Dreaming Too Big

MSN and some lads in the background; on Wednesday, Valencia were not really a team.

It was a crash of epic proportions. Against the best team of the XXI’s century and, potentially, the best team ever put together by human beings, Valencia suffered the worst defeat since 1993, when they were massacred by Karlsruher SC in the second round of UEFA Cup. On a Wednesday evening, Luis Suárez alone netted more goals than Los Che managed to score in their four previous matches. Barcelona turned their usual 70% of possession into 24 shots on Matt Ryan’s goal: twice the number the Catalans produced four weeks ago at La Rosaleda, while facing the mid-table Malaga team.

But it wasn’t just about the numbers. Both physically and mentally, the visitors at Camp Nou looked pretty lethargic without the ball and somewhat naive when it was their time to step up and create something. The consequences were severe: already the first tackle at VCF’s player resulted with goal when Neymar robbed André Gomes, stormed through and set up his Uruguayan fellow for a relatively easy finish. But again – it’s not even about the bad start to the game. Just like in many matches before, Gary Neville’s Valencia is simply not a thing to work out well, let alone to impress. And it’s unlikely to ever become such thing.

I wouldn’t really call it the managers’ fault. He most certainly did not send an application to the Singaporean president of Valencia CF, Miss Chan Lay Hoon. Nor did he ran his mouth in media about the possibility of being hired by a reasonably big Spanish club. Instead, he’s been offered a chance on behalf of his younger brothers’ reputation at Mestalla. Without Phil working as a member of Nuno’s backroom staff for the last six months, there wouldn’t be a room for a Sky Sports pundit with no managerial experience to take charge. Such things don’t really happen without some extraordinary politics conducted behind the scenes.

Is it Gary Neville’s role to be held accountable for someone else’s poor hiring decisions? Is he, the overwhelmingly ambitious and hard-working Manchester United right-back , in a position to ever decline a great challenge once it presents itself? And, most importantly – does every football manager necessarily have to start small and take baby steps before he earns his claim to fame? No, no and no. Pep Guardiola’s example, Luis Enrique’s example: those must’ve been some motivating stories for a retired footballer who dared to dream big. Give a man like Gary the challenge with nothing to lose other than, perhaps, some time – and he’ll surely take it.

 

The only problem with it is that ten weeks after his appointment, his record remains consistently horrible. The hopes for a fairly tale went one way; the life went the other. Neville’s lads managed to win four games – but all of these victories were scored against inferior opposition in Copa del Rey. Now that the cup is out of the window due to Wednesday’s embarrassing antics, there’s not much else left in the tank. Namely: five draws and three defeats in La Liga, as well as a farewell 0-2 to Lyon in the Champions League. No matter how you look at it – this is a disaster for a club with the ambitions of securing European qualification.

So, what exactly the ex-MU stalwart has done during his reign? Well, for one thing: there were plenty of squad changes. Compared to the last league game of Nuno Espírito Santo (0-1 defeat in Sevilla), yesterday’s humiliation involved five new players – and one of the old ones, João Cancelo, switched from being a right-back to the right midfielders’ role. It’s been a constant trial-and-error affair for the head coach at Mestalla: for the last six games, he’s been fielding a different lineup, even going as far as to introduce the B-teamer Wilfried Zahibo in the central midfield. This was evidently a sign of desperation – but the actual problems were rooted much deeper than just in the lack of stability.

By the end of Nuno’s spell, Valencia were essentially a counterattacking team – a sloppier, smaller version of Atletico Madrid, focused around closing space in their own half and inviting play to hope for quick breaks. Notoriously below 50% or even 40% possession mark, the team kept shifting between 4-3-3, 4-5-1 and 4-1-4-1 formations – usually relying on wingers to produce just a smidgen of quality required to score a goal. Such approach rarely fails in a spectacular fashion; if it does, it’s exactly the way it did in the infamous game at Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, where the team did not manage to strike a single shot at Sergio Rico’s goal for the entire 90 minutes.

 

Under Neville’s guidance, the ball retention has immediately improved. The team dominated the passing department against teams like Sporting, Deportivo and Getafe and was only marginally worse compared to powerhouses like Villarreal or Real Madrid. This was followed with slightly improved numbers of shots taken as well as higher number of key passes. However, at the same time, at the back, there wasn’t a single clean sheet to be proud of – at least not in La Liga. In eight league games, Los Che had to chase the result exactly eight times. The best they could do in terms of stalling the fate was defend until 79th minute at Anoeta – after which they’d lose 0-2 anyway.

Some of those defensive concerns used to be attributed to the so-called Otamendi Hangover; the glaring absence of impact from an excellent centre-back, who moved to Manchester City for £28.5 million in August. A month later, stardom-tipped left-back Jose Gaya has picked up a nagging hamstring injury which did not knock him out of play completely but reportedly influenced the level his performances. Since goalie Diego Alves had to also take six months to heal his anterior cruciate ligaments injury, since Shkodran Mustafi continues his struggle with his own hamstrings, one could assume that the decline at the back wasn’t anything particularly surprising.

Still, the way they imploded against Barcelona was disheartening. After first goal, there was the other, scored inside just 12 minutes. It was a textbook ball over the top to approaching wing-back, who then played it back for a completely unmarked striker to blast in. Third goal? Complete lack of response to the sudden acceleration of Iniesta, who stormed in, played the pass with the outside of his foot and nobody even tried to intercept it properly before it reached Messi. The complete apathy resulted with a comical 4-0 strike, when Messi’s body language alone landed two defenders on their backs. And the Argentinian completed his hat-trick by shamelessly stealing the ball from Parejo in his own penalty area…

Rolling over and taking seven goals in one’s buttocks is one thing, but doing it like VCF did was bound to infuriate few people. Despite the late-night return to Valencia, a crowd of over 100 club supporters has welcomed their team outside of Mestalla with whistling and roar – including the accusations against players, who supposedly are nothing but mercenaries. Legendary goalkeeper Santiago Canizares urged Neville to resign and apologize for the result. It wouldn’t mean much if it came from any other person: but Canizares himself was a part of a team that trashed Barca 4-1 in 1999/2000 Champions League semifinal. From his point of view – this was an unthinkable display.

 

Canizares does have a point, but I’m afraid he sees the whole issue from the wrong point of view. To him, Gary Neville is the same manager as anyone else, Valencia players are the same professionals as every other football professional and Barcelona are mere mortals too. Not a single of these three assumptions is true. Current Blaugrana team is a pack of insanely gifted craftsmen put together by a one-in-a-million chance. Current Valencia players are merely a disjointed, demoralized, error-prone lads. And finally – their leader, despite all the pitch experience, wit and intelligence – is still an obscure, rookie manager.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Gary has at least above-average insight into the tactics of his own team. After all, he’s proven his analytical ability week after week by assisting Jamie Carragher in a post-match studios on Sky Sports and pinpointing the key strategical factors in the Premier League games. The real question is: can he combine this, strictly academic knowledge with the real-life social interaction between him and a group of individuals? Is he capable to not just give directions, but also inspire in a situation, where the pre-season goals have already been slipping away from his team long before he was appointed?

As of today: it doesn’t seem so. Not with the amount of experience he has; not with the amount of confidence his players have in him. Him at Valencia might’ve seemed like a good decision from the point of view of an Asian club owner. It might’ve seemed a move worth risking, since the club was already out of the cup qualification race anyway. But then, there was also the dressing room. From the moment Gary’s name went there, the players’ morale must’ve been shot. Because how on Earth a 40-years old pundit and hotelier with minimal knowledge of Spanish language was supposed to do anything other than collapsing in his first ever managerial job? I, myself, have no answer to that question.

The nightmare continues: citizen G.N. claims he won’t leave the job voluntarily.

Fortunately for the man in question, no real damage has been done – other than, perhaps, a slight blow to his reputation as a football man. Twelve in La Liga at the moment, with a nine-point gap between them and the Europa League promotion, Valencia are not competing for anything other than saving some of their dignity. On Gary’s 41 birthday, his team will face Rapid Wien in the Europa League’s Round of 32 – and, all things considered, this pairing has no clear favorite. The Austrians have already managed to score a group-stage victory over Villarreal CF – the same Villarreal, who took comfortable 1-0 win from Valencia in December. In short: this will be a trophy-less campaign for Los Che, no problem. The damage has already been done.

And what’s the future of their manager? Well, unless he can turn this all around and secure, let’s say, UEL semifinal combined with a six place La Liga finish – he’ll be out of the door this summer – or earlier. He is going to pack his bags, go back to England and continue the career of one of the most competent, informative and entertaining pundits around. Everything will be back to normal following the strange anomaly that’s been his spell in Spain. Which, in pretty much every way, reminds me of this, ancient anecdote:

“Cineas, a Thessalian politician and Epicurean philosopher, asked King Pyrrhus, before he embarked on his military campaign in Italy, what his intentions would be in the case he was victorious against the Romans. The king of Epirus, who wanted to emulate his distant relative Alexander the Great, replied that once the Romans were defeated, the whole Italian peninsula would be there for the taking.

Cineas then asked Pyrrhus, what he would do after conquering Italy and the king answered that Sicily would be his next goal. And what would come next? Pyrrhus replied that a campaign against Carthage and Libya would subsequently be an easy thing to accomplish successfully.

“And after conquering everyone, what are we going to do next?” Cineas asked. “Then,” Pyrrhus replied, “we shall drink every day and spend time together happily”.

“And what prevents us from doing this now?” asked Cineas.”

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