38. Carlos Soler
When Gary Neville took over as Valencia’s new manager, he identified a young midfielder from the B-team and predicted that he would be next to break into the first team. He dubbed him “The Next David Silva”. That man was Fran Villalba. Unknown to him, another young midfielder from the B-team, whom he named on the bench for the Europa League Round of 16 game against Athletic Club, was the man that prophecy was meant for.
Carlos Soler Barragán was born in Valencia on January 2, 1997, joined his hometown club’s youth setup at just 8 years old. There, he honed his skills and started to make a name for himself. In 2015, aged 18, he was promoted to Valencia’s B team where he made his debut against UE Cornellà, in an eventual 0-1 defeat. It took a while for him to find his feet but he eventually did, netting his first goal for the side on 13 December 2015, in a 2–2 draw at CF Badalona. From that point, on his rise has been meteoric. 3 months after that goal, he was an unused substitute as Valencia crashed out of the UEFA Europa League to a 76th-minute Aritz Aduriz goal. Fran Villalba’s inability to deal with the pressure and spotlight that resulted from being pushed out too early was a blessing in disguise for Soler, as it gave him more time to prepare for his opportunity.
The 2016/2017 season started very badly for Valencia. The first four games of the season ended in consecutive defeats and manager Pako Ayestaran was shown the door. Mario Suárez, who had been signed on loan from Watford to solve Valencia’s midfield problems, had solved absolutely nothing. The team was in shambles. Cult Hero Voro was brought in as caretaker manager. He masterminded two wins in three games before handing over to new fulltime manager, Cesare Prandelli. Valencia were not out of trouble yet, but things looked to be changing. A debut victory at El Molinón with a brace from Mario Suárez was a perfect start. All looked to be well again. Perhaps Mario Suárez was the answer after all? Wrong.
A bright performance against Barcelona was followed by a string of disappointing results and disagreements behind the scenes that led to Prandelli resigning. Things were turbulent once again and Voro was back. In his second-to-last game as manager, Prandelli pointed Valencia to a solution to their problems in midfield when he handed then-19-year old Soler his senior team debut at Anoeta.
Valencia lost 2-3, but a star was born. However, it was in the next game – a Copa Del Rey Round of 32 2nd leg game against Leganés – that Soler really caught the eye. It was his sublime run, which saw him skip past a cluster of sliding Leganeés players, that led to Rodrigo’s winner. The fans were excited and they were right to be.
Voro picked up where Prandelli left off in the next game against Osasuna in Pamplona by handing Soler his first league start. He did not disappoint. He was assured in possession and combined brilliantly with Dani Parejo throughout the game. He remained in the starting XI, eventually scoring his first goal for the senior team in the local derby away at Villarreal. It was a dominant performance, one which could have seen him easily score a hattrick. His touches were brilliant, his movement was great and he held on to the ball very well. His combination with Parejo was also getting better. Not long after, he delivered an insane pass that cut right through Barcelona’s defence, at Camp Nou. The pass led to Gaya’s assist for Munir’s goal and the plaudits poured in.
On April 6, 2017, at the Mestalla against Celta Vigo, Carlos Soler showed the world that he was the real deal. It was the 88th minute and the score was 2-2. Captain Enzo Perez picked up the ball in his own half and went on one of his trademark runs. Shrugging off a few challenges, he sent a through ball to Soler. What followed next has been replayed again and again and will never be forgotten. Running onto the pass, eyes on the ball, Soler delivered a sublime chip over the goalkeeper to score the winner. The entire Mestalla were stunned. More than anything, for a 20-year old to have that kind of composure and confidence in the 88th minute with his team desperately in search of a winner was nothing short of incredible. Even fans of Celta Vigo must have applauded it reflexively. That was Soler announcing himself to the world.
Carlos Soler is a majestic and complete footballer. Originally a striker, he was moved to an attacking midfield role before once again being moved to a central midfield role. He can thrive in all three roles. He has a great first touch, great vision and a fine passing ability. His movement is brilliant and he is calm with the ball at his feet. He moves around the pitch with a grace reminiscent of David Silva. His pirouettes are Zidanesque in their smoothness and effectiveness, and his versatility is as striking as Baraja’s. His technique and composure belie his young age. The manner in which he adapts to a role in minutes is perhaps his most understated quality. Put him in an attacking midfield role, he immediately starts playing like one. Move him to a central midfield role, you get the same result. Move him wide, he blends in immediately. His potential is limitless, especially when you look at his accuracy from set-pieces. He scored some beautiful free kicks while with Valencia Mestalla (B-team). Unfortunately, in the first team, he has to contend with Dani Parejo, one of the best dead ball specialists in Europe.
Beyond all that, there is almost no attacking role Soler cannot thrive in, wide or centrally. Based on pre-season and reports so far, it looks like Marcelino plans to play him on the left side of midfield in a flat 4-4-2. He will be a playmaker drifting in-field, a bit like Silva under Roberto Mancini. He will definitely get games centrally as well, of course. With Valencia fans showering him with love, praise and all the support he needs, 2017/2018 could be a big year for Soler. He already plays like one of the leaders of the team, and Valencia’s dependence on his creative output is almost certain to grow. From what we have seen thus far, he will handle it well. With so many talents emerging in La Liga, and all over Europe, Carlos Soler is ready to stand up and be counted.
By: Astorre Cerebronè/@Cerebrone