The start of another season in Valencia always seems to carry a haunting sense of familiarity. What might have startled some three or four years ago does not even evoke shrugs nowadays. The reason is Peter Lim. Everything related to his management of Valencia has been overflogged, but he still manages to give everyone new things to talk about. Valencia’s endless saga has simply become routine. There is always something. Complaints echo yearly, yet none as loudly as the plea to unburden coaches from shoddy transfer planning. Regrettably, as anticipated, history is repeating itself.
Following a nail-biting season where Valencia’s safety hung in the balance until the final whistle on the final day, one could be forgiven for thinking something would finally change. Such a close encounter with relegation surely was extreme enough to jerk Peter Lim from his apathetic ways into action, many thought. If you were among those who held such expectations, it’s clear you have not truly grasped Lim’s nature. Not a single Valencia fan is taken aback by the lack of change, although they continue to voice their frustration, tinged with a hint of resignation. The reality seems to be that things can only be different if Lim sells his shares and walks. From all indications, that is not going to happen anytime soon. So what is exactly Lim’s plan for Valencia? What does he want?
The transfer window drama at Valencia was one for the ages. Then again, the same thing can be said for every transfer window at Valencia. Valencia signed five players. Surprisingly, only one was a loan signing, unlike last year when five players were signed on loan. Cenk Özkacar was made permanent after spending last season on loan at the club, Pepelu was signed from Levante, Sergi Canós from Brentford, Selim Amallah from Real Valladolid and Roman Yaremchuk signed on loan from Club Brugge. There were a slew of departures, including the high-profile exit of Edinson Cavani to Boca Juniors.
Here is where it gets slightly amusing, if you are not a Valencia fan, of course. Cenk, a left footed centre back, was hastily signed early in the window for €5m, at a time when the priority should have been to sign Justin Kluivert – another player who was on loan at Valencia with an option to buy. Kluivert was easily Valencia’s best player of the season, and fans were screaming for him to be signed permanently.
Meanwhile, Valencia had two young and highly rated left-sided centre backs coming through – Yarek Gasiorowski and Facundo González. In other words, it was not a priority position. González soon moved on, joining Juventus, while Yarek’s path to the first team is now blocked. To be fair, Cenk was impressive when he did play last season. However, that is hardly the point. On top of that, he was mostly on the bench anyway. Kluivert moved on to Bournemouth for around €11m and that was that.
The drama did not end there. The case of Sergi Canós would be hilarious if it was not so irritating to the fans. Canós, a Valencian and a lifelong Valencia fan, spent months talking about his dream of playing for the club. The feeling was mutual. Canós elected to do what he could to make the move happen. For months, there was indecisiveness on the Valencian side, with Peter Lim refusing to sanction the move for no reason. It dragged on and on, despite the price reportedly being around €250,000.
Canós finally landed in Valencia after Lim gave his heavily sought go-ahead, but only after the season was two games in. This was a deal that could have been completed at the start of the window, allowing him to take part in the preseason and be bedded in. So much unnecessary drama over nothing is the Lim way, as we all know. Selim Amallah should also have been signed early in the window, but Valencia delayed it until the final days of the window.
There was also the case of Rafa Mir, a player Valencia were linked to all through the window. Mir, a former Valencia player and a Mendes asset, was available on loan. Due to the Mendes links, there was a plan to bring him to the club. Even with Lim’s great relationship with Mendes — something that has been more a curse than a blessing for Valencia fans — the club just could not seal the deal.
Lim, again, was reportedly the reason for the delay. By the time Valencia finally made an offer, with only a few days left in the window, Sevilla changed the terms and the deal collapsed. Valencia were then left scrambling, with other reported targets like Lucas Boyé and Martin Braithwaite having moved on as well. They ended up signing Yaremchuk out of the blue, on deadline day, on loan from Club Brugge. It reeked of horrendous planning.
Beyond these, Valencia’s recruitment has been inadequate, especially considering the amount of departures. The squad was already one of the youngest in Europe last season. With some of the more experienced players leaving, and manager Ruben Baraja promoting more youth players, the squad’s average age has significantly reduced.
Baraja complained some time ago about not getting the players he wanted, only for reports to emerge that Lim – notorious for being very sensitive – had been offended by his comments. Since then, he has been less direct in his remarks, trying not to get himself fired from his dream job. What is abundantly clear is that Lim likes to have a say in every transfer, and his decisions are usually guided by his ego and his need to establish dominance. It seems so obviously unnecessary, but yet, it is a thing.
It was this strange need to establish dominance that made him dismantle the structure at the club that included a superb trident of Marcelino, Mateu Alemany and Pablo Longoria, who were doing wonders at Valencia. Their influence had grown so much that he had to cut them down to size. Long after leaving, their influence was still very obvious at the club.
What followed was Lim going on rampage, making ridiculous decisions in his quest to rid the club of the lasting fragrance of these men. That included him getting rid of some of their strongest soldiers, especially former captain Daniel Parejo. A club being run based on one man’s ego and mood can only tend towards one direction, the direction Valencia have been heading since Marcelino got fired.
Meanwhile, on the pitch, the kids are getting opportunities. The one thing Baraja has done right since assuming the reins at Valencia is to incorporate the completely neglected young players. Nothing gets Mestalla bouncing like seeing young players get a chance. Apart from his legendary status at the club counting in his favour, his love for youngsters has also bought him a lot of goodwill.
In fact, it was these young players who stepped up last season and scored the crucial goals that pulled Valencia out of near-inevitable relegation. The team started the season with 2 wins out of 2, one being at Sevilla’s daunting Sanchez-Pizjuan, before being brought back down to earth by Osasuna – who grabbed all three points at Mestalla – and Alaves.
Several issues still abound, and there are no indications those issues will be addressed. Beyond the passion, grit and youngster love-in, it is evident that Baraja is pretty limited as a coach. When the real details are analysed, his flaws are all too obvious. Valencia have a lot of trouble with the build-up. Baraja often opts to just avoid doing it entirely, until he is trying to find a goal.
There is also the issue of a non-existent attacking plan, or a flawed one, if we consider getting the ball to José Gayà, to cross, a valid enough attacking strategy. Strikers are starved and have to rely on sheer force of will to find chances. The chances that do get created often look like random occurrences rather than well-scripted moves. Last season, there were a lot of those, which bailed Valencia out. It is simply not a sustainable strategy and it is sure to fade at some point. Once that happens, the club is in trouble.
Baraja is severely lacking key fundamentals – structuring a midfield with the right profiles and spacing, a compact structure out of possession, dominating Zone 14, effective use of overloads, move construction in the final third, controlling the game without the ball, effective build-up play and ball retention with purpose. When Valencia have the lion’s share of possession, they run out of ideas and are so often vulnerable in transition.
They get taken apart in seconds and always look likely to concede. When Valencia have less possession, they rely heavily on individualism in transition while showing an inability to control their opponents. The Valladolid-born manager is also poor at reading the game and making substitutions, and he has also shown a penchant for sabotaging himself.
His treatment of very talented and often misused Hugo Guillamón has been abhorrent. Guillamón has a lot to give in Baraja’s current setup – the only one capable of controlling the pace of a game. Guillamón gives rhythm and tempo management while helping the team to control and recycle for sustained pressure.
His intelligence could also prove vital, but he has only seen 20 minutes of action since April. Banishing him to never be seen again seems to be a popular decision with a section of the fanbase, many of whom do not fancy players like Guillamón who are not physically imposing and look ‘lazy’ on the pitch. Like Parejo before him, he has been scapegoated heavily, despite being a victim of systems that emphasised his weaknesses – often left isolated or put in situations where his strengths are not applicable.
Koba Koindredi, another exciting and talented midfielder, was sent out on loan and his Valencia career is effectively over. Uroš Račić, who has had solid loans out of Valencia, has been sold. Račić was the exact kind of profile Baraja’s team has been crying out for. With Peter Lim notorious for disappointing coaches and not allowing essential signings, it is absurd that he let go of potential assets before any replacements had been signed.
It is the easiest way to fall into Lim’s trap. Baraja has also completely misused Andre Almeida, Valencia’s most dynamic midfielder, playing him in zones where he is less likely to touch the ball and/or affect the game. Almeida has often cut a frustrated figure since Baraja’s arrival, and it is to Valencia’s detriment if he isn’t used optimally. He is Valencia’s main x-factor player, afterall. The club should be playing a 3-man midfield, with either Almeida or Guillamón, or both, central to it.
What is clear is that Valencia look set for another season of struggle, whether due to coaching flaws or Peter Lim’s ego-driven incompetence, or both. They will be lucky to not get drawn into another relegation battle like last season. Maybe the kids will spring another surprise. Right now, that looks highly unlikely.
By: Astorre S. Cerebronè / @xyCerebrone
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Pressinphoto / Icon Sport