It hasn’t been long since Athletic Bilbao rocked up at Mestalla, scored three soft goals against their soft-bellied hosts and left with the points. Two free headers either side of Dani Parejo needlessly surrendering possession all came within a few bewildering minutes in the second half. A certain Gary Neville looked befuddled in his dugout, and we all knew he would soon be back in Manchester.
What a contrast we saw this weekend, when a win against Athletic took Valencia into third place. They scored first; Carlos Soler nicked the ball from Inigo Lekue and seconds later, Simone Zaza smashed in his sixth goal of the season. They scored twice more through a Parejo penalty and a Rodrigo Moreno header. Unlike Neville’s Valencia, the new version didn’t buckle when the Basques hit back with goals either side of Rodrigo’s finish.
A year-and-a-half has passed between those games, and of course Valencia’s nightmare didn’t end with Neville’s departure. Pako Ayestaran was dispatched four games into the following season and Cesare Prandelli was the next to breeze through. He didn’t win many matches, but he did impart some much-needed wisdom: Los Che were a shambles off the pitch and had too many overpaid, weak-willed players. If he didn’t get new signings, he’d been off, he warned, so they offered him a lift to the airport. Club legend Voro Gonzalez steadied the rocking ship, before heading back to his old job of matchday ambassador – a reasonable outcome for a caretaker Coach.
Crucially, Valencia are now better off the field. The appointment of Mateu Alemany as general manager in March has worked well. Who would have thought an experienced hand with past success in La Liga would be a sensible appointment? Now they needed the same in the dugout.
To be fair to Alemany’s predecessors under the volatile Peter Lim, they had tried to get Marcelino to replace Pako, only to be thwarted by a harsh interpretation of La Liga’s one-club-per-season rule for Coaches. He had been sacked by Villarreal before the campaign had begun but was forced to take a gap year anyway. Eventually, he became the 10th tactician appointed by Valencia since Unai Emery left in 2012.
There are similarities between Emery and his successor nine-times-removed. Both have a reputation for intensity and attention to detail. Translation: they’re a pain in the backside. Marcelino had done brilliantly at Villarreal, getting them promoted and then qualifying for Europe in every subsequent season, but they could be a little stodgy. They scored just 48 times in 2014-15 and 44 in 2015-16.
So far, Marcelino’s Valencia are more inviting for the neutral, with 15 goals in seven games. His Valencia (a lopsided 4-4-2) looks like his Villarreal but more fun. Soler had seized his chance as a central midfielder under Voro, but with Geoffrey Kondogbia hired to add stability, the lad boy was shunted to the right, a role not unlike that of Jonathan dos Santos at Villarreal. A one-goal victory over Las Palmas and a goalless draw with Atletico Madrid suggested they were a new version of his Yellow Submarine side, but since then they’ve opened up.
For example, with Kondogbia suspended against Athletic, Soler switched back to the middle and an attack-minded wide man, Andreas Pereira, was brought in. Goncalo Guedes also started, often attacking centrally but dropping back to right midfield when Athletic had the ball. Zaza was energetic and aggressive as a No 9; Rodrigo was energetic and creative as a second striker.
Rodrigo’s revitalisation goes into Marcelino’s lengthening ‘plus’ column. At €30m, the signing of the Rio-born Spanish striker had looked a classic example of Lim being easily parted from his money by the wily Jorge Mendes, but now he has scored in four straight games and earned a call-up to the Spanish national team.
Guedes was a €30m signing for Paris Saint Germain in January and surplus goods by August. His arrival, however, shows the positive effect Mendes can have on Valencia – using his influence to exploit PSG’s profligacy. The super-agent owes them that much after Aymen Abdennour and Enzo Perez to name a few.
Mestalla was jumping with not a white handkerchief in sight on Sunday. Granted, it’s early days, Athletic had left key players on the bench and goaleeper Kepa Arrizabalaga was at fault for two goals, but the signs are encouraging for Valencia at last. The cheap jokes were fun for a while, but it’s good to have Los Che back at the top end of La Liga.