For a long time, no one seriously believed that Real Madrid and Barcelona would ever be challenged at the top of La Liga. However, the 2013/2014 season defied the odds as Diego Simone’s Atletico Madrid sealed the league title by drawing at Barcelona on a dramatic final day. Four or five years ago, Atletico was not a contender for the title in most people’s eyes. If any club was going to break the duopoly at the top of La Liga, it was going to be Valencia.
Los Che used to include the likes of Juan Mata, David Silva and David Villa within their ranks, before selling them for record amounts in order to resolve the club’s huge debt. Spain’s recent economic struggles have been well-documented and the debts of a host of Spanish clubs are continuing to climb. The sale of these players helped ease Valencia’s crisis but they were still considered a selling club as recently as 2013, when star forward Roberto Soldado joined Tottenham for 30 million Euros.
Valencia’s debt, which was rumored to have reached 400 million Euros at one point, was finally settled when Singapore businessman Peter Lim gained 70.4% of the shares at the club. He was brought in just after the summer of 2014, which meant they didn’t benefit from his financial backing in the market, but it looks as though the 2015 summer transfer window could be an exciting one for fans.
It is clear that settling the debt had a very positive effect on the players, who are no longer worried about getting paid and can now fully concentrate on the job at hand. But it seems that one of the main reasons for the club’s newfound success has been the managerial change, with Nuno Espírito Santo replacing Juan Antonio Pizzi in July 2014.
Nuno has been a breath of fresh air since his arrival from Rio Ave, where he lead the Portuguese club to two cup finals while encouraging his players to play attractive football. He is only 40 years old and is not afraid of giving youngsters a chance, partly because of their ability to quickly adapt to his tactics. It is harder for older players, who often find that learning new methods and tactics at their age can be overwhelming. The likes of Paco Alcacer (21), Jose Gaya (19), Rodrigo (23), Andre Gomes (21) and Shkodran Mustafi (22) make up half of the current Valencia side and have all come on leaps and bounds this year.
Jeremy Mathieu was a big loss for the club but when Barcelona come calling, not many players can turn them down. He wasn’t the only one departing the Mestalla: Helder Postiga, Philippe Senderos, Fernando Gago, Ricardo Costa, Ever Banega, Aly Cissokho, Michel and Jose Andres Guardado were the other high profile names shown the door, replaced with players hungry to succeed. Nicolas Otamendi was brought in from Porto and the Argentine centre half has adjusted very well to Spanish football. Shkodran Mustafi came in from Sampdoria and the German has already been called up to the national team.
Nuno also took advantage of the loan system to make his most influential signings, with Enzo Perez and Andre Gomes coming in from Benfica, while Alvaro Negredo and Bruno Zuculini joined the club from Manchester City.
These signings were all brought in to fit the system Nuno planned to use during the season. The style of play at Valencia in the past couple of seasons had been too slow, and bringing in quick and powerful youngsters would greatly benefit the club.
The Portuguese manager spent a lot of pre-season stressing to his players the importance of fighting and working for each other. He highlighted Atletico Madrid’s success under Diego Simeone, despite the fact that Real Madrid and Barcelona had better players than Atletico. In terms of hard work, Simeone’s team was miles ahead and Nuno shares this philosophy when playing against the bigger clubs: hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. This has already been evident this year, with wins against the division’s strongest sides. So far they’ve picked up six points out of a possible nine against Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona, compared to last year when they picked up only four points out of a possible 18.
Another reason for their upturn in fortunes is their strong record at home. This season, they’ve won eight games out of a possible 11 at the Mestalla, which included victories over Malaga, Atletico Madrid and a sensational 2-1 win over Real Madrid that put an end to Los Blancos’ 22-match winning run. Compare that to this stage last season, when they were defeated five times at home, including a shocking 2-1 defeat to Almeria.
Working with a young, up-and-coming manager has significantly helped Valencia this season. He has got the fundamentals right and has built a young side prepared to graft and reap the benefits. Under Nuno, the future looks bright at the Mestalla.