This year the big query was: will Juan Mata stay? Up until last week it seemed like he would, with the season nearly here and a series of staunch ‘no sale’ comments made by club president, Manual Lorente, it looked like the team’s most prized asset would still be plying his trade at Estadio Mestalla for at least another year. But the enormity of Chelsea’s offer and the persuasiveness of Fernando Torres’ text-based sales pitch were enough to seal the deal.
Like last year, after the departure of the two Davids, Villa and Silva, Los Che fans will have to get used to life without their greatest talent. And like David Silva before him, Mata was the conduit for a large proportion of all Valencia’s attacking play – nestled among Mesut Ozil and Lionel Messi at the top of the assists chart. In a team that’s desperate to bridge the gap between La Liga’s second tier and the big guns, Barcelona and Real Madrid, the loss of such a player could be seen as terminal – the predictable fate of a selling club with massive debts.
But Valencianistas needn’t be downhearted, due to the foresight of their manager Unai Emery – the man with the numerous plans. Now entering his fourth season, it’s become apparent to anyone with an eye on the club that Emery is nothing if not prepared. He is constantly amending his team. The 3-4-3 – used most prominently against Villarreal – and the two left-backs picked to stifle Dani Alves away at Barcelona are a testament to his adaptive thinking, and that’s a theme which has filtered into his transfer dealings. Slowly, but surely, the man from Hondarribia has been building a squad which can compete – in the very least one which has cemented its place in the top four.
That’s why Emery prepared for Mata’s loss, even if he secretly hoped to keep him, with the two year loan deal which brought Sergio Canales to Spain’s east coast. A player who announced himself with two fine individual goals against Sevilla while at Racing Santander, Canales has seen his career stall since a move to Real Madrid last season – his inexperienced talent struggling to find game time in a team filled with established footballing giants. But at Valencia, especially in the absence of Mata, he will be given the platform to shine – with early reports suggesting that the ‘free role’ belongs to him.
Football Manager sensation Pablo Piatti has also arrived from Almeria, but will face stiff competition for a left sided berth due to the rapid emergence of Juan Bernat. Direct, yet unrefined, Bernat has ounces of tenacity, and looks set to make an impact this season if Emery can continue to smooth out his rough edges. His development might also be matched by Paco Alcácer – a star of numerous Spanish youth teams, who’s also been prolific for Valencia B. Even at 17, he could provide genuine competition for Roberto Soldado and Aritz Aduriz up front.
This could prove to be a definitive season for number 19, Pablo Hernandez, too. He was perhaps the greatest victim of Emery’s squad rotation policy last season and his form seemed to suffer as a result, but with his nearest rival, Joaquin, departing for Malaga, he should be able to cement his place on the right of midfield.
There is plenty of competition for places in the centre, with Ever Banega, Mehmet Topal, David Albelda, Tino Costa, auxiliary centre-back Hedwiges Maduro, Sofiane Feghouli and new signing Dani Parejo all vying for two or three starting spots. Several combinations have been tested in summer friendlies, continuing the precedent set last season for a rapid turnover of personnel. It’s an area where Emery might be well advised to resist his natural inclination to tinker, though, as the best sides – most notably the Barcelona of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets – boast consistency of selection at the spine of their team.
Mata’s exit, and the money potentially garnered from it, had increased hopes that the traditionally creaky defence would be strengthened before the transfer window closes. Jordi Alba and Jeremy Mathieu provide sound cover at left-back, and new signing Adil Rami has displayed an impressive range of passing during pre-season, but another centre-back and right-back are required.
Such quibbles are minor, but an important consideration for a team looking to put a dent in the gap between themselves and second place – which in the last two seasons has been 25 points and 21 points, respectively. Without the financial resources of their larger cousins, Valencia, and Emery, are restricted to buying cheap, emerging, players who will develop along with the club. That’s why immediate success might not be forthcoming for Los Che, because consolidation and revival have been the key themes since the reign of former president Juan Soler ended.
Suffice to say, the constant exodus of World Cup winning talent from Els Taronja isn’t as depressing for Valencianistas as one might envisage. The squad is broad and tactically flexible, and there’s an exciting crop of young talent contained within. Patience is hence forced upon the Valencia fan, but after a period of uncertainty, when the very existence of the club itself was threatened and its debt topped 500 million Euros, it must be comforting to know they are steadily being guided in the right direction.
By Daniel Hill
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona