died and the team fell back into the sins of the past.
On the more psychological note, the team also needed change. Neither Salvo, nor Pizzi have hidden the fact that some players did not engage as expected. Some even asked to leave. Yet others showed no will to fight for a place. Vezo and Araújo brings talent, speed and youthfulness. Senderos and Keita bring experience, team building skills and winner’s mentality. Vargas is a mix of both and with a determination to succeed in Europe the second time around.
Araújo and Vargas are vertical players, players which can recreate a counter attacking Valencia, experts in play transition. Keita is a player who is strong both defensively and in attack, providing a slightly more attacking option than the Fuego-Romeu pivote we saw against Barcelona. Together with Romeu he could make a real physical presence as well, while maintaining a strong ability to transport the ball quickly.
In my opinion the changes made are thus down to financials, as well as psychological and tactical reasons. It was obvious the team needed a big change not to be drawn back into a Djukic era performance level. Whether the changes made are the correct ones, whether the team actually improves over time and whether the tactical change will be successful remains to be seen. Surely, the jury will be out to judge the sale of Canales and the loan of Banega especially. Only time will tell.
Would David Silva have become the player he is if he stayed at Valencia? I said back then he needed change, even before a transfer was rumoured. If I was correct is very difficult to know as the answer to the previous question is impossible to know. The same will be true for Canales and Banega.