Ernesto Valverde has had to do many things since being appointed Valencia Coach until the end of the season, and if there is one thing he’s done more than anything else it has been resourceful. With a squad not particularly deep, injuries and loss of form have affected them badly at Mestalla, but for the most part the changes the Basque Coach has implemented in reaction have been positive.
His carving out of a new positions for players has been especially interesting, and none more so that Jeremy Mathieu’s move from left-back to centre-back. The Frenchman has been a victim of injury himself, and when finally returning after four months sidelined, he found himself very much in the centre of things. His three games there have been mightily impressive, and with an unlucky slip against Levante aside he’s proving to be a competent individual in an unsteady backline.
The 29-year-old has brought a physical presence to the backline, with pace, aerial strength and impressive movement out of the centre of defence with the ball at feet. Valverde insisted he had ‘no doubts’ about Mathieu playing the role insisting he knew he was ‘always capable of such things’. The experiment has prospered so much a report last week said Mathieu will be considered as a centre-back in sports planning for next season.
Another Coach too hasn’t ignored Mathieu’s form, with France’s Didier Deschamps speaking at length with the player since returning from injury. With Mamadou Sakho out of favour at PSG, and Philippe Mexes never truly convincing throughout his career, it appears the option is genuine for Deschamps, an ex-Valencia player himself. The only real negative has been reducing Mathieu’s industrious, committed work as a left-back, where Valencia clearly miss his presence galloping up and down the touchline. With Jordi Alba last season the pair formed an outstanding partnership on the left side, interchanging positions and duties - with both now not featuring there it’s easy to forget just how important they were to Valencia.
He hasn’t been the only man switching position for Valencia however, with some having encountered more success than others. Andres Guardado, signed from Deportivo to play a role as an attacking midfielder, has played the majority of his games in Mathieu’s left-back role. The Mexican can be proud of his displays there too, utilising his pace, providing two assists and decent positional work. Aly Cissokho’s arrival at the club looked to have settled the slot but Guardado’s emergence there, in which he has been adept defensively, has kept the ex-Lyon man out of the team.
Victor Ruiz is another switching up roles. Signed from Napoli, he arrived with huge expectation given his undoubted talent as a ball-playing centre-back, but the move has failed to work out as all parties expected. Ruiz has been short on confidence, clumsy, read the game poorly and been guilty of numerous individual errors. No-one sums up the unease in the defence at Mestalla quite like him. Valverde acted by moving him to defensive midfield, another area Valencia are glaringly light in, and he’s offered several impressive displays there. His ability on the ball plays a huge part of course, with Ruiz harnessing solid passing ability when in the right state of mind. Without the pressure of being a centre-back on him, he seems to be enjoying his football in the midfield role more and has gradually regained the confidence and belief that has so far eluded him.
One of the more negative features has been the usage of Ever Banega and Tino Costa in advanced midfield roles. The former needs to be at the heart of the Valencia midfield, dictating the tempo and bridging the attacking transitions of Valverde’s side. Although his vision on the field is excellent, there is too much pressure on him further up the field and the team misses his vision when played there. More worrying has been his deployment out wide, of which there has been absolutely no gain despite Banega’s best efforts. Costa meanwhile is a rigid character, rarely providing fluidity in a role that requires an individual with ingenuity. The Argentine, perhaps somewhat harshly, has often been described as a traffic cone more than anything else.
The positions they are a-changing, and to his credit Valverde’s rarely made a wrong move.