Valencia are playing with verve. If there is a player who encapsulates the transformation of Valencia this season—and their rapid, direct counter-attacking style under new coach Marcelino—it is Goncalo Guedes. The 20-year-old Portuguese winger has been explosive since moving south to Spain on loan from Paris Saint-Germain over the summer.
At PSG, Guedes was unable to establish a regular starting position behind a number of more senior players; at Valencia he's been pivotal, contributing five assists and scoring three goals in eight league appearances, including a couple of stunners against Sevilla and Real Betis. The latter was a 6-3 goalfest, the first time Valencia have scored six goals in La Liga since 2004, per El Pais (in Spanish).
Guedes is thrilling to watch, arguably La Liga's most exciting player this season (with the exception of Leo Messi's remorseless brilliance). He's fast and unselfish. He makes amazing offloads by contorting his feet as though made of rubber, and he can generate fierce force with a short backlift when shooting.
It used to be that shambolic Valencia—who are second in the La Liga standings and unbeaten in 10 games after finishing 12th two seasons running—were a clearing house for players on the books of agent Jorge Mendes. The tale of Guedes, who is part of the Mendes stable, illustrates how things have changed at the club.
"Valencia was seen as one of the showrooms for Jorge Mendes in European football," said Aitor Lagunas, editor of Panenka, the highly regarded literary football magazine. "The way of Valencia used to be accept any kind of player with a Jorge Mendes profile. This summer it has been the other way around.
"Marcelino sent the club's owner Peter Lim to Paris, and he told him: 'Don't come back without Goncalo Guedes. From all the players of Jorge Mendes, I want him.' And that is what happened—Peter Lim got Goncalo Guedes in the last day of the transfer window. Right now, we can see what Goncalo Guedes has done for Valencia and the Spanish league."
Marcelino believes in youth. He earned his spurs as a player and a young coach in La Liga at Sporting Gijon, a club that is renowned for its youth academy in Spanish football circles. The elevation of Guedes by Marcelino, who was capped as a full international by Portugal when he was 18 years old, is a testament to that conviction.
Marcelino's faith in hometown boy Carlos Soler, who has come up through the ranks of Valencia's "cantera" (youth academy) is another example. Lagunas, who recently finished filming a documentary on Valencia that will be broadcast in the New Year on BelN Sports, reckons the 20-year-old Soler is destined to be a "franchise player" for the club.
In order to give youth its fling, Marcelino had to get rid of some troublesome older players during the summer, including Enzo Perez (shipped back to Argentina), Diego Alves (sold to Flamengo in Brazil), Alvaro Negredo (signed with Besiktas in Turkey) and Aymen Abdennour (loaned out to Marseille).
"These players were earning a lot of money, but their performances were very poor," El Mercantil Valenciano journalist Cayetano Ros said. "This was the key—the ejection of the club's worst players, and the signing of very good, young players to replace them. Players with a lot of ambition, who were hungry to succeed after spells at clubs where they weren’t prominent."
Ros cited several examples: Guedes at PSG; goalkeeper Neto, who didn't play much in Juventus; Geoffrey Kondogbia, who didn't get on great at Inter; and the same with Gabriel Paulista at Arsenal and Andreas Pereira at Manchester United.
"Marcelino is clear about the team he likes," Ros said. "He wants a young team, players who are very fast, who have absolute faith in him as a trainer. He doesn't like veteran players who are suspicious or wary. He likes players with a lot of illusion, who are hopeful, who dream, who learn fast.
"He has a very frank relationship with his players. He told everyone in pre-season what he expected from them; for example, with Fabien Orellana, he told him he wasn't counting on him for the season, that he wasn't going to be calling on him. That is something the players are grateful for—the truth."
Lagunas points out that Marcelino has returned Valencia to their roots—the DNA that was nurtured during their most recent glory years at the turn of the millennium when Hector Cuper brought the club to successive Champions League finals and Rafa Benitez won two La Liga titles in 2002 and 2004.
The club has just gone through a chaotic period in which it was changing managers several times a season, including a bizarre interlude in which Gary Neville was parachuted in as head coach. "Gary Neville was one of the strangest appointments in the last 10 years in Spanish football," Lagunas said. "Perhaps only Tony Adams at Granada was worse."
After a few years when it was uncertain of its style, Marcelino has returned Valencia to a traditional, counter-attacking philosophy. He eschews the slow build-up of, say, Barcelona and Spain national teams in favour of a fast, direct route to goal. He keeps it simple.
"His way of understanding football is 4-4-2, which can be seen as a classical view of the game, with a few small adjustments to the model," says Lagunas. "He's very influenced by Italian football. It won't be a surprise if we see him someday coaching in Italy. He has this approach, which isn't always popular in Spain—that it's better to arrive to the box in three passes rather than 15.
"He sees the game as being uncomplicated. He doesn't give his players a lot of orders, just a few simple ideas, easy to do. He doesn't like to explain a lot of things to guys who are playing in the first division in Spain, most of whom are internationals.
"During pre-season, he divided the pitch into zones. Every player—central defenders, full-backs, Dani Parejo and Geoffrey Kondogbia in midfield and so on—understood where they should be during a game. He started from ground zero. It was very simple, but now they understand where to be during a game, which wasn't always the case last season—Valencia were a very chaotic team.
"During one of those first training sessions in the summer, he said to his players: 'I want to hear the ball when you pass it. I want to hear the 'pam.' I want to hear that noise—the sound of the ball.' I asked Marcelino about this aspect. It's because he wants his team to move forward quickly, to take advantage of the opposition when it is off guard."
Marcelino also has an obsession about the diet of his players. Players are tested daily. If a player's body fat index tips over 9.5, he can't play, as per the Guardian. "He imposes a very strict food diet, with very precise measurements," Ros said. "It's very controlled. They are all very thin. For example, Parejo weighs 5.5 kilos less compared to last season."
Parejo has been a revelation this season. Marcelino has reinstalled him as club captain. He makes the team sing. Alongside him, France international Kondogbia has found his mojo again after a failed big-money move to Inter, while Simone Zaza has scored nine goals in 10 league games following a goalless, eight-game misadventure in London last season with West Ham. Only Messi has scored more than Zaza in La Liga this season.
Valencia's scintillating form, which includes a 5-0 win against Malaga and a 4-0 rout of Sevilla, has bowled everyone over. "This is the biggest surprise," Ros said, "even here in Valencia—it's not only that they are winning but also they are playing really well. They are playing with style, very attacking. Marcelino has never been as dynamic a coach as he is now. The players are playing with confidence and enjoying every minute, every goal."
This could go either of two ways. Marcelino achieved great things at his last station, winning Villarreal promotion and securing three top-six finishes as well as a run to the semi-final of the Europa League, but he was bombed out of the club during the 2016-17 pre-season.
"Marcelino has a reputation of ending up having a bad relationship with his players," Ros said. "Every day is so stressful. At Villarreal, it ended up in tensions and conflicts." As Gabriel said in a radio interview on Cadena Ser: Marcelino can be "muy pesado" (very annoying).
But if Valencia keep knocking in the goals with such abandon—and without the distraction of European competition to wear them out—they could well give early-season league leaders Barcelona a run for the title. It’s something we would all enjoy dining out on.
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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