As the clock ticked towards 10pm on a mild May night this year in Villarreal, the home fans had all but disappeared from the Estadio de la Cerámica. They had left in good spirits. Their team had snatched an 87th minute winner. But it was not their turn to celebrate.
High in the stand but not far from the pitch, more than 1,000 Valencia fans massed like a hedgehog with frenzied limbs for spikes. The noise rose to a crescendo as their battle-hardened heroes hugged and waved beneath them. They had done it. Despite defeat, they had made their return to the promise land – to the Champions League.
Spain has borne witness to such celebrations in the past. Supporters of Sevilla in 2017, of Villarreal in 2016 and Valencia again in 2015. Before then there was elation in Bilbao in 2014 and San Sebastian in 2013. All celebrated what had been, but more so what was to come. They had joined the ranks of Real Madrid, Barcelona and the newfound might of Atletico to gain membership of Europe’s premier club and featured highly in La Liga betting odds.
But as Valencia learned in 2015, membership can quickly be revoked. Since Atletico, given a shot in the arm by Diego Simeone, dared to stand tall with the league’s Goliaths, no team has managed to cling on to fourth place in consecutive seasons. In fact, only now, five years after Simeone’s men fought their way into the top three, has a team managed to finish fourth more than once.
Atletico cemented their place among the giants in 2012, finishing 10 points ahead of Real Sociedad and nine behind Real Madrid. Back then, they were paying their players £300,00 less per season on average than Valencia were. Now, the average annual salary of a Valencia player is more than £1,400,000 less than that of an Atletico counterpart.
In the meantime, Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao, Valencia, Villarreal and Sevilla have all tried and failed to establish themselves as Spain’s fourth club. Now, with a seemingly insurmountable financial disparity between them, it has become harder than ever to keep pace with the top 3. But that is the task facing Valencia.
Though wage expenditure is as good a predictor of league position as exists, it is not everything. Atletico scrambled their way to the summit while being outspent by their rivals. Crucial to their growth since has been an on-field consistency matched only by the big two.
That’s probably a good place to start for the chasing pack. Each of the previous five teams to try to replicate qualification for the Champions League have failed, averaging a finish almost 15 points away from fourth place. Only once has a team even managed to get within ten points – Villareal in 2016-17.
That is not to say that their disappointing league tallies have been compensated by consistent success in the Champions League. Things have often started brightly in the qualifying rounds: an Antoine Griezmann overhead-kick helped Real Sociedad demolish Lyon 4-0 on aggregate; Athletic Club came from behind in the second leg to dump out Rafa Benitez’s Napoli and Valencia overcame Monaco 4-3 on aggregate in 2015.
That, typically, is as good as it gets. Real Sociedad registered one goal and one point in the group stages. Athletic Club finished a respectable third behind Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk before being eliminated by plucky Torino in the Europa League. Valencia were beaten to second place by Gent and Villareal didn’t even make the group stages. Only Sevilla have managed to get through to the knockout rounds.
No team so far has managed to successfully juggle domestic and European success. Sevilla managed a tremendous run to the Champions League quarter-finals but finished below city rivals Real Betis for only the second time in 14 years in the league, and 15 points off fourth place. Villarreal finished a mere five points away from Champions League qualification in 2017 yet were knocked out of both European competitions at the first time of asking.
What can this new Valencia squad learn from their own and other’s mistakes? Harmony in the dugout often seems to be lacking. Inspirational coach Phillipe Montannier, complaining of pressure to sell his best players, refused to sign the one-year contract offered by Real Sociedad, leaving them before the club began their second ever Champions League. Villarreal sacked current Valencia coach Marcelino García Toral eight days before the season began and duly lost their play-off. Sevilla’s domestic season, meanwhile, was hampered by a serious lack of consistency from the management.
But is it realistic to expect such teams to compete on two fronts? Atletico managed to punch above their weight when being outspent by rivals by relying on the unrelenting commitment of a core of hugely talented players, willing to carry out their manager’s tactically sophisticated instructions precisely and continuously. To maintain their status at the top, however, they have combined their strategy with that of Europe’s biggest: spending lots of money.
Since 2012, the average annual salary of an Atletico player has risen by almost €2.3m. Valencia cannot afford those kinds of wages, but Atletico have shown that getting a foot on the podium is not impossible. They can count on a manager capable of firing his players up for each of the 50-odd games they will play if the season is to be a success on more than one front and the tactical nous to create a system which gets the best from his team.
Valencia are at least on the right tracks there. Marcelino has been credited with rejuvenating a club still reeling from their last season in the Champions League in 2015-16 – known in Britain perhaps as the ‘Neville year’, or more accurately, months. With the help of three other managers, they finished 12th.
But now the team, drilled in a 4-4-2 shape which is well-organised in defense and purposeful in attack, seems far less likely to implode. The manager is known for his intensity and attention to detail, displayed by his obsession over the body weight of his players. Though he is reluctant to commit his long-term future to the club, there are few better suited to an attempt at replicating Simeone’s success.
Perhaps learning from the mistakes of Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao in particular, both of whom have had domestic seasons derailed by overstretched squads, Valencia have sought to build a well-balanced team. Daniel Wass can provide technique and industry in either central or wide midfield, Cristiano Piccini should establish himself at right-back if he regains his initial form at Real Betis and Mouctar Diakhby adds to a collection of mobile, aggressive centre-backs. The club are currently in talks to re-sign last season’s star man Gonçalo Guedes too. They have recently acquired striking duo Michy Batshuayi and Kevin Gameiro. They can be sure of quality and depth in every position.
As trade barriers in Europe dissipate and clubs prioritise their business interests like never before, the best players and managers are increasingly likely to move to the biggest cities with the wealthiest clubs. In this context, Valencia, with the league’s fourth highest wage budget, may come to represent outsider’s best hope of mixing it with the behemoths from Barcelona and Madrid.
And the team, who will not even have to face the perilous play-off, appear to have found stability at last. Yet, that was how it seemed in 2016 before everything went wrong. Only time will tell what the future will bring, but if Marcelino and his men want to end the season celebrating again they would be wise to head the lessons learned by La Liga’s forgotten fourth-placed finishers.
Note: All wage figures from sporting intelligence global salary reports.