Valencia’s battle to banish defensive demons

A lot has changed in Valencia over the last two years; from the defence right through to the forward line but the main spotlight has been somewhat surprisingly fixed upon the former. Whereas many predicted they’d struggle to fashion opportunities and subsequently take them in an attacking sense, the real issue for Unai Emery has been his case for the defence.

David Silva and David Villa both moved on to Manchester City and Barcelona respectively, and the gap they were supposedly set to leave would contribute to the downfall of Los Che. That though hasn’t been the case, with Juan Mata who himself has now departed, filling the void impressively last season, while the contribution of Roberto Soldado in front of goal brought much solace. Mata, who has left for the bright lights of London and Chelsea’s new era under André Villas-Boas, will not be forgotten quickly in Valencia. His performances last season despite still only being 23 years old propelled Emery’s team from potential Europa League cert to Champions League place pace setters – dynamic, intelligent and leadership qualities in abundance Mata was every inch the perfect captain.

The issue here though, isn’t with leading from the front but instead the defensive frailties which entwine Emery’s project. This familiar issue once again reared its ugly head in the opening weekend of La Liga, with Valencia conceding 3 goals against a Racing Santander side not known for being prolific. Defenders looking for answers while gesturing to one another, and flailing desperately to hack the ball away out of the penalty area were scenes familiar last season to those who watched Valencia. A lack of cohesion facing set pieces (another issue against Racing), indecision on incorporating a high line and unwillingness to track players were all ugly facets of Emery’s otherwise impressive, unified team last season. A basic symptom being a few letting down what was positive work by many.

The arrival of Ricardo Costa was meant to bring some assertiveness to a back line reeling from the loss of wise old head Carlos Marchena. Though the wily Marchena was advancing in years, his leadership and composure at the back guided the more abject defenders through games. Costa had a decent first season in Spain following his free transfer, but was severely let down at times by the likes of David Navarro and Marius Stankevičius and their inability to understand the operation of a high-line or the simple task of sticking to your man on set pieces. Much to the delight of Valencia’s supporters both left, but until the last couple of days that feeling wasn’t built upon by the management.

Replacing Mata was effectively done in advance though his departure was done relatively late in the transfer window. Pablo Piatti emphasized his versatility and ability to work in between those lines the Asturian flourished in while Sergio Canales’ arrival on loan comes with a suggestion from the player himself there is a whole country to prove his ability to.

In regards to the defence, Adil Rami‘s arrival was met with real elation; a full French international and a reputation with Lille of a versatile, confident and extremely able defender there was a feeling in Europe Valencia had grabbed a bargain after getting in early to ink his signature. That positivity seemed to be drained though, as Valencia struggled to find someone to compliment the abilities of Rami – they did eventually succeed, though it was left extremely late.

Víctor Ruiz’s brief vacation to Naples has come to an abrupt end, with the ex-Espanyol man desperate for a return home. Ruiz was a key component of Mauricio Pochettino’s pass and move strategy in Catalunya, with the defender adeptly moving out of defence in possession and feeding the ball into deep-lying midfielders. Strong, commanding, aerially sound, relatively quick across the pitch and fine technique Ruiz will be an asset of Emery’s pragmatic tweaking in defence. He’s a player who won’t switch off in times of pressure, an accusation that could be thrown at Navarro, Stankevičius, the hapless Miguel and perhaps even Costa. The attempts to mould Rami and Ruiz as a pair are already underway at Paterna – fans will be hoping their development can be akin to a Ayala-Djukic double act.

At time of writing Miguel is in discussion with the club over termination of contract, as they continue a theme this summer of cutting back on the excess wages of previous regimes. Asier Del Horno, the previously mentioned Navarro and others have been given the easy way out with the Portuguese seemingly not far behind.

Bruno came from Almería hand in hand with Emery, and though not the most elegant of full-backs he can be relied upon to be a physical presence and committed to the system. To provide competition on the right side, Antonio Barragán has arrived from Real Valladolid where he’s been the epitome of consistency and has similar attributes to that of Bruno albeit at a younger age of 24. Barragán’s a no frills character, and will give Emery little in the way of headaches regarding his professionalism – a world away from Miguel’s forays into Valencia’s nightclubs 24 hours before games.

Staying on the right side though with an eye firmly upon the future,Valencia made an under the radar capture of Albert Dalmau, a product of Barcelona’s La Masia. Again, he’s a physical character despite being 19 though he couples that with fine technical ability. Dalmau was apparently second choice for Braulio Vázquez, Valencia Sporting Director, as the club wished to sign Martin Montoya but were knocked back in their advances. Instead they moved for the younger, more inexperienced Dalmau who was playing Juvenil A level just last season. If Valencia can harness, and develop his talent similarly to that of Mata who left Real Madrid in search of progression then they could have a real prospect on their hands.

Meanwhile on the left things aren’t so bad, as the varying styles of Jérémy Mathieu and Jordi Alba provide suitable attributes for different encounters. Alba can also operate in left midfield, should Emery look to double up on the flanks against the teams operating a more intense level of width. Mathieu will most likely feature the more often, as he provides physical presence that Emery garners but can also get forward to provide extra width when their apparent wide players invert. Although the Frenchman isn’t revered by many he has done a suitable job for Valencia, and at times he’s proved to be the best of a decidedly bad bunch. Talk from Paterna is that Alba has impressed coaching staff after bulking up over the summer, and returning with an apparent new vigour which has shown in his pre-season performances.

All in all the entire defensive picture looks much brighter for Emery and Valencia, with the coach and his persistent requests for reinforcements in defence being adhered to by his Sporting Director. Despite the depletion of attacking talent the main concern will remain the defence, and if a telepathy can form between Rami and Ruiz then Valencia could have a prosperous season in store – failure to learn from past mistakes could see the club remain in a tedious cycle of inevitability that the case for the defence just wasn’t good enough.

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