Gary Neville’s appointment as Valencia’s manager was one that came as a surprise for many. The decision was hailed as brave by some and foolhardy by others as he swapped the studio for the touchline. Chris Lincoln takes a look at his troubled start at the Mestalla and what he has to do to turn things around.
It is fair to assume that a few eyebrows were raised when England coach Gary Neville was appointed Valencia manager until the end of the season. Yet there are many links that helped the joint Salford City owner and former Manchester United right-back seal his position. His brother, Phil, had been working as Assistant Manager for the Spanish giants since the summer and fellow Salford City owner, billionaire Peter Lim, also has a stake in Los Che.
Gary Neville certainly knows his football. A multiple Premier League champion and Champions League winner who worked under one of the greatest managers of all time, the right-back combined coaching the England national team with running his experienced eye over many Premier League encounters as a Sky Sports pundit when he retired. Yet Neville has realised just how difficult life is in the hot seat of a top European football club.
The 40-year-old has seen his side win three, draw four and lose four in his opening eleven matches. All three victories occurred in Cup competitions, as Neville still seeks his first league win, with the club from the Mestalla sitting in 11th position with just 24 points from 20 league games. Valencia fans have been known as difficult to please, similar to those at Manchester United during Neville’s playing days, but the experienced former England international would not have experienced many hostile environments like he did when Valencia went into the break trailing Rayo Vallecano last Sunday.
Neville has tried to introduce his own ideas to the Valencia set up. Within days he had hired cranes to film training sessions at the Paterna training grounds, whilst also handing out iPads with tactical ideas to each player, funded from his own pocket. Known for his zest and passion for work, Neville regularly attends Spanish classes at 6 AM before training to close the language barriers.
As the likes of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal have realised at Neville’s former club Manchester United, it is hard to step into the shoes of a beloved manager who used to be at the helm of the club. Fans regularly chant the name of former managerial hero Rafa Benitez, a man that Neville will know from the Spaniard’s Liverpool days. The new manager has tried to stamp his authority on the side by trying various formations, including 4-3-3 and 5-3-2. In arguably Neville’s greatest achievement as a manager so far, a 2-2 draw with Real Madrid, the Englishman used a 4-5-1 formation that was set up to counter-attack, a tactic that was often utilised by his former manager Sir Alex Ferguson against top quality European teams.
Although Valencia are not blessed with the household names of the Rafa Benitez era, they still have plenty of quality. As Manchester United used to possess, Los Che have a handful of talented strikers in Spanish international Paco Alcacer, former Manchester City striker Alvaro Negredo and Algerian star Sofiane Feghouli. Supported by talented youngsters Santi Mina and Rodrigo de Paul, both not even 22 yet, goals have not been a problem for Valencia under Neville, netting 15 times in their last eight outings.
The free scoring strikers are not the only similarity to the Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United side that Neville made his name in. The Scotsman loved his box-to-box midfielders, such as Paul Scholes and Bryan Robson, and Neville has two in Danilo and Enzo Perez. Ferguson also liked to ensure that his defense had protection with an anchorman and Valencia have captain Dani Parejo, who speaks excellent English after a spell with QPR in 2008 and has formed a good relationship with Phil Neville. Gary even has a player that mirrors himself in the Valencia squad. Joao Cancelo loves to get forward and support attacks but is also a more than capable defender.
If Neville is to gain the support of the Mestalla fans, he will have to strengthen his defence who have conceded 13 goals in 11 matches, including three 2-2 draws. Goalkeeper Diego Alves returned from a severe torn cruciate just as Neville arrived, but the likes of Antonio Barragan, Shkodran Mustafi, Aymen Abdennour, Santos and Jose Gaya could learn plenty from their esteemed manager.
With just four points from six league games, it is currently looking difficult to see Gary Neville at the Mestalla Stadium after Euro 2016. The Englishman needs to settle on a formation quickly, strengthen his defence and pick up some important victories to get the fans on his side. One thing is for sure, Gary Neville will never give up on the first stage of his managerial adventure.
Written by Chris Lincoln