The end of the 2014-15 season was dramatic for Valencia, as they secured Champions League qualification on the final day with a turnaround 3-2 win at Almeria.
It was a deserved and emotional end to a tough first season with Nuno Espirito Santo in charge, with the team having gone through several different phases throughout the campaign to eventually finish one point behind Atletico Madrid and one point ahead of Sevilla.
From an initial stodgy style of play as they searched for defensive solidity to gradually showing more freedom, excitement and cutting edge in attack, Los Che became one of the must-watch teams in La Liga last season and had several key players who excelled. One of those was centre-back Nicolas Otamendi, the Argentinian who was in his first season with the club. He was the league's standout defender, and it has been no surprise to see him linked with big-money moves away.
Manchester United, per the Independent, and Manchester City, according to the Mirror, are both front-runners for his signature. However, Valencia have to make sure they keep their top players if they want to build on last season's big step forward, especially as they have not excelled themselves in the transfer market so far this summer.
Otamendi has been in Europe since 2010, playing with FC Porto until January 2014. He won the Europa League and three league titles with the Liga NOS outfit—but on a personal-performance level, last season with Valencia was by far his best.
With reliability, consistency and defensive strength, Otamendi was simply monstrous.
Testament to his performances is the list of accolades that came his way; he made the Liga BBVA team of the season, was voted into the similar lists by most pundits and, right here on B/R, was our top-rated defender and third-place player overall in La Liga for last term.
As his beard grew in stature throughout the season, so too did his performances.
Otamendi is naturally an aggressive player but combined this inclination to attack every ball that came his way with a real leadership, organise Valencia's back line and even display a propensity to make a telling difference in attack.
Whether stepping out of the defensive line to make interceptions and tackles or hold his position to make limitless numbers of clearances, Otamendi's reading of the situation and ability to judge correctly when to intervene was a big reason for Valencia's defensive solidity. They conceded just 32 goals last season; only Atletico Madrid and Barcelona bettered that tally.
A perfect sign-off from club football was assuring Champions League football for the forthcoming campaign. He almost went one better at international level by winning the Copa America in the summer. That ended with Argentina losing in the final to Chile, of course, meaning Otamendi missed out on a first international title.
Otamendi started the season playing alongside Ruben Vezo, the young Portuguese centre-back. Vezo is a tremendously composed young defender, good on the ball and positionally aware with good recovery pace. He's not the toughest, but with Otamendi alongside him, Valencia had a good balance between aggression and reservation, push ahead and cover behind.
Once German defender Shkodran Mustafi had recovered from injury, though, it became apparent he was Nuno's first choice to partner Otamendi.
Vezo didn't necessarily deserve to be removed from the team, but the senior man took his place—and initially struggled. It was during this middle stage of the season, when Valencia were a little dour to watch but clearly trying to jell many new members of the team, that Otamendi really began to show his top form.
With Mustafi continually making mistakes in positional work and in attempting interceptions, Otamendi's recovery work was top class. He grew in stature and confidence, clearly revelling in being a key part of the team, and he helped Valencia win several early games that, without those points, would have meant they struggled to stay in the top four later on.
A run of 11 games from the start of December to the end of February saw Valencia lose just once, but only two of those were won by more than a single goal.
By the end of the year, Mustafi was more prominent at both ends of the field. As a team, Valencia worked extremely hard on their defensive shape and work rate.
It remained Otamendi, though, who embodied that commitment and organisation, as well as the determination to see out the season in one of those spots in the top four.
Los Che Back in the Champions League
So on to 2015-16, and Valencia are looking forward to a Champions League campaign—if they can navigate their play-off against AS Monaco, which is no easy task.
They will, with absolute certainty, need Otamendi at 100 per cent—both in terms of fitness and focus.
As soon as the Copa America was over, he was the subject of speculation; the Mirror reported he demanded his future be sorted before pre-season training got underway, but he returned, per Marca, on July 27.
Games over the summer have not gone well for Los Che; following an early win over Southampton, the likes of Roma, Bayern Munich and Porto have all beaten Nuno's men. Not too much emphasis should be placed on summer games, of course, but they are all sides indicative of the quality Valencia will face if they get into the Champions League—and Monaco, in France's Ligue 1, have already started competitive action. They beat Nice 2-1 on the opening weekend of league games.
Lack of Improvement
Champions League qualification aside, domestically it will be tougher than ever for Valencia to keep up their improvement. La Liga is ever more competitive with impressive squads, big-money transfers and smart work in the market; the two teams Valencia must match themselves against as closely as possible are clearly Atletico Madrid and Sevilla. In both regards, this summer at least, they have fallen behind.
While loans last season for the likes of Rodrigo, Andre Gomes and Joao Cancelo had to be made permanent, the similar arrangement for Alvaro Negredo meant they had to fork out €30 million for a striker who was important in physical and direct play late on in games at times but, by and large, did not impress. Negredo scored five league goals, played just 1,500 minutes or so and has already been linked with a loan move by Metro, quoting Spanish sources.
Quite frankly, Negredo is a massive waste of resources in a summer when Valencia should have been looking to buy smart and continue improving.
The only new additions are Santi Mina and Zakaria Bakkali, both impressive teenagers but not finished articles, and goalkeeper Mathew Ryan.
By contrast, Sevilla have brought in the likes of Yevhen Konoplyanka, Michael Krohn-Dehli, Steve N'Zonzi, Ciro Immobile, Sergio Escudero and Adil Rami to boost last year's squad—all the while making a profit. Again.
Atleti haven't made a profit because they have been able to keep hold of their biggest stars. They have, however, added significantly to their core squad, especially in attack, where Valencia still look lacking, with only Paco Alcacer available to lead the line before turning to Negredo.
So if Valencia's attack isn't going to be significantly upgraded, then the defence must, at the very least, not be downgraded. And losing Otamendi would do exactly that.
It's not just the defence, though. Goalkeeper Diego Alves will be absent for most of the season after tearing his ACL at the end of the last campaign, and Ryan, though a talented young stopper, has not been called upon to play against this level of forwards on a regular basis before.
He was part of the Australia national team that won the Asia Cup on home soil in January, so the big stage shouldn't faze him, but there is something of a step up from facing Aleksandar Mitrovic or Renaud Emond to facing Leo Messi, Luis Suarez or Cristiano Ronaldo.
As it is, without upgrades on squad depth or the starting XI and missing their first-choice goalkeeper, the best stopper in La Liga last season, Nuno will have to work wonders to keep Valencia on a level pegging with Sevilla for a top-four finish.
Take Otamendi out of the equation, and the club may as well accept this will be another rebuilding year when they fight for a European spot, but any growth or silverware will likely remain well out of reach.