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Tactical Philosophy: Nuno Espirito Santo

While this website has made its name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. In this piece, Hamoudi Fayad studies the eccentric manager who is leading Valencia, Nuno Espirito Santo.


The whistle is blown. The stadium erupts. The gentleman jumps into the air, fist pumping, before passionately embracing his assistant. The bald, bronze-skinned tactician pointed at the fans with his utmost passion. His actions resembled a thanking feeling, appreciation for the moments of success, a token of unity and respect between himself and the Valencianistes. The feeling is grasped – the glory days are slowly returning to the fierce and vociferous Mestalla, an arena now overwhelmed by the overzealous enthusiasm generated through the voices of more than 50,000 fiery supporters.

The wrath of Real Madrid has worn out, with Isco’s downhearted face the epitome of their reception towards a masterclass.

July 4th, 2014

“It was a bad idea to get rid of Pizzi before the transfer window” mentioned a displeased Paco, before wishing good luck to Nuno. Another fan calmly highlighted the fact that Valencia never “learnt from their mistake”. Jorge Mendes’s – world football’s best agent – shenanigans, were up to no good once again, of course; if we take the Valencianista perspective at the time. “You have committed an injustice with Pizzi, not before you bowed down before Mendes”, claimed a disappointed supporter. A couple of more opinions, posing the question: “Who is, Nuno Espirito Santo?”

Nuno Santo 2015

The enigmatic character to save Valencia, the renowned underdogs of the early 21st century from deleterious downfall is Nuno Espirito Santo. More than 20 points separated Los Che and the infamous competition that saw their very own demise in two consecutive finals. The gentleman, with an almost perfectly trimmed grayish beard hails from the Portuguese-speaking archipelago of Sao Tome and Principe. Little did the Valencia faithful, in fact Spanish La Liga fan base, know what type of wave was about to hit them.

Standing at 1.88m tall, with a bulky chest – well formed since his retirement as a largely backup journeyman goalkeeper in Portugal – his eyes signalled passion and vigour. His body movement sent a message no different, with his debut match signifying his enthusiasm as Lucas Orban scored Valencia’s maiden league goal under Nuno; a late equaliser against Sevilla.

“Our football will be organized, balanced and with fight, Nuno claimed to the press on his first day out. An indifferent stint at Rio Ave backed up by a Taca De Portugal Final appearance – thus qualifying for the 2014-15 Europa League – saw hipsters alike praise the action taken by Valencia’s new board of directors headed by Singaporean businessman Peter Lim. Nuno disclosed his thoughts on more sophisticated issues that wouldn’t be solved swiftly: the fans. “The fans will be proud. I believe in people.

It is no mere coincidence that Sao Tome and Principe’s motto is “Unity, Discipline and Hard Work”, revealing the embodiment of Nuno’s philosophy to be applied at the Valencia that led to the ultimate goal: “…the Champions League, and I am convinced we will be there. Jorge Mendes may have well just discovered another star in the making.

Tactical Philosophy

Shape – How does Nuno set his team out?

Versatility: Nuno Santo sets up his starting XI with either of these 5 shapes [4-2-3-1; 4-3-3; 4-4-2; 3-5-2; 4-1-3-2 – the latter used for a single game] based on availability, suitability and capability. “The versatility of the squad can help us achieve what we want, assured Nuno after the historic defeat of Real Madrid at the Mestalla.

For clarification, the 3-5-2 was brought in for a couple of games against Eibar and Real Madrid (and a set of other games in the Copa Del Rey) possibly looking at accommodating the incoming quality in the form of Enzo Perez. However, with Jose Gaya’s suspension and Nuno’s reluctance to play Lucas Orban as a wing back due to Piatti’s month-long injury, Valencia were (in essence) forced to shuffle with the tactical system. I say in essence due to the fact that Valencia’s supporters were baffled with the amount of tactical changes seen under Nuno; equalling to five (and more, in-game) different systems of play in the space of 23 games. “Nuno has not opted for any scheme [shape], but it is not considered important. It is the style. According to him, the only thing that keeps you alive in the game is the level of play no matter the distribution of players on the pitch, claimed a writer from before adding a phrase from Nuno emphasising that the “level of play is the most important”.

Moving onto the 3-5-2: the contrast in quality between the teams just mentioned is vast, therefore we will begin the investigation of Nuno’s train of thought through games and decisions akin to these. In Eibar, you have an ambitious team from the autonomous Basque county punching above their weight while in Real Madrid, you have the most successful European team who were then on a 22-game win streak.

A gritty, hard-fought 1-0 win led by a Derek Boateng mistake signalled the end of the game regardless of the time on the clock. Eibar had just over an hour to balance the outcome however with a team performance provided by the newly-shaped Valencia defence and a regular hard-working, tenacious job up front from Sofiane Feghouli and Paco Alcacer, Valencia didn’t need to worry. Up next, Real Madrid. Nuno opted for the now sacrosanct 3-5-2 with Enzo Perez superseding the promising Rodrigo De Paul. Andre Gomes, Valencia’s prime creative outlet moved into the role behind the strikers whereas Perez partnered Javi Fuego.


3-5-2 On-Ball Dynamics 

Valencia build up play through Otamendi, the central defender in the back 3. Perez sticks to his left, offering an option and keeping a 2nd line overload as the attacking 3 of Real Madrid (Bale, Ronaldo, Benzema) specifically the wingers, stuck to their opposing centre back.


In this situation, Otamendi is bereft of passing options. Ronaldo positions himself intelligently, preventing a pass towards Dani Parejo. Perez’s positioning in this situation did no good, as Benzema blocked the possibility for any connection to occur. A possible reply to this would be for Perez to drop deeper, vacate the space and allow Andre Gomes to receive in between the lines. In Chess, this is called a discovered attack where you move your own piece out of the way in preparation for an attack on the opposing piece positioned on the matching file. Nevertheless, the versatility of this Valencia team was perceptible in 1) Otamendi’s long passing ability 2) Negredo/Alcacer’s aerial ability 3) Negredo/Alcacer’s capability to link up and receive the ball with their back to goal.


In another such attack, Alcacer won the header off of Otamendi’s pass, ultimately losing out on the lose ball to Pepe. Valencia are hit on the counter attack, with counter pressing from the nearest 3 on Pepe (Alcacer, Gomes, Gaya) however he was able to bypass the press with a ball in to Bale, who enjoyed qualitative superiority over Orban. Valencia re-shape with a back 4, Perez dropping into the defensive line but showing the merits of such a high-risk tactic (Valencia’s wing backs acted as wingers as shown above) where Enzo Perez could proactively press the ball-carrier while having 3 defenders to provide support.

The post-Perez situation sees Dani Parejo drop slowly into the RCB zone to prevent Benzema making a run in behind as Otamendi characteristically presses Ronaldo on the ball. Mustafi moves behind him and the back 3 shape is kept intact.

Valencia’s ability to play through the central midfield trio of Gomes, Perez and Dani Parejo coupled with the energy of Barragan and the technical ability of Gaya/Piatti is an indicator of their universal capabilities. Thus, looking at Nuno’s philosophy merely from an on-ball sense from their 3-5-2 shape, brings us to the conclusion that there are varied ways of play through direct passes from the back 3, lung-bustling runs from the wing-backs, circulating ability of Perez and Parejo with the final ball provided by the promising creative outlet Andre Gomes.

Andre Gomes slips in a through ball to Dani Parejo, who’s lack of pace hinders his ability to receive the ball in space.

Andre Gomes slips in a through ball to Dani Parejo, who’s lack of pace hinders his ability to receive the ball in space.

4-?-? On-Ball Dynamics

At Valencia, we see that the central midfielders are the players who drop to the half way line off the ball. This is due to Gaya and Barragan positioning themselves in the zone where wingers usually operate in, much closer to the touchline. Javi Fuego, the reliable anchor man, usually drops in to aid in circulation and build-up.

From here, as mentioned earlier, Valencia can either use their circulation ability or long passing through Otamendi – 4.9 long balls a game on average – (Ruben Vezo is adept on the ball, too) whilst the central midfielders – Andre Gomes and Dani Parejo – are creative too, and are the key to getting the ball through to the wide players. Gaya and Barragan are versatile, the former being the better out of the two at the mere age of 20. Meanwhile Pablo Piatti also known as “Messi de la Plata” is a technically efficient winger and Rodrigo a powerful inside forward.

Form #1 of Attacking – Crossing

Gaya is proficient in this aspect, with 83% (5/6) of his assists coming from crosses. The technique he places on his crosses is different to many other full backs. Gaya possesses a knack of curling his cross, a decoy as his accuracy while curving the ball is an example of efficient crossing – the irony there being that crosses are one of the most inefficient uses of the ball in football.

Once the ball curves on the outside, the striker can get on the end of it by positioning himself – something Negredo does well – in the centre of the box or at the far post. Gaya can alternate with his crosses too, adding dip to their landing thus feigning the opposition.

This is a top example of a strong aspect from Nuno’s strategy, as he makes use of the wings extremely well. Feghouli, Piatti and Barragan aid in this section too.

Form #2 – Combination Play

Dani Parejo is the man here. Almost always involved in these situations, he is the main man for Valencia in the centre because he brings what Javi Fuego (defensive work) and Andre Gomes (creativity) together, to a lesser extent. His long shots are a brilliant asset towards Nuno’s teams’ ability to break down the tight defences in the La Liga.

As mentioned before, most of Valencia’s play comes down the wings:


This, once again, moves in Nuno’s favour. On the flanks, you only have a 180-degree turning possibility compared to 360 in the half space or the center. 1) Use of the flanks suggests that Nuno’s players are effective in tight spaces 2) The image above counts the half spaces as the flank, therefore the half space is also a key factor in Valencia’s attacking. Breaking all vertical and horizontal lines, as shown in the picture of Negredo receiving in that area against Real Madrid.

Parejo Combination play goal:

Here is the combination Valencia create on the flanks, especially the left:

Piatti moves towards the ball consequently dragging a player into the centre leading to Gaya preparing for a run while Parejo is there for support.

Piatti moves towards the ball consequently dragging a player into the centre leading to Gaya preparing for a run while Parejo is there for support.

Parejo receives the ball and plays it in the channel to Gaya, who receives it in space. The referee brings the move to an end as Piatti is fouled.

Parejo receives the ball and plays it in the channel to Gaya, who receives it in space. The referee brings the move to an end as Piatti is fouled.


The first photo is another indicator of Valencia’s long ball ability, as Paco Alcacer draws Miranda – who was on the end of a poor game after Nuno targeted him specifically – out, jumping for the header yet missing out on it. Andre Gomes is seen drifting into the space behind it, and the photo to the right is a blurry image of Alcacer receiving and back-heeling the ball into Andre Gomes’ way who easily dribbles past and scores. Various aspects of Valencia’s attacking play.

It is important to take note of the fact that it was Miranda who scored the own goal when Valencia targeted him for the first goal (through a long ball at the goalkeeper who was tricked by Piatti’s run) and the third goal was scored from a corner kick by Otamendi.

Form #3 – Counter Attack


Valencia win the ball in the half space, counter attack, only for Alcacer to hit the post (twice) and lose a goalscoring chance!

Another situation where they press to win the ball back, counter attack and the ball is switched to the center; to no avail.

Another situation where they press to win the ball back, counter attack and the ball is switched to the center; to no avail.


“The midfielders always pressure,” Nuno said. “I want the team to always attack.”

“Knowing how to defend goes hand in hand with attacking more quickly and more often. Where you retrieve the ball on the pitch, it can give you an advantage and you have to challenge, fight and play your heart out because there’s no tomorrow in football. Nothing pleases us more than winning,” and in the previous chapter we saw how Valencia’s astute defending led to counter attacking options that could have very well resulted in goals.

Non-Transitional Pressing – Closing Down


Valencia zonally mark across the pitch, using a man-oriented form of pressing. This encourages cover shadowing – which Alcacer is effectively doing by blocking the main man, Kroos. Kroos, a vital card in Madrid’s build-up and penetration is not being man marked, however, watched and in short access distance to a number of Valencia players. If Kroos takes control of the ball, 5 players are in the vicinity to press him. Valencia’s pressing leads to this:


Casillas plays a long ball with no one able to receive without being subject to a hoard of pressure. Notice the role of the wing backs, who occupy the opposing full backs.

Non-Transitional Pressing – Passiveness

Valencia’s starting 11 weren’t permanently induced to press the opposition vociferously, they sat back with a structured shape looking to win the ball in certain areas as mentioned in the counter attacking chapter against Sevilla. They forced Sevilla out wide or into the half space, where they are confident of winning the ball with relative ease. A weakness that occurs, to be highlighted in more detail later on, is the channels.

No pressing whatsoever but the heart of the pitch is protected

No pressing whatsoever but the heart of the pitch is protected

The same situation occurs once again, with the “joker” Javi Fuego seen in between Valencia’s lines taking care of Denis Suarez.

The same situation occurs once again, with the “joker” Javi Fuego seen in between Valencia’s lines taking care of Denis Suarez.

Transitional Pressing – Counter pressing


Valencia counter press with the man who lost the ball directly opposing the ball carrier with his teammates positioning themselves accordingly to block any short passes. Feghouli (out of screen) blocks the pass to the man on the top right of the screen, leading to a clearance from Elche.


The first game of the season saw counter pressing too, however it was obvious the team was still getting used to the reign of Nuno. Counter pressing by 3 players hoarding the man on the ball albeit giving him open spaces and more than a couple of options to pass to.


Space behind full backs


In the image above, we can see the full backs’ tendencies to venture towards the final zones onto the pitch due to a lack of wingers.


This came with it’s flaws, where Valencia conceded the first goal due to a number of frailties in different zones – a result of Nuno’s sudden change to a different system of play. Barragan (RB) is extremely high up the pitch that he just encompasses the halfway line as Wellington, Almeria’s left winger, enters Barragan’s zone. The ideal image for a winger coming up 1v1 against the opposing full back is to find an empty block of space. Meanwhile onrushing midfielders Dani Parejo and Enzo Perez signal to Otamendi (CB) to move out to right back – unneeded with Otamendi’s propensity to charge if sufficient cover is found – as they protect the central channel to no avail; Almeria equalise.

Stale in central creativity

Nuno said it himself “We lacked being a little smarter and controlling the ball a little better. We need to be constant as with the score at 1-0 there was tension that didn’t allow us to control the game.”

Valencia’s rigidity in the centre of the pitch is visible occasionally, with Javi Fuego for example providing circulation and defensive awareness, Dani Parejo the drive and verticality and Andre Gomes the creative tenacity. This, however, is set back by the lack of penetration offered in the centre of the pitch as opposed to the flanks. Jose Gaya and Pablo Piatti both combine on the left flank and they have provided much more in the sense of attacking verve than the central trio have at times.


Andre Gomes’ inexperience comes at the hand of a goal, as his backwards pass is weak and poorly executed. This leads to Valencia’s defenders on the back foot, with their proactivity originating as a regular trait of their pressing. A 3v1 overload with no sense of positional awareness leads to the Eibar winger on the opposite side being on the end of a 3rd line pass, beating Diego Alves in the process with an incisive shot.

Paco Alcacer was also a victim of this, with his often confusing movements and passivity during games a big factor of the lack of central thrust from Valencia. This changed when Negredo played, with his figure and technical ability helping.


No to ‘Todocampismo’, a phrase muttered by Valencia fans during their time of suffering on bad form. This phrase relates to versatility, and while Nuno did showcase his versatility he went over the board with this situation and decided to use a variety (5 as mentioned before) of shapes to satisfy different needs. Adaptability could have been one of the reasons, as to penetrate different zones of the field and different weaknesses of the opposition you do need to vary your approach. A 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 differ (in base positions), with a central attacking midfielder being available in the hole. However, a better way to have accommodated this is the continous fluid movement in-game rather than a number of different shapes.


A subject I touched upon in the previous sections. Otamendi and Mustafi are brilliant, vocal and powerful defenders with their partnership being a focal point in the success of Valencia in their maiden season under Nuno. Nevertheless, like everyone, they come with their weaknesses.

Their propensity to move out of their areas to press without looking at sufficient cover is a vital aspect that stems from individual and tactical deficiency. In the game against Real Madrid, I looked at how Enzo Perez seamlessly drops into the back line while returning to press, with a  similar action happening with Otamendi, teaming up with Dani Parejo dropping into cover, while pressing Cristiano Ronaldo who attacks from an angle.

Regularly, we have seen the downfall of Valencia come from these situations. Although Nuno claims that “You have to suffer to get results. Winning without suffering is impossible,” he also mentioned the fact that “Our obligation is to keep enhancing ourselves and not to lose any of the signs of our identity; which is our solidarity, communication, maintaining our order and discipline.”

This points to an individual weakness more so than a tactical weakness. Is this something for Nuno to touch on in preparation for the 2015/16 season?

Key Players developed

Jose Gaya

A superb attacking full back who had the task of following in the steps of Juan Bernat who performed excellently the previous season and made the move to Bayern Munich. He did impress; wowing crowds with his crossing, link-up play and speed. He was a much better player in both phases compared to his teammate and right-back Antonio Barragan (who in fact provided solid performances across the season) and will no doubt become a Valencia fan favourite should he stay at the club.

Nicolas Otamendi

A proactive and intelligent defender, Nicolas Otamendi is one of the world’s most in-demand players at the time of writing. He has a brilliant header (that helped Valencia defeat both Madrid-based teams) and a proficient partnership formed with Shkodran Mustafi, Valencia are going to miss out on his performances next season.

Dani Parejo

A possible controversial pick due to Paco Alcacer’s omission from my list, but Parejo was superb as a technically proficient box to box midfielder. A confident set piece taker, strong and not easily knocked off the ball with a brilliant long shot on him. An unheralded player with years of leadership to come.

Nuno highlights that “It’s all thanks to the labour of the players and our only function as coaches, is to help them realise the maximum potential of what they can achieve.”

Three games that defined his career

Valencia 2-1 Real Madrid

The streak was over, 22-1. Valencia went down to none other than a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty before a tactful performance with the new addition of the 3-5-2 led them to glory.

 Valencia 3-1 Atletico Madrid

 Nullifying the champions very early in the season with 3 early goals verified Valencia’s title as the underdogs, as well as the team to beat at that point. An early breeze within the first 15 minutes furthered them from any sort of come back, and they demolished a psychologically powerful side.

 Rio Ave 2-0 Braga

The semi-final 2nd leg victory in the Taca de Portugal ensured Europa League status for Rio Ave the next season, a mark of achievement despite their loss to Portuguese giants Benfica in the Final.


“I don’t think about any criticism, which I respect and understand are part of this profession. I focus on my job, which is to extract the best of every player in order to help the team. We have never lost the motivation to win. I expect solidarity, commitment and cooperation.”

“Nuno has worked hard to bring supporters on board. At the end of the game, he takes his players to the middle of the field to applaud them.”

These quotes define Nuno. A man who hails from a country with a motto that looks to involve all, work through teamwork and unity, appreciating everything despite the failures that occur from time to time.

An enigma, yet a genius. With a year under his watch as a Valencianista it will be interesting to see how he sets his team out come the opening week of the season. He also has the Champions League to look forward to, with a potential tie against Ajax, Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen or Monaco in the Champions League play-off round.

The arrival of Maty Ryan as back up ‘keeper, Zakaria Bakkali as a promising youngster and Danilo in central midfield as another option – things are looking bright for Valencia under Nuno Espirito Santo.


Andre Villas Boas 2015 (1)


Phillip Cocu 2015



Hamoudi Fayad

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