Towards the end of last season, if you’d have said that by October, Valencia would be heading the La Liga table, I’m sure most people would have either shaken their head in disbelief or laughed rather loudly at you.
Here was a team that was officially the laughingstock of La Liga, fighting with each other and languishing in a disastrous 15th place.
Yet now that is precisely what new man in charge Unai Emery’s team are doing, thanks in no small part to the man himself, and making a mockery of last year’s disastrous campaign for Los Ches.
Perhaps outside of Spain, Emery seemed a surprise appointment for Valencia. Very little was known about him. He had little profile outside of Spain and seemed perhaps too green for the Valencia job. Yet in fact, the 36-year-old from the Basque country was perhaps the perfect appointment for Valencia.
After the all too public trials and tribulations of the Ronald Koeman era last season, where the dispute with club captain David Albelda, and club legends Miguel Angulo and Santiago Canizares threatened to completely destroy the club's season and drag the team into a relegation battle, Emery’s appointment has very much calmed the water and allowed the team to achieve their full potential and deservedly lead the table in Spain.
But perhaps that should be expected, for Emery is very much in the mould of two of the more successful men to take over at Valencia in recent times: Rafael Benitez and Quique Sanchez Flores.
Like Benitez and Sanchez Flores, Emery is taking over at a young age, 36 (Benitez was 41, Sanchez Flores was 40). Also like Benitez and Flores, he has achieved much at a smaller club before joining Valencia: He helped Almeria achieve their highest ever finish in La Liga, while Benitez led Tenerife to promotion and Flores led Getafe to a respectable 13th in La Liga.
Finally, like Benitez and Flores, Emery is very much a surprise and unheralded appointment, meaning that not only does he come with a low profile, but he can also be allowed to manage in his own unique way without the extra pressure to succeed that can accompany the appointment of big name managers.
So how has Emery taken Valencia to the top? Firstly, he managed to keep David Villa and David Silva, who are both vital elements to his game plan. Following their summer exploits with Spain, these two were both much coveted by some of the big clubs around Europe over the summer.
Managing to keep them was a considerable coup for Emery, because if they had left then Valencia would have struggled on two fronts. Firstly, fans would have been disappointed and indeed perhaps angry that two of Valencia’s top players, and indeed fans' favourites, would have been allowed to leave. Secondly, their departure would have left Emery missing two of the best players in La Liga and needing to replace them.
As it is, however, Emery has been able to base much of Valencia’s attacking game around these two, with Villa playing as the lone front man and Silva dovetailing neatly in support. This has provided Valencia with a quality attacking threat and a cutting edge upfront, and Villa in particular has responded to the faith shown in him by Emery by scoring six goals in six games.
Secondly, Emery has very much united a squad that was at times resembled a squabbling, disorganised rabble last year. He has welcomed David Albelda and Miguel Angulo back into the squad and has made them vital parts of his team, a move which further appeased fans, as these were two of Valencia’s better and longest-serving players.
Their return to the fold, combined with a relative lack of signings over the summer (Renan, the goalkeeper was the only main arrival), plus the removal of some of the more disruptive members of the squad—Ever Banega and Marco Caneira, for instance—has made the squad a much more united group, and in turn has seen an improvement in performance.
This has meant that Emery has been able to get regular consistent performances from a squad, which though it struggled last season, highlighted its quality by winning the Copa Del Rey.
Thirdly, Emery has benefited undoubtedly from the poor start of the "big two" in Spain. Up until their 6-1 victory against Atletico Madrid, Barcelona still resembled a side who were a work in progress and need to show they can perform consistently week in week out. Champions Real Madrid have made an even poorer start, drawing with Espanyol over the weekend and struggling to beat Betis the week before.
On the playing side, the team are missing that star quality which Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival was supposed to provide. Allied with the unpopularity of chairman Calderon and uncertainty over Schuster’s future, this has meant that the champion’s title defence has started off shakily, thus allowing the likes of Valencia and Villarreal to take the lead in Spain.
Even so, this should take nothing away from Emery and his Valencia team. He has broken the record for the best ever start by a Valencia manager and deservedly leads the way in La Liga.
For Valencia fans, while there is a long way left to go in the rest of the season, they must hope that this achievement is a sign of things to come under "miracle man" Unai Emery.
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