When striker Paco Alcacer celebrated his call-up to the latest Spain squad for the EURO 2016 qualifiers with Slovakia and Luxembourg, he did so by calling his Valencia team-mate Rodrigo to inform that he too had got in. It comes after a bright start to the season for the two young attackers who have helped to fire a still-unbeaten Valencia to second place after seven La Liga games.
There is a beaming optimism to life at the Mestalla under new coach Nuno Espirito Santo and the pre-season target of a return to the Champions League is becoming obtainable.
The 3-1 defeat of last season’s champions Atletico Madrid suggested the potential of the new-look Valencia and if they carry on in the same vein, it will not only be Rodrigo that Alcacer will have to call to congratulate among his club-mates when it comes to Spain call-ups. Midfield duo Dani Parejo and Javi Fuego have both started the season in excellent form, and so too has Jose Gaya, the 19 year old left-back who is the latest off the production line at Los Che.
WHO IS JOSE GAYA
Gaya was born locally in the town of Pedreguer, about an hour’s coastal drive away from Valencia, and was signed up to the club’s academy, which has produced the likes of Raul Albiol, Fransico Farinos and David Silva in the recent past, as an eleven-year old in 2006. Five years later, having already become a regular with Spain’s under-16 side, he made his senior debut with Valencia’s reserves in an away win at Andorra CF in the third division championship.
That would be his only appearance of that season and in the following year it took him a while to break regularly into the reserve side as he faced stiff competition for the left-back slot from Juan Bernat, now at Bayern Munich, and Salva Ruiz, a fellow 19 year old who is still playing for the club’s reserves. Gaya’s persistence wore off as he earned a consistent place in the side, often in a more advanced role as they also sought to accommodate Bernat.
Talent Radar Accolades:
In total he managed 65 appearances across two years for Valencia Mestalla but it was in 2012 where he began to make his name around the fringes of the senior side. After being called up initially by Mauricio Pellegrino for a league game with Celta in September, he had to wait until the following month for his first senior game, playing the full 90 minutes in a Copa Del Rey win at UE Llagostera.
That turned out to be his only first-team appearance of the season as he returned to the reserves, though he had impressed club officials enough to a new five year contract the following February. Gaya was still not yet 18 but his rise for Spain was proving to be even more rapid as played at every level from under-17 to under-20 in the 2012-13 campaign. He would then make the Spain under-20 World Cup squad in the summer.
Bernat, 2 years Gaya’s senior, meanwhile had begun to break into Valencia’s first-team, making 12 league appearances in 2012-13 before making 32 across the next campaign to consolidate him as Valencia’s first choice-left back. Though Gaya was handed 3 appearances in the Europa League as Juan Antonio Pizzi guided Los Che to the semi-finals of the competition, he had to wait until April 27th for his La Liga debut, playing the full game in a 0-1 loss to eventual champions Atletico.
Then came the long-awaited breakthrough. With Bernat making a summer move to Bayern Munich and Pizzi making way for Nuno Santo at managerial level, there was a chance to prove himself to a new era that had swept in at the Mestalla.
Given a first-team opportunity from the word-go he was part of Santo’s Valencia team throughout pre-season, netting the first goal in a 3-1 win over Benfica in the Emirates Cup before impressing in the friendly with Manchester United at Old Trafford. After convincing Santo, he has started all of Valencia’s 7 games for far this season, marking a fairy-tale introduction to first-team football by netting his first La Liga goal with the teams’ second in the 3-0 win over Cordoba.
Jose Gaya has already raised expectations at Outside of the Boot, being named at #2 in our list of defenders as part of our 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2015 and winning the ‘Defender of the Season’ at our Talent Radar Awards 2015 along with being named in the Team of the Season. The Valencia full-back was also voted as the Youngster of the Season by Outside of the Boot’s readers at the 2014-15 End of Season La Liga awards and was also named in the 2014-15 La Liga U-22 Team of the Season..
Gaya also featured in our list of 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2016.
STYLE OF PLAY, STRENGTHS, AND WEAKNESSES
What has been key to Gaya inheriting the left-back berth from Bernat has been the attacking traits he has shown to be akin to his predecessor. With Bernat often venturing so far forward he could have been mistaken for a winger, the same has been true of Gaya who is given licence to push forward and overlap Pablo Piatti, the Argentine attacking midfielder who is encouraged to cut in from the left in Santo’s 4-2-3-1 system.
Santo has been a huge advocate of his full-backs going forward, with Antonio Barragan, the former Liverpool right-back who is enjoying a renaissance under the new manager, also liberated on the opposite side. Key to this is the defensive discipline of Javi Fuego, the midfield enforcer who drops back into a defensive 3 when Valencia have position, allowing for Gaya to play more as a wing-back with a greater focus on getting into more attacking positions.
It allows for Valencia’s attack to look fearsome when he joins Piatti, Rodrigo and Parejo as creative influences and his attacking statistics coming from the left are impressive. Only Rodrigo, Alcacer and winger Sofiane Feghouli have created more chances than Gaya’s 5 so far while his 9 successful dribbles at a rate of 1.3 per game is only bettered by Andre Gomes and Parejo.
It all portrays a full-back keen and adept at charging forward with the ball and the opposition is worried about it too, only Parejo and Piatti have been fouled more times than Gaya. To further indicate his comfort on the ball, his range of passing has been superb with an 86% completion rate so far, misplacing just 14 of 191 attempted passes. His crossing can also be dangerous, though it has only led to a single assist so far.
At the risk of being caught out of position going forward Gaya’s electric pace can rescue him in a defensive sense, though he is solid enough as a full-back, making the most amount of tackles in the Valencia squad so far with 22 and making 17 interceptions, a figure bettered only by Javi Fuego. His tally of 18 fouls conceded shows he is not afraid to make a challenge and there is a clear reluctance to be beaten by his opponent; he has been successfully taken on just once in the seven games he has played so far this season. Just don’t expect him to win an aerial battle against a physical winger, standing at a slight 5ft 7 inches, he struggles in the air against stronger players.
All of the qualities you expect of a modern full-back are the qualities that Gaya performs well, though there will be a view from his manager from Santo that work will be required on an over-zealousness in the tackle, which gives too many free-kicks away, and the recklessness which reared its head in the win over Atletico where he presented the visitors with a penalty with a needless handball.
Still, he held his own throughout the contest and again stood out against testing opponents, and if he continues the exemplary form with which he’s started his senior Valencia career, then it won’t be too long before he’s being considered as the next Los Che left-back, after Bernat and Jordi Alba before him, to be capped for Spain.
Written by Adam Gray
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