Valencia’s players were hungry. It was two years since they’d had a decent run of results and it felt almost as long since they’d had a decent meal.
For the 13th time in five years they were under new management and this time things were actually going to change. Not just the coach but the culture, everything from the president to the players to what was put on their plate. If you are what you eat, it was time to eat something good. At Paterna, the club’s training ground, food was prepared for them, but not much of it and not exactly the tasty treats either, while detailed diets were sent home: rigid new regimes written out to be followed to the letter, families called upon to help impose them on famished footballers.
Marcelino García Toral, Valencia’s new manager, has a reputation for obsessing over weight and physical condition. A pioneer, even now when professional football is catching up with him, every detail controlled, tests conducted daily, weight pinned on notice boards at training grounds worldwide, he goes further. He is so strict that stories circulate of players starving themselves or starting the day in the sauna, scared of arriving a gram overweight.
Gabriel said: “The first time I worked with him, I thought: ‘What a pain this coach is!’” The first time his new Valencia team-mates worked with him, they felt much the same. “We went hungry,” said the captain, Dani Parejo. There had even been arguments with his wife, he admitted.
But Gabriel knew and, soon, so did they. When Gabriel joined Arsenal he called Marcelino, his manager at Villarreal, to thank him; when Marcelino called him back this summer he didn’t even have to think about it. When Marcelino arrived at Mestalla and spoke to Parejo he didn’t have to think about it for long, either. He had intended to leave, ready to follow 16 other players out of the club, but Marcelino made him stay.
“From the very first session, I could sense something different,” he said. “I don’t know, something. Not just him, all of his staff. The way we trained, the way they saw football, the way they worked, prepared games. It really struck me. And I said to myself: ‘I can’t waste a year of my career not working with this coach.’”
So, Parejo got to work. They all did. Within weeks, the captain was describing Marcelino as one of the two best coaches he had worked with alongside Ernesto Valverde. It’s a big field: Parejo admitted that he has lost count of how many coaches he has had. At Valencia, there were four spells last season alone: Pako Ayesteran followed by match-day-delegate turned caretaker manager and go-to saviour Voro, followed by Cesare Prandelli followed by Voro again. The year before that they had gone from Nuno to Voro and Phil Neville, briefly, and then from Gary Neville to Ayesteran.
And this summer, they changed again, but this time it was different. The fact that they got a manager was a start; better still, they got the right manager.
Born in Asturias, a former Sporting Gijón player who began his coaching career at local side Lealtad and then at Sporting’s B team, Marcelino took Recreativo de Huelva from the second division to an astonishing eighth place in primera, won promotion with Real Zaragoza even in the midst of a crisis from which they have still not fully recovered, led Racing Santander to their best finish, and brought Villarreal back from the second division and to the top of the table for the first time. Now, after two years finishing 12th, of instability and errors, of division and a lack of direction and seemingly continual crises, it was time to make Valencia Valencia again.
It was not just Marcelino: conscious of the mistakes made, Valencia changed everything. The new president is Anil Murthy, a former diplomat and West Ham fan, and Mateu Alemany, once the president of Real Mallorca, became the director general. “The whole club is just much more serious in everything,” one insider says. They have even announced that they are actually going to get the new Mestalla built, where work stopped eight years ago and where all they do each day is sweep up. There was a clean out of the dressing room, too. Only five players remain from Peter Lim’s first year as owner and 16 left in the summer, while seven came in. If the turnover was high, it was rational and thought through this time.
Signings were also – and here’s the thing – agreed with the manager; he was handed an authority others lacked. More importantly, so the departures were agreed with him, too.
Here, advice was sought from Voro. Had he asked, Ayesteran and Gary Neville would have told a similar story and remember Prandelli’s “Fuori!” rant, when he accused the players of lacking professionalism?
Well, now at last they were fuori, on Voro’s well-placed advice. There was a dressing-room clean out, Enzo Pérez, Álvaro Negredo and Diego Alves among them. “Purge” may be an unpleasant word, but there was something in that. Marcelino called the players who went “prescindible” – expendable. He wasn’t naming names but it was, he admitted with a tinge of sadness “necessary … to change a negative run, there are players we had to get rid of”.
The squad had been made manageable; now he had to manage. Although some players say the serious image is exaggerated, that his demanding nature does not make him draconian, that he engages with players, reaches them and knows how to convince them, that he is likeable, his touch light at times, that Marcelino pushes them and it works. Direct and honest, he has talked about his admiration for Arrigo Sacchi and Rafa Benítez, while Diego Simeone says he identifies with him, and Marcelino insists on a building committed, competitive team. The word Gabriel used for him is “pesado”: roughly, a pain, heavy, hard work, tough going. Intelligent and intense, he wanted a squad that he could lead and that would follow him, creating a climate conducive to a change in culture.
Some of his key men had things to prove: Simone Zaza had West Ham to leave behind; Gonçalo Guedes, only 20, barely played at PSG; things didn’t entirely work out for Geoffrey Kondogbia at Inter; Rodrigo had never scored more than five league goals; Parejo had been halfway out; José Luis Gayá, like Parejo, stood accused but was given a second chance; Neto emerged from Gianluigi Buffon’s shadow. Marcelino wanted them hungry, metaphorically. And, some soon found, literally. “We got used to it,” Parejo said.
It’s not only about the weight, although that does symbolise the seriousness and it is genuinely something that people in the game talk about. Marcelino insists that the physical condition and analysis “quantifies the footballing work; it does not dictate it” and says that he doesn’t really know anything about the physical preparation – the genius is Ismael Fernández, his fitness coach – but it is fundamental and non-negotiable. Everything starts with tests that set the parameters for the season, identifying players’ optimum statistics which are monitored constantly, with fines for those who do not fulfil the criteria daily, and they work in what the coach calls “micro-cycles” that seek to maintain that. If a player’s body fat index goes over 9.5 he simply doesn’t play.
That speed, stamina and agility goes hand in hand with his style: playing in a 4-4-2, Marcelino wants the ball and, more importantly, wants it back when they lose it. But he is not interested in possession for its own sake. “A team with 80% possession and only three shots on goal bores me,” he said. Instead, it is the pace and precision of counter-attacks that most occupies him, built on defensive solidity. His teams are, as the Spanish word has it, very vertical, but that doesn’t mean a long ball: instead it means compact and coiled, always ready to spring forward and always in numbers, across the turf, players making runs across each other. The mechanism is built on repetition, carefully planned and conducted with intensity, underlining that while quantification matters individual analysis does not mean individualisation of approach: “You start with the idea that football is collective,” he says. Nor, he insists, can you ask a player to do something he is not capable of, although you can hide defects and maximise qualities.
It is working. Before the match at Mestalla on Saturday night, Zaza collected the award for La Liga’s player of the month; by the end of it, he had scored his eighth goal of the season, second only to Leo Messi in the scoring charts. Rodrigo has scored five league goals after nine games – as many as he has got in an entire season at Mestalla. Kondogbia has been sensational in the middle of midfield: Valencia have a €25m option to buy which, right now, they would be mad not to take up. Alongside him is Parejo, a playmaker and passer who, his manager says, makes the difference – a personal, pastoral project and a professional one too that is producing goods. Parejo has refound himself and leads team-mates. As for Gayà, he has started every game but one. And there have been opportunities for those coming through: Carlos Soler has been superb.
And then there is Guedes – fast, skilful, with a ridiculously good shot on him, a sensation who scored two goals this weekend, one of them absurdly good to go with the absurdly good one he got last weekend against Betis.
“An extra-terrestrial,” one local paper called him, while a former player made his view clear in a column that said simply: “Mamma mia!”
Guedes has scored three and made five assists already. This week, he got the “Gold” award from AS, which is something that rarely happens if you do not play for Madrid or Barcelona. On loan from PSG, who paid more than €30m for him and whose value is surely climbing way beyond that, they are already singing for him to stay. “I don’t know what will happen,” he says.
Guedes scored twice on Saturday, his second, clipped neatly over Sergio Rico, was Valencia’s fourth. The team they defeated were Sevilla, Spain’s fourth Champions League side this season, the best of the “other” teams as Valencia once were, and this felt like a shift in power. A claim made. Not just because of the result, although it was fantastic, but because of the way they played: it was not just fast, it was frantic. Or it would be, except that “frantic” implies out of control and they weren’t: the ball was theirs and it was moved quickly, accurately, deliberately, full-backs flying past, every pass seeming to propel them forward, every runner with another in support.
It was exhilarating, Mestalla roaring along with them. “Even the oldest people in the stadium don’t remember a spectacle like this,” wrote Cayetano Ros in El Mercantil. Super Deporte called them a “steamroller”. Eduardo Berizzo, the Sevilla manager, said: “They were unstoppable in attack.” Asked if he thought this was the perfect performance, Marcelino, also revealing own character, replied: “I don’t think it’s possible to play the perfect game because that intensity can never be kept up.”
One move just before half-time neatly encapsulated it, starting deep at left-back and finishing way up the other end on the other side of the pitch, with the right-back in the opposition area. That didn’t lead to a goal but another similar move did, Santi Mina scoring the third. There was still another to come, taking Valencia to four to go with the five they got against Málaga, the three against Athletic and Real Sociedad, and two against Madrid, and the six against Betis. Nine weeks into the season, they have scored 25 times – only Barcelona have more – thanks to nine players. They are second and unbeaten despite having already played Atlético, Athletic, Madrid and Sevilla: they have faced six of the top eight teams going into this weekend and have only been behind for eight minutes. “It’s mad what’s happening,” their former goalkeeper Santi Canizares said.
“We’ll try to make history,” Gabriel said. They already are: you have to go back almost 70 years for a better start. This time last season, they had already lost five times and had sacked a manager. Relegation was two points off; now everything has changed and the top of the table is only one place away. But, asked what their limit was, Marcelino replied: “It’s normal that there is euphoria among the fans, and we thank them for it, but our limit is to keep working, with humility, effort, togetherness and commitment. We have to be ambitious, but euphoria would confuse us and we wouldn’t play the way we are.” Marca “declared a state of euphoria” and the question was asked: never mind the Champions League, could this team aspire to more?
Maybe, but one thing seems sure: Valencia are back and they’re hungry.
• So, Sevilla’s horrible week came to an end, beaten in Bilbao, beaten in Russia, and beaten by Valencia. One goal scored, 10 conceded. “I’m not scared of being sacked,” Berizzo said, “I’m scared of not finding solutions to all of our problems.”
• “The bookmakers have us down as favourites? That’s a chorrada,” the Leganés manager, Asier Garitano, said. A chorrada is, roughly, a load of balls, but it wasn’t. A gorgeous goal from Claudio Beauvue gave them a 1-0 win and it’s no fluke. Butarque bounced, the sun set and Lega are fifth. They haven’t conceded for five weeks.
• “Refereeing is hard, but that hard?!” the Málaga manager, Míchel, asked after Barcelona took the lead in the second minute, Deulofeu backheeling in following a cross that had been clipped in from out of play. “Inexplicable help”, Marca moaned on its front cover. It wasn’t great, but it finished 2-0 and Barcelona are still top, unbeaten in nine.
• Atlético are unbeaten too, after another 1-0 win, but that wasn’t great either. And if that sounds very Atlético, it’s not really. “Jan Oblak is always there,” said Diego Godín. Right now, he is there a little more than they would like. As for the fans, there were quite a lot fewer of them than anyone would like. The main stand at Balaídos was declared unsafe and closed down, leaving 9,000 locked out.
• The memorable moment came at the end of a night that was largely forgettable, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Theo and Marcelo creating a lovely third in a 3-0 win against Eibar, via three backheels, six passes, and a neat finish from the Brazilian. “It was very nice,” Zinedine Zidane said.
• Five years later, the derby was back at Anduva, an old, square, atmospheric ground that could be in some tiny town in England somewhere, a place with personality and even a sign, Anfield-style declaring “This is Anduva”, where 4,655 gathered for Mirandés against Burgos in Segunda B, two teams competing for promotion, first and second in Group Two. A gorgeous goal gave Burgos the lead and that, they might have thought, was that. After all, they had gone nine games without conceding a single goal – they had only scored five. But then again, they had not faced Doctor (yes, really) Diego Cervero yet. He scored his ninth of the season – in nine games – and it finished 1-1.
Results: Levante 1-1 Getafe, Real Betis 2-0 Alaves, Valencia 4-0 Sevilla, Barcelona 2-0 Malaga, Villarreal 4-0 Las Palmas, Celta Vigo 0-1 Atlético Madrid, Leganes 1-0 Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid 3-0 Eibar. Tonight: Real Sociedad-Espanyol, Deportivo-Girona.