14th in the La Liga table, only 4 points and the same number of places from the relegation zone, not having won a Liga game for three months, their biggest defeat in any competition for twenty odd years less than a week ago; the figures make sobering reading for any Valencia fan.
But the threat, and very real possibility, of relegation to the Segunda may be just what the team needs to drag itself out of this footballing mire in which it finds itself.
Anyone who saw the first leg of the Copa del Rey tie against Barcelona could be forgiven for thinking it was a completely different team to the one that played and improved so well last season (a cynic might well say that Peter Lim and Gary Neville had decided to let the Salford City players, disguised as Valencia players, have a run on the Nou Camp pitch). The team appeared disorganized and unmotivated, lacking any real willingness to fight for the ball, and possibly even worse, lacking confidence in their teammates. A defence which had been the second stingiest in La Liga last season, passing coolly and calmly when under pressure, leaked – no, haemorrhaged – goals.
The midfield which last season scorned to play possession football, and only knew to pass the ball forward, last week seemed to be playing hot potato; no one wanted it, and if they got it, they quickly got rid of it, usually by giving it to a Barcelona player. And the forwards, although not exactly prolific last season, managed to score a respectable number of goals regularly. At least, more than 0.
Of course, last week’s match against Barcelona was an extreme example, but an example, nonetheless, of the malaise which has affected Valencia since the beginning of this season. And now, halfway through the season and with a new manager, things look no better for the club.
With the arrival of Gary Neville, no one expected miracles, but neither did they expect the team to play worse. There have been flashes of the real Valencia – twenty minutes here, a half there, nearly an entire game against Real Madrid. But these efforts have been the exception.
So who is to blame? The players? The coach? The board? The owner? All of the above? Some would say Gary Neville’s work was cut out for him from the beginning, having inherited the youngest squad in La Liga, which was already in disarray. Others might say the players had inherited the most inexperienced coach in La Liga, and not even he can deny that his coaching resume is very, very short. Neville himself has admitted that the most frustrating thing for him is not being able to get his message across to the team at halftime, and no matter how many 6 am lessons he takes, his Spanish isn’t going to improve sufficiently before the end of the season.
That is, if he is still there. After the last defeat, to Real Betis, the fans and Superdeporte were howling for his head, the not-so-long-ago chanted “Nuno, vete ya!” replaced by “Gary, vete ya!” It’s not that difficult for any non-Spanish speaker to work out that this means “Gary, go now!” but it’s less clear as to whether the newspaper is simply echoing what the fans are saying, or instigating it. But the result is the same.
Neville, to his credit, refuses to dodge any blame for the team’s performance, and no one can deny his assertion that, when he took over, more than half the first tier players were carrying injuries. But his recent continual lamenting of his team’s bad luck is perhaps wearing thin. Yes, in a number of recent games Valencia has had numerous shots at goal, with little or no reward, while the opposition has capitalized with fewer attempts. But every team experiences this. Every team has had a defender red-carded for a legitimate ball-first tackle, or a goal disallowed for an incorrect offside call, or an opposition goal given when the player was clearly offside. That’s football.
But a successful team makes its own luck, and that is what Valencia have to do. If they have ten shots on goal, none of which go in, then they have to have twelve, or fifteen, or eighteen. When decisions go against the team, they simply have to get over it and try harder. There are 15 La Liga games left until the end of the season, and Valencia is 4 points from the drop zone. They have yet to play the bottom four teams, Espanyol, Las Palmas, Granada, and Levante a second time, yet none of those games, not even against Granada, who los che beat convincingly in the Copa del Rey, will be even remotely easy.
But surely the very real possibility of relegation must be enough to genuinely motivate this squad. This season, far too often, the team has appeared to be simply going through the motions; it has been obvious in their body language. That real hunger, that genuine desire for victory, the desperation to chase every ball and every opposition player has been missing. Valencia hasn’t had to worry about relegation for a very long time, but now, as ex-captain David Albelda tweeted, it’s a real possibility.
Regardless of the formation used (and Gary Neville must have used every possible combination by now, including that disastrous experiment against Barca last week), regardless of whether the coach is Neville, Voro, or Jorge Mendes’ nephew, no player on this team wants to be remembered as part of the Valencia side that got relegated in 2016. True desire for victory isn’t the only problem with this underperforming side, but it will go a long way towards keeping los che in La Liga this season.