If you ask ten football fans what the most important thing in football is, nine will probably tell you “results”.
The tenth person is most likely a purist – who supports a team that always wins – and will probably go on a rant about beautiful football and what it means.
The answers are understandable but they are flawed. The most important thing in football is a sustainable process that guarantees positive outcomes nine times out of ten.
It is a game of probabilities because there are too many factors beyond your control that can impact outcomes.
Therefore, focusing on a sustainable process that gives you the best probability of a positive outcome is the way to go.
What you decide that this process is depends on how you see football or how you analyse the data.
Results do not exist in a vacuum. They only take you so far if the process that produces those results cannot sustain those results or if a defined process does not even exist.
You can win a cup competition through a plucky run, sure, but it is in league football that you will get found out and overpowered eventually.
These processes are built on foundations of ball use and basic principles of space and timing as it relates to football.
When a process blatantly omits these, it is hard to even recognise it as a process. A conversation about whether it is sustainable then becomes pointless.
In José Bordalás, Valencia have a coach whose teams have a common theme – time-wasting, relentless, often pointless or targeted fouling and a lot of uncoordinated running around in the name of pressing.
When you look at football through the dichotomy of proactivity and reactivity, you notice that teams tend to swing between the two like a simple pendulum.
A team swinging too much to one extreme can have dire consequences. When that extreme becomes the resting place for the team, ninety percent of the time, and the extreme is on the reactive side, the probabilities are no longer in their favour.
Valencia CF are a unique institution. They might be the first club in history where the manager already had a ready-made excuse for underperformance before being hired – the people who hired him.
While it is true that Valencia is run by possibly the most incompetent top management anywhere in the world, provably, it is also possible for the manager to be doing a poor job with the resources he has.
There seems to be a belief that if one is bad, the other stands no chance of creating anything as his work is disrupted by their incompetence. It is a fair position but it is one that over-contextualises something clear and observable.
Valencia, under Bordalás, have had problems but the top management have not been as big a problem as they have been made out to be.
If anything, they have given him far more than his predecessors and let him have his way. In spite of how awful the structure at the club and top management are, the Valencian team has enough to be doing so better.
The starting point is a manager willing to implement a sustainable process on the field. It does not mean they will win the league, but it will massively improve their positive outcome probabilities. As it stands, that just isn’t happening.
Valencia’s issues are simpler than people realise.
Here is a picture. In La Liga, they are 19th for passes completed, 17th for ball possession, 1st for fouls, 1st for yellow cards, 1st for red cards, 13th for big chances created, 13th for shots, 16th for through balls, 19th for passes made under pressure, 19th for ground passes and 6th for high passes.
They also have the second-largest xG overperformance in the league. There is more. Valencia’s highest volume passer averages 28 passes per game.
In fact, only two players in the team average more than 20 passes per game. One is a CB that had not played in three months until last weekend and the other is Hugo Guillamón, who plays as a 6 but sometimes fills in at CB.
Even more damning is the fact that no player amongst the team’s 15 regulars has a pass completion rate reaching 80%. Surely, the entire team cannot be poor passers, no? Right.
By almost all metrics, Bordalás’ team is overperforming. That is remarkable when you realise that they have just 8 wins in 26 games and are 9th.
But this is largely down to Hugo Duro and Gonçalo Guedes pulling magic out of the air. These numbers are not just the numbers of lower table teams, they are relegation battle numbers.
Valencia has a coaching problem. Bordalás leans too strongly on the reactive side. At first, it seemed like habit because of where he was coming from.
He has always been the underdog, and this job automatically became his biggest job when he took it. Some of the things his former teams did were slightly forgivable – bar the sheer thuggery – because they were underdogs.
It was a popular opinion that he had no choice. He did not have the resources so had to focus on getting an advantage beyond talent. But expectations at Valencia are different.
This is a club looking to return to the glory days, a club with a far richer history than a Getafe – who created a pornographic ad as rcently as 2011 urging fans to donate sperm in order to give birth to more fans.
It is easy to lose Valencia fans when the underdog approach becomes the theme, no matter the opponent, rather than an option to grind out a result on a bad day.
As the season has progressed, the reality that Bordalás simply can’t coach anything better because he does not have it in him looks more plausible.
The early days with him were somewhat exciting, partly because opponents were not sure what to expect of his Valencia side and partly because the reactive approach was a lot more potent.
It was the start of the season, the players were motivated, energetic and playing with an unsustainable intensity. It drove them in those early games and they looked almost fluid at certain points. But intensity is not a strategy just like hope isn’t.
Intensity is a tool applied in moments, and managers pick their moments. As soon as Valencia’s clearly unsustainable intensity died – with injuries and fatigue – the team’s lack of footalling depth and ideas became apparent.
What Bordalás has failed to do is implement anything other than a counter-pressing approach, which isn’t effective against half the teams in the league.
In fact, the strategy has proven to be largely worthless against the top half because those teams can comfortably play their way out of the press.
It does not help that Bordalás tinkers too often with his line-ups for any coordination to be established. He has also managed to make truly bizarre decisions.
There was the case of Mouctar Diakhaby, a centre back, playing as the team’s most advanced midfielder and then Dimitri Foulquier, a right back, also playing the same role; all while actual midfielders were left bemused on the bench.
It is worth noting that neither of these players is anywhere near good enough on the ball, but it does show where Bordalás’ priorities lie.
His midfield preferences are not about their profiles or qualities, or how well they can combine with one another. Rather, it is solely based on pure energy to run around and possibly win second balls.
As one can easily predict, when these players did win the second balls, Valencia could not benefit from them because they could not move the ball well enough or fast enough to threaten the opponents.
Valencia’s build-up play is easily the worst in Spain. It almost doesn’t exist. Bordalás prefers to focus on second balls so the plan is often to hoof the ball then try to recover it in advanced areas.
This isn’t a bad strategy in itself, for moments, but it is a terrible plan for any team to do for an entire game, or season.
If you need proof, just look at Valencia’s game at Atletico Madrid when they blew a 2-goal lead in the second half because of this.
Many chose to blame the goalkeeper and some players but the problem was clear as day. Valencia completely surrendered control in the second half to Atleti and got rightly punished for it.
This type of approach simply cannot be your base strategy as it involves having no element of control. In every football game, control is key.
You want to control a game with and without the ball. Open up space when you are with the ball, shut down space without it.
Control the tempo and rhythm when on the ball, disrupt your opponents’ tempo and rhythm without it. Valencia have not controlled a single game in at least five months, not even against lower-division opposition in their plucky cup run.
In fact, away at 3rd tier Atlético Baleares, the team scored within 1 minute and surrendered control for the rest of the game. They got battered for 89+ minutes and relied on excessive fouling to get out of there alive.
And this is a recurring theme. All initiative is surrendered to their opponents and they simply cannot keep the ball.
They struggle to complete three consecutive passes, by design, and it is clear that there is never any willingness to hold the ball.
It shows in how the midfield is structured and spaced when they have the ball at the back – there is no structure or plan.
In fact, the middle is often vacated completely so the centre backs or goalkeeper simply hoof it in hope that it lands on the head of a teammate and falls to another teammate. It is almost like they are terrified of the ball and the numbers reflect it.
Many have suggested that this is happening because the players in question are not Bordalás’ type of players and he cannot create anything with them. This just isn’t true.
Hugo Guillamón is one of the best passers in the division and can comfortably direct metronomic passing. Uroš Račić is a combative and physical box-to-box midfielder who thrives when he plays beside a metronomic passer, in a well-structured three-man midfield.
Yunus Musah is a fantastic ball carrier who can also thrive as an interior in a well-structured three-man midfield. Carlos Soler is a fine passer who can play almost all roles in midfield well, and who thrives in a well-structured three-man midfield as well.
Koba Koindredi has shades of Dani Parejo and the talent to run a game. There just isn’t the willingness to try.
All talk of age is a waste of time as FC Barcelona are currently showing that talented teenage midfielders can do the business if the approach and structure are good and there is a willingness to make it work.
Moreover, Bordalás had the chance to sign players in January and sanctioned the signing of a 19-year old midfielder, Ilaix Moriba.
In summary, Bordalás has the tools to create a formidable Valencia team. They won’t win every game but they would greatly improve their odds on a game by game basis.
Unfortunately, the manager cannot seem to get them to play at all. With one win in 9 league games, and a bunch of embarrassing defeats in between, the team’s ongoing Copa Del Rey run seems to be the only thing keeping more fans from turning on him.
And even then, the club managed to avoid top division opposition until the quarter finals where they faced Cadiz, who are 20th in La Liga. And even that game was marginally won at Mestalla.
Before that, they had played four consecutive games against lower division teams they were emphatic favourites to beat.
That is not to take any credit away from Bordalás but it is a lot less impressive than it looks, especially considering how dire the team has looked in both the cup and the league.
Also, domestic cup competitions do not show the true level of a team. It is in league football that it becomes clear.
Winning the cup, though, would be a big achievement and would probably get Bordalás the goodwill he would need to keep his job, even if Valencia finish in lower table positions.
It remains to be seen how things play out. What is clear, though, is that something needs to change soon, however unlikely it looks. Valencia do not look like a team that can play football under this manager. The process is all wrong.
By: Astorre S. Cerebronè / @Cerebrone
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Quality Sport Images / Getty Images