Football is renowned for working in cycles, and for many the 2014 World Cup signified the ultimate confirmation that the game has passed into a new era beyond the dominance of tiki-taka, Barcelona and Spain. La Roja’s failure to get through the group stages, in particular the defeats to two high intensity nations in Chile and the Netherlands, was another sign of the phase’s culmination which began following their victory at Euro 2012, whilst Germany winning the tournament with a much greater emphasis placed upon directness and verticality was a representation of the latest style which has begun to envelop the sport and inspire the latest changes in philosophy.
After it was given the true stamp of approval in the form of a World Cup victory, as many styles do upon their emergence (or, in this case, re-emergence) this one has begun to have a growing influence on clubs around the world – and that includes in Spain, the scene which acted as the birth ground of and the host to the previously dominant era.
Whilst Spanish football and La Liga specifically is far from one-dimensional in regards of how it is played, styles which are alike to Germany’s in their intensity are indeed rare. Spanish players in the country are not used to it, clubs often don’t employ it themselves because of that and, perhaps, due to that uniqueness, the impact of it could be even more successful there: or at least that’s what Nuno Espírito Santo believed.
And, since taking over in the managerial hot seat at the Mestalla in July, he’s proved that theory to be correct. Deploying a style bearing similarities to the one which Germany (amongst others) have utilised recently has helped Nuno to create a reinvigorated Valencia side, leading them back into the upper reaches of the league table as they were before. Their most recent result, a brilliantly managed 2-1 home victory over Real Madrid which ended their astounding 22-game winning streak, helped them remain in the final Champions League spot and that’s exactly where they’ll be realistically aiming to finish.
It was though, instead, a victory against the other major club in the Spanish capital which has best demonstrated their new emphatic style this season. Exactly three months before the Real Madrid game, Valencia scored three goals in the opening 13 minutes to blow Atlético out of the water. It had everything they could’ve dreamed of: a bright early start, a staggeringly high tempo and bundles of pressing throughout. Even Diego Simeone’s side, one of if not the most intense side(s) around Europe, found it difficult to cope with the tempo that Valencia played at. They look a very different side to last campaign.
The improvements in the team, a result of both the well-managed imposition of a new style through coaching and some talented acquisitions subsidised by Peter Lim, are widespread; defensively in particular. They’ve been the second best side in La Liga this season at the back, conceding just 14 in 17 matches at an impressive rate of 0.82 per game. That’s a huge amount of progression when compared to the 1.39 per game from last season, a difference of 0.57 goals per match, and indicative of the strides they have taken.
One of the biggest of these many steps looks to have been achieved through the purchase of Nicolás Otamendi (they did so at the start of 2014, but he only arrived in the summer), with the Argentine very quickly becoming the dominant figure of what was a previously suspect defence. Strong in the air, a great reader of the game and also a good organiser, his leadership skills have helped the young pair of José Gayá (who follows in the footsteps of Jordi Alba and Juan Bernat as another left-sided youth product at Valencia) and Shkodran Mustafi (who joined this summer as a German World Cup winner) settle in instantly alongside him.
Defending is of course a team responsibility though, on top of just the back-line as a unit, and André Gomes – like Otamendi, a signing who came from Portugal – has been vital in leading the midfield pressing which is so important to sustaining the high tempo that Nuno has idealised. He’s often used as the most advanced of the central midfielders in order to carry this out, and it has worked superbly well with him recording an extremely impressive average of 2.1 tackles, 0.5 interceptions and 2.7 fouls per game.
It is this, amongst other things, from Gomes which helps to him to be a somewhat microcosmic representation of Valencia as a whole unit; all-action, technically gifted and not afraid to ‘put the boot in’ – in a measured way, not undisciplined – either. As a club they’ve averaged the third highest number of tackles per game in La Liga (22.5, behind Celta Vigo and Atlético Madrid), and despite whole team defensive stats being somewhat misleading without proper context (teams with less possession will have more chances to complete defensive actions) it is still a decent enough sign of the dynamism and aggressiveness in their game now.
Despite that mention of being a good outfit technically, shown by them holding the fifth highest passing success record in La Liga (77.8%), they only average 49.1% possession per game which is the 10th highest in the league: and it’s here where that difference between a stereotypical Spanish style and a more German-based one can be spotted best. That technique is not utilised in a way to do what Nuno views as unnecessarily retaining the ball for long spells of games, but rather to make accurate vertical passes and ensure that their possession is held in attacking areas of the pitch. It’s worked brilliantly too, it must be said: their rate of goal scoring has shot up from 1.34 per game to 1.82 this season.
As a result of this combination of intenseness off the ball and directness on it, Valencia’s style is one which requires great concentration to keep up with from the start. With most teams failing to adapt and grab dominance of games as quickly as Los Che do, whether through controlling space or actual possession itself, it’s an enormously effective way for them to get a good start and take advantage. A massive 29.0% (a tally of nine in practicality) of their goals have come in the opening 15 minutes of matches, and they’ve conceded just one in that period. Beyond Real Madrid getting seven for themselves in that time, nobody else has got more than four. It’s almost impossible to get off to a better start than Valencia do.
There’s a reason why that’s so vital to them, though, and it’s this – the obvious and most significant drawback of a constant high energy style is maintaining it consistently throughout a whole game. That can be reflected within the times of when they concede goals themselves; a staggering 42.8% of them have come in the last 15 minutes. Combine that with the last 15 minutes of the first-half (when energy levels will also be running down before recovery time is allowed) and that makes up for 71.4% of all their goals conceded, demonstrating both a clear vulnerability in those periods and the difficulties of sustaining such a high tempo.
It is in these parts of matches where some questions may understandably be raised over what Nuno has implemented. Lacking energy to carry out little more than an extremely limited offensive threat in these periods (more applicable to the final 15 – where they’ve scored just 6.5% of their goals – as opposed to the closing third of the first-half) heaps pressure on their back-line, and as a result it would be no surprise to see potentially costly points lost late on as the season continues.
That said, however, looking more specifically at their individual games so far shows that only two of those goals conceded after the 75th minute have been result-defining (i.e., caused them to drop points) – a 1-0 loss at home to Barcelona and a 1-1 draw at Granada. So losing four points in that period is hardly an extremely worrying trend for them to look at, and that’s because they’ve so often killed matches off by that point of the game. The split of their goals between the first and second half is clearly weighted in favour of the former (58.1% compared to 41.9%), showing simultaneously the differences in how they play in different parts of the game and how difficult it is to keep up in the second half. So really, they’ve done rather well with it. Perhaps though, despite the comparable lack of goals, how they play in the second half is equally as – if not more – interesting as their early starts.
When looking specifically into Valencia’s attacking output in the second half a pattern is apparent: 69% of those 13 goals scored occurred between the 61st and 75th minute. Of those nine goals, only one has actually been their first in a match, largely down to their quick starts, and only two of them have directly changed the point-based situation of the game (or, put another way, the other seven have all just been extensions of a lead they already had at that point). Only Barcelona have scored as many goals as them in this time period, but as a percentage of their overall half tally nobody gets close.
This overly dominant pattern suggests a strong orientation around that 15 minute period in the middle of the second half, and the reason this is so interesting is that very, very few teams do that. Most teams actually focus, or at least get best rewarded for, their attacking output on the last 15 minutes of the game, whether that’s down to the limited time which is left, the mental states of players and teams because of the time constraints (e.g. teams pushing harder to grab a winner), or the exploitation of tiredness and space. Of the 20 La Liga sides, 13 of them score more goals in those 15 minutes than in any other of the six 15 minute periods of the game. Look specifically at the three split periods in the second half, rather than all six of the whole match, and that rises to 15 out of 20.
Yet Valencia by contrast to common trends, despite being the fourth highest scoring team in the division and the eighth highest scorers in the second half, have scored the drawn lowest in that period. Also, only one team other than them (Elche) have scored more goals between the 61st and the 75th minute than they have between the 76th minute and the end of the game. So why is that?
Well, an explanation for their lack of goals in the latter period has already been mentioned throughout: fitness. Playing at such a high intensity is, bar a few cases, almost entirely unsustainable. There’s a reason why Marcelo Bielsa’s hugely entertaining Athletic Bilbao side, for example, always seemed to struggle near the end of the season after such great starts. As for the contrast between the 46th and the 60th minute, and the 61st and the 75th minute, that’s a bit more complicated to explain specifically.
Like with the lack of goals scored in the final 15 minutes, the lack of goals in the 15 minutes following half-time (which makes up a minimal 15.4% of their second half tally or 6.5% of their whole game tally) could also come down to a matter of player fitness. Rather than it simply being a case of stamina being low at that point like later on, however, this seems to be a much more managed and deliberate situation – with Nuno very cleverly picking it as a period of mild rest and recovery; almost an extension of half-time.
There have been just three goals in this period of Valencia’s games over the course of the season, two scored for them and just one scored by the opposition. This has a similarity to the last 15 minutes in the sense that the attacking impetus is also quite largely reduced, but is different in that the energy to press and retain shape is still there. Again, it’s used as a time for consolidation and regaining energy. Come the hour mark, then, and the emphasis on attacking to kill games off is initiated again.
Doing this during the second time period rather than the first has a few key benefits. One of which is that it will often coincide with the introduction of substitutions, which Nuno (like many managers, saying that) regularly initiates at this point – often with the intention of utilising their greater energy to make a large impact instantly. The most vital point, though, is that having a high intensity phase at the start of the half will tire out the players very badly for the last 30 minutes. That would leave a long period of time where attacking intention is lacking, thus leading to enormous levels of pressure being put upon them.
So doing the most attacking phase between the 61st and 75th minute is actually somewhat of a defensive relief (just one goal has been conceded during that time by them in their 17 matches) whilst simultaneously being a key attacking phase. Killing the games off then, as they so often do, also means there’s less reliance on the defence to hold on when they cannot maintain the higher intensity any longer. That is, again, but with a greater context of understanding now, why them conceding 42.8% of their goals in this time is less of a concern than it initially appears (although it is in the scheme of things obviously a pressing matter which Nuno must, should and will look to fix to).
With goals flowing all around the team, the second best defence in the league so far and a devastating new style which the rest of Spain looks unable to cope with when they’re at their best, bright times look to be ahead for Valencia. They really are doing the majority of things right at the moment.
That makes a big change to what the club and its fans are used to because, for a very long time, Valencia’s biggest enemy was themselves. Financial mismanagement within, unsustainable investments – most notably on the attempt at building a new stadium – and thus a need to sell their best players almost tore them apart completely. These issues are slowly being pushed back into the past thanks to Peter Lim, as their ability to pay a hugely substantial fee for the brilliant Enzo Pérez (who had a magnificent debut in midfield vs. Real Madrid) to join this January shows: but they still remain their own worst nightmare.
Now, though, the situation is rather different – as it’s not off the pitch where they will be so, but on it. The biggest concern over unsustainability is their fitness for the rest of what is still a very long season. The style of the team, an exciting and dynamic group of players led by an excellent coach, is reliant on it, and burnout has to be looked at as a very real proposition. Avoid that, however, and Valencia are on course for a hugely defining and impressive season.