At the age of 26, Fernando Gago is reaching a critical crossroads in his career. The promise which saw Real Madrid pay €20.4m to Boca Juniors for his services in 2006 is still to be fulfilled. Despite occasionally demonstrating his considerable playmaking talents, he exercised an ever-diminishing role in the capital, through injury and impact – 42 appearances in 2007-08 fell to 33, 22 and then just seven games in 2010-11.
This prompted a loan move to Luis Enrique’s Roma where he established a first-team place in a midfield whose dominance of Serie A possession was bettered only by champions Juventus. It was not enough, however, to persuade incoming Coach Zdenek Zeman to part with €7m for Gago.
In moving to Valencia, Gago joins a short passing team who often play at a high tempo. His technical quality will complement similarly gifted teammates and he should fit into Mauricio Pellegrino’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Yet, concerns remain over his industry and capacity to live with Pellegrino’s swift counter-attacking approach.
“Fernando has an eye for a good pass, and he moves well around the pitch, his positioning is excellent,” stated Pellegrino.
“He needs to keep playing to be able to live with the pace of the game. We have not rested a single day and we hope that the intense workload will improve Fernando’s fitness.”
It was against the fittest opposition that Gago struggled when playing in a Los Blancos shirt. This was most brutally demonstrated when Liverpool’s midfield over-ran and rampaged past their Madrid counterparts 4-0 in the 2009-10 Champions League second round. When Jose Mourinho arrived three months later, he immediately invested in the energetic Sami Khedira to deploy alongside the classy but nevertheless combative Xabi Alonso to physically bolster his central midfield.
Such competition for places will continue at Mestalla where the Argentine will challenge Ever Banega, Daniel Perejo, Tino Costa and club captain David Albelda for a first-team spot. However, at €3.5m the transfer does not represent a gamble for Valencia. Should Gago fail to impress, the outlay is relatively small and there are several other midfielders ready to take his place.
Yet for Gago this could well be a defining moment in his career. Few footballers thrive at clubs as demanding as Real Madrid at just 20, as many others prospects such can testify. Moving into what should be his peak years – physically and mentally – Valencia should be a club of the correct stature for Gago to rebuild his reputation in Spain.