By Karl Matchett.
While Nuno parting company with Valencia was one of the more expected outcomes of the current season, the appointment of Gary Neville as head coach to replace him was perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the campaign.
The former Manchester United right-back, respected though he is in the sport after excelling as an international player and then a diligent, insightful and well-spoken analyst, has no top-flight coaching experience at a club-although is assistant with the England national team-and is diving head-first into a new league, a new language and a new culture. Undoubtedly he will be helped to thrive by being surrounded by familiar faces and those who are affording him the opportunity to take the job in the first place, but as much as Neville remarked his "credibility would have been on the line" if he didn't take the role, so too will it now that he is the manager.
Valencia have struggled with inconsistency throughout the season, both in terms of results and team selection, while the dual defensive loss over summer of Nicolas Otamendi (sold) and Diego Alves (long-term knee injury) has played a heavy part. Perhaps the biggest downfall of Nuno this season though, aside from not having a regular goalscorer to call upon, has been his failure to adequately shape the midfield to provide the balance between offence and defence it provided last term.Â
The run to fourth place in La Liga was exciting and relentless in the end, with Pablo Piatti and Sofiane Feghouli manning the flanks with work rate, skill and a huge amount of creativity. Infield of them, Dani
Parejo patrolled and schemed, Javi Fuego was a tenacious menace protecting the defence and Andre Gomes or Enzo Perez played the part of the link midfielder according to need.
This year, by contrast, has been a mess.
All sorts of combinations have been tried, tested and quickly discarded, both in central partnerships and with different options supporting the attack. Precocious youngsters Santi Mina and Zakaria Bakkali have thrived in spells and struggled in others, with Feghouli and Piatti unable to establish a run in the team due to injury and bizarre non-selection by the former boss.
A double-pivot, a flat four and every other combination was tried by Nuno, as he failed to find the balance between protecting his damaged back line and his supporting the broken attack. Five wins from 14 Liga games tells its own story, while Champions League qualification for the knock-out phase this year is also out of Neville's hands now.
In something of a win-win situation, all the new manager can hope to do in the immediate term is shape the team well enough to beat Olympique Lyonnais on Wednesday. If they manage that, they will finish second-unless Gent beat Zenit. There's little Neville can do about that, and even if his own side don't do their part, it's tough to criticise a new manager for that failure when he has only officially been in the job for three days.
European progress aside, Los Che need to become more resilient, far harder to break down, while also finding a way to create more chances. In the last 10 games they have kept just a single clean sheet, against 19th-placed club Levante, while in the same period failing to score on three separate occasions.
It's impossible to guess how Neville might set his side up, but a slight variation on 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 seems most likely given the influences on his own playing career, Valencia's tendencies over the past season and the England international set-up. A big decision to take will be immediately visible when onlookers note if Alvaro Negredo-ostracised by Nuno and without a first-team appearance since early October-is included in the early squads. The former Manchester City striker hasn't been anything like prolific or a key player for Valencia, but he does have enough of a presence to, in the short term at least, provide an outlet and a hold-up point of reference to let a potentially reshaped midfield get forward in support.
Whichever system he goes for, the central arrangement and selection of players will be crucial to improving the on-field fortunes over the rest of this season. Five points off fourth place, with Sevilla similarly struggling for consistency and Celta Vigo-impressive on the eye, not so much in defence-a quick start for Neville could easily see his new club surge up the table and into the race for Europe.
The stage is set for one of Europe's most anticipated arrivals to make a big splash in his first job. For it to go as well as he hopes, whether for this six months or over a longer period, getting the middle third into shape and balance has to be his initial top priority.