Midfield brains central to Valencia’s new era under Pellegrino

When Mehmet Topal departed Valencia last month, questions were raised about the sense behind allowing such a player to go quite so easily. Systematically he was one of two defensive midfielders left at the club, and with the other being David Albelda a reasonable case could be put forward stating the Turk was the only one capable. Although Topal’s time was mixed at the club, he had become a fan favourite and was popular amongst players not just in a personal regard.

Éver Banega once declared he felt more secure with Topal just behind him in Valencia’s 4-1-4-1 while Adil Rami commented it was reassuring to have such an athletic individual in front of him. Topal’s departure was apparently down to desiring a return to his homeland which is fair enough. However, surely Valencia would then replace him with a player of similar characteristics? With the arrival of Fernando Gago, apparently not.

For weeks speculation had been that Bruno Soriano of relegated Villarreal was the main target, and though his age was perhaps against Valencia’s buying policy the quality the player harnessed counted for more.  Two bids were made for Villarreal’s screener in midfield, and two bids were promptly turned down. Fernando Roig, Villarreal president still mourning the loss of his team from the top flight, remained adamant one of his starts wouldn’t go on the cheap. Valencia then turned to Gago.

A season in Rome was an outright success for Gago, he encountered regular football and the injury troubles that defined much of his Real Madrid career were seldom.  His role in the midfield was to collapse upon the defence when opposition attacks started, and to help retain possession when Roma advanced or wanted general control of the game. Gago’s a more soothing presence in midfield, one that works along with other cogs in the system to maintain fluidity and his attributes seem to go against the suggested aggressive approach of Mauricio Pellegrino.  When the name of Gary Medel came up, he seemed an ideal solution but Valencia have gone the other way and will perhaps look to base their game on the notion possession is the most astute form of defence. After all, Spain seduced in the summer with such a tactic – neither Sergio Busquets nor Xabi Alonso provide an overly aggressive approach, they are artists in midfield wishing to paint a precise picture.

Can a combination of Tino, Gago and Banega offer similar? A suggestion has been made that Tino will play deepest, with Gago ahead of him though in reality either could operate in the deepest section of the trivote. Banega will not be available immediately, so in that regard Dani Parejo is still an option while Jonas worked superbly as the attacking tip last season. The Brazilian has improved each season since arriving at Mestalla, and his movement again will be vital in the final third when there is no use of a traditional attacking midfielder. It’s the defensive aspect of the midfield up for debate here though.

It’s then worthing bearing in mind that despite Valencia’s levels of possession last season they often lacked the character to smother opponents into submission and see games out. They lost more points from winning positions than any other team last season, 27 to be exact, and harnessed an extremely weak character. Jonas has already spoken out about a more “coordinated system” under Pellegrino, a sign that the coach doesn’t necessarily need his players to charge around the field – instead  simply read the game better to avoid the dreadful errors that befell Emery’s reign. Valencia’s players in essence, will need to do all their running not with their legs but instead their brains.

Gago and Banega’s relationship will be especially intriguing; both products of the glorious Boca Juniors academy and working under an Argentinean coach in Pellegrino offers many interesting scenarios. Banega, when available, was excellent and managed to glow with his new-found responsibility as the main man. Pablo Piatti stated last week his countrymen will have to work twice as hard as everyone else to impress Pellegrino, and the efforts Gago and Banega put into their understanding might be a key definition point of the season that lies ahead of Valencia.

Whatever does occur it will be an intriguing season ahead at Mestalla. A new coach, and a new raft of players. Most importantly for a team that had grown stale, there will need to be new ideas.