When Rodrigo was put through on goal and slipped past Marc-Andre Ter Stegen to score, he knew what he had in mind. As his teammates sprinted after him ecstatically, the Valencia striker grasped a curly orange wig given to him by a ball boy and placed it on his head. His celebration was more than just a typical gesture – it was dedicated to former Valencia president Jaume Orti, who passed away on Friday after a lengthy battle with lung cancer.
The orange wig had its origins in 1971, made by supporters to mark Valencia’s title win that year. 31 years on, Orti wore one when they reclaimed La Liga and did so again two years later when Rafa Benitez was in charge. The sadness of last weekend’s events has coincided with Los Che’s best ever start to a campaign and Rodrigo’s gesture not only could be interpreted as a tribute to the past but also as beacon of hope for the future.
12 weeks into the season, Valencia remain unbeaten and lie second in the La Liga table four points behind Barcelona. On Sunday, they went toe-to-toe with the leaders and emerged with a point and much credit. After many years of underperformance and mismanagement and consecutive finishes of 12th, supporters are now starting to dream of a return to the Champions League and maybe even more.
The key factor in Valencia’s revival is Marcelino. Sometimes a coach’s influence can be overemphasised, but in this instance their upturn in fortunes is largely a consequence of his appointment in the summer. The 52 year-old has long since been earmarked as one of Spain’s best coaching talents. He took Recreativo from the second division to eight in the top flight, won promotion with Real Zaragoza and delivered Racing Santander’s best ever finish. He had three brilliant years at Villarreal, where he led them to a top four finish and a Europa League semi-final. Just days before the 2016/17 season though he was sacked after a dispute with the board.
When he dived out of the yellow submarine, many put him in the frame as Vicente Del Bosque’s successor with the national team, so it was perhaps a surprise to see him take the helm at a club in such obvious turmoil. That calculated risk has worked so far and he has transformed the club from top to bottom.
One of the major aspects Marcelino has changed is the dietary habits of his players. Every detail is controlled, with tests conducted daily and their weight pinned upon notice boards. If a player’s body fat index goes over 9.5, he doesn’t play. Gabriel – the defender who played under him at Villarreal and followed him to the Mestalla from Arsenal in the summer – revealed that he initially felt the manager was a pain to deal with, but soon recognised how beneficial his methods were.
On the pitch, he has improved them in almost every area. Having conceded 65 goals last season, they are now far more capable defensively. In an attacking sense, they’re vastly superior as well. They’ve scored 33 times, which is nine more than the much vaunted Real Madrid attack and only Barcelona are ahead of them. Simone Zaza – the Italian striker who freely admitted that his spell at West Ham was a disaster – is reborn and has 9 in 11 games.
Much of Valencia’s upturn has its roots in the summer, the quality of their recruitment and also cleaning out deadwood. Diego Alves, Alvaro Negredo and Enzo Perez were among sixteen players sold, but they’ve also retained key figures. Captain Dani Parejo wanted to leave but Marcelino convinced him to stay. “From the very first session, I could sense something different,” Parejo said. “I don’t know, something. Not just him, all of his staff. The way we trained, the way they saw football, the way they worked, prepared games. It really struck me. And I said to myself: ‘I can’t waste a year of my career not working with this coach.”’
Marcelino was afforded control over who signings and brought in a collection of players with points to prove. Geoffrey Kondogbia struggled to make an impact at Inter Milan, while Neto was nothing more than Gigi Buffon’s understudy for two years. In Goncalo Guedes, they arguably made the signing of the summer in Spain. The Portuguese winger was heralded as a future superstar when first joining Paris-Saint Germain, but saw his opportunities diminished after Neymar made the switch to the French capital. So he took his talents to La Liga and has quickly established himself as the creative fulcrum in Valencia’s side. It appears that PSG have hindered Barcelona in more ways than one.
At board level it’s all change as well. They appointed a new president (Anil Murthy) and a new general director (former Real Mallorca president Mateu Alemany), while work on the new Mestalla finally looks as if it will reconvene after eight years lying dormant.
The main question now centres on whether Valencia can continue in this vein and sustain a title challenge. They’re in a similar scenario to Chelsea and Liverpool in the Premier League last year, in as much as they’d love to be dining at Champions League’s top table, the lack of European football at the moment plays into their hands. With one game a week, they have ample time to recover and prepare. Things may will invariably take a tougher turn at some point, but for now, supporters are dreaming of more days wearing fluffy orange wigs.