After two seasons in which subpar results, underperforming players, and managerial change were the norm, Valencia are in the midst of a revival this campaign. Through 12 matches, they are on 30 points, still undefeated—one of three clubs without a loss in La Liga, along with Barcelona and Atlético Madrid—and four points back of Barcelona at the top of the table. Los Che welcome the league leaders to the Mestalla this Sunday with a chance to narrow the gap to a point. That Valencia—a club that finished 12th in both of the last two years—are the only side within touching distance of a rampant Barca is a testament to positive changes made on the field and off.
Starting at the top
At this point last year, the club were already on their third manager in one season and their eighth management change in two years. The lack of stability has taken its toll. After regular finishes in the top half of the table, including several in the top four that saw them qualify for the Champions League, the club have lost their way in the last few years. The managerial inconsistency is both a symptom and a cause of the club’s woes. A new president and director general were brought in at the offseason to try to help right the ship. Along with these changes, the appointment of new manager Marcelino—who in his previous appointment guided Villarreal back from the second tier and to consistently high placement in top flight—marked a turning point.
One notable change the manager made to club culture is bearing fruit. As soon as he arrived Marcelino implemented a strict dietary regimen for the squad. Additionally, he sent personalized plans home with each player, complete with weight goals. Players receive daily tests to ensure adherence to the plan. Difficult though the abrupt transition may have been, the team’s improved performances are plain to see. In order to get the players with the dedication to stick to this plan off the field, and perform on it, the manager sought to overhaul the squad in the summer.
Ringing the changes
Veterans Álvaro Negredo, Diego Alves, Nani, and Enzo Pérez, as well as last year’s joint top scorer, Munir, all left the club, among 17 departures. With several holes to fill, Marcelino set about remaking his squad. Forward Simone Zaza’s loan move from Juventus was made permanent, and he was joined at the club by former teammate goalkeeper Neto. Bolstering the midfield, Geoffrey Kondogbia joined from Inter, Andreas Pereira from Manchester United, and Gonçalo Guedes from Paris Saint-Germain, all on loan.
The new arrivals have had an immediate impact. New number one Neto, now out of the shadow of Gianluigi Buffon, has kept six clean sheets in his 11 matches for the club. Kondogbia, who failed to live up to his potential at Inter, has formed a formidable partnership in the center of the field with long-serving captain Dani Parejo. Pereira has featured ten times in the league, twice as many times as at United. And Guedes, who rarely saw first team action in a crowded PSG midfield, has played in 11 matches, scoring three times.
Zaza reborn at Valencia
Marcelino’s ability to get quality performances out of players short on confidence and playing time is a hallmark of his yet brief tenure at Valencia. No player better exemplifies this than Simone Zaza. After the Italian failed to impress at Juventus, a loan move to West Ham saw him appear eight times without scoring a goal. This followed his much-ridiculed performance for his country in the penalty shootout loss to Germany in the 2016 European Championships quarterfinals, during which he missed his spot kick following a strange run-up. However, after six goals during his half season with the club last year, Zaza has bagged nine so far this campaign to place second to Lionel Messi in the scoring charts. Zaza forms a potent striking pair with Rodrigo, who has seven goals of his own.
Toughest test yet
Valencia have already achieved several notable results this campaign. Week two saw them draw 2-2 with the champions Real Madrid at the Bernabéu, followed by a 0-0 home draw with Atlético. Scoring has been no problem this year, as the club have put five past Málaga, six past Real Betis, and four past Sevilla, accounting for 15 of the club’s 32 goals this year.
But Barcelona’s visit to the Mestalla this Sunday marks the sternest test of the club’s resurgence. Barca sit atop the table, the league’s top scorers, and have dropped points on only one occasion this year. A win would leave the Blaugrana with a seven point lead in the league, a sizeable lead at this point in the season. Should Valencia show the quality already apparent on several occasions this year, it would not only mark the biggest accomplishment of Marcelino’s time at the club, but also reignite a La Liga title race that is threatening to become a runaway.