At 32 years old, Javi Fuego is the oldest player in the Valencia squad, the youngest and most inexperienced squad in La Liga. At the end of the 2013-14 season, when some players chose to leave – Juan Bernat, Jérémy Mathieu – and others were told to leave – Ricardo Costa – Javi Fuego remained with the side.
Valencia went on to have a successful 2014-15 season, finishing in fourth place, with a points total of 77, and qualifying for the Champions League (although this seems a pipe dream now). Javi Fuego also had a quietly successful season, scoring 3 goals, yet featuring in nearly every game.
A defensive midfielder, Fuego is one of the team’s most underrated players, and is certainly one of the reasons why Valencia conceded the second fewest goals in La Liga last season. But that was when the regular backline was Antonio Barragán, Shkodran Mustafi, Nicolás Otamendi, and José Luis Gayà, with Fuego’s usual place to the front of the centre backs, from where he added some extra resilience to the backline, and could drop back when defenders like Gaya went forward.
But now there is no Otamendi, and Gary Neville, like Nuno before him, is still juggling players to find the right formula for the defensive line. Otamendi’s replacement, the Tunisian Aymen Abdennour, is an experienced defender, but his decision making lets him down at crucial moments. With Otamendi there, the four regular defenders had a great understanding and confidence in each other. They rarely panicked, and defensive errors which led directly to goals were uncommon.
The defensive line now seems as fragile as an eggshell, and as chaotic as a school playground. Since Neville took over, I don’t believe he has used the same back four for two games in a row. Vezo, Cancelo, Santos, Orbán (now on loan to Levante) and Diallo have all been tried in various positions, generally with a marked lack of success. Neville even threw the new signing, Guillherme Siqueira, into the deep end in the match against Barca when he had been at the club scarcely two days, an indication of the mess the backline was, and still is, in.
None of these experiments has paid off, and finding a genuine replacement for Otamendi is extremely unlikely. The versatile João Cancelo is the most promising of these semi-regulars, and can play defence or midfield, but seems more comfortable on the wing rather than in the centre. But the problem in defence doesn’t appear so much individual ability as organization and leadership. The defensive line isn’t functioning as a unit, and lacks direction, someone who keeps a cool head in a crisis.
Since Gary Neville took over, Fuego has played only one full La Liga game, and has come on as a substitute in just two more, albeit he has been injured for the last few weeks. At 32, Fuego is hardly the doddering old has-been some might think him, and isn’t quite ready for a pacemaker and walking frame. Despite not being the stand-out every player would like to be, Fuego quietly rolls up his sleeves and gets on with the job.
He keeps a cool head when under pressure, and is probably at his best when the opposition have the ball, being adept at recovering possession. In a team like the current Valencia, who have a nasty habit of giving the ball away in their own half, there is an obvious need for such a player. On the minus side, Fuego does tend to pick up yellow cards (and was one of the two players to be sent off in the debacle against Sevilla, Nuno’s last game as coach). However, this isn’t necessarily due to indiscipline or making reckless tackles, simply a result of the high number of tackles he makes; yellow cards are inevitable for defenders. But another good thing about him; he’s more concerned with his football than his hairdo.
It’s not clear whether Neville simply prefers to give younger players game time, or has left Fuego out of the team for “tactical reasons”, but what is clear is that something needs to be done about a defence that the opposition can punch holes through as easily as a child punches holes through crepe paper with a pencil. We saw this again in the last game against Espanyol, where the opposition got through the defence on numerous occasions with comparative ease. No wonder Barcelona put 7 past Mat Ryan.
While it’s good to see the younger players on the pitch, Valencia is now in damage control mode, the objective being to avoid relegation. Neville can’t really afford to experiment anymore with the defence; it needs organization and leadership. Mustafi does a reasonable job leading the defensive unit, but can’t do it all by himself.
He needs an experienced, reliable, defensive midfielder in front of him to help relieve some of the pressure, someone who isn’t going to make wayward passes which result in opposition goals, and who can drop back to fill a gap where necessary. Gary Neville, you could do much worse (actually, you have done) than reinstate Javi Fuego in his old position. There is a reason why he was selected for just about every game last season, and every Valencia fan knows it.