As an Evertonian, I was fascinated when Moyes went to Real Sociedad. The great Howard Kendall had enjoyed a wonderful spell in the Basque country, and Moyes seemed to start off comfortably enough. In Liverpool he won over the fans with his throwaway “People’s Club” comment, in San Sebastián all he had to do was eat some crisps.
It wasn’t to be a wildly successful stint for Moyes – he beat relegation and little else. But I kept an eye out for his results, if only because it took balls to take a job in Spain (and stay there) when Premier League clubs were calling. When Monday Night Football’s touch-screen savant Gary Neville was offered a Valencia job he had neither earned nor dreamt of, I was similarly impressed that he took the chance, but I felt even more intrigued – how could it be possible to learn on the job at a club of such magnitude?
Last night’s 7-0 massacre at the hands of Barcelona may prove to be Gary Neville’s Red Wedding moment, the young prince crowned too young and unprepared, fatally outmanoeuvred with murderous efficiency by his more experienced enemies. But at least Robb Stark won some battles along the way – what has Neville done? Valencia are winless in the league, and 14 points in 8 games off their results in the same games last season – almost 1.5 points per game lower than their previous pace. Nuno Espírito Santo led them to 10 fewer points in his 13 league fixtures compared to last season, 0.75 points per game off the pace. So you could argue things have got twice as bad under Neville, including elimination from the Champions League, and now the singular bright spot of the Copa del Rey all but extinguished.
Even before last night, it’s been slightly painful to watch at times – Neville wasn’t just an insightful pundit, he was also clear about what kind of football he might want a team under his tutelage to play, and who he hoped to emulate. He has made no secret of his admiration for Mauro Pochettino, and clearly hoped to emulate his high-pressure, high-energy approach. It’s possible there was a mix-up with the tapes though, because watching his first game against Lyon in the Champions League was that his team brought more to mind Pochettino’s predecessor André Villas-Boas – time and again they were caught high, as Lyon countered again and again, carving open the defence of one of England’s most capped defenders.
This can be forgiven – a style that relies on pressing high up the pitch takes time to develop, and Pochettino has been given that time at Tottenham. There is no doubt that’s it’s paying dividends, as pointed out by Colin Trainor recently:
It took a while to get there but it looks that Pochettino now has the Tottenham press going just the way he wants it
— Colin Trainor (@colinttrainor) January 24, 2016
But with Neville engaged in six month audition, and Valencia only five points clear of relegation at this stage, has he had any success in moulding his young squad in his image? What are the hallmarks of Neville’s time at Valencia?
- Is he defending high? Neville’s team are performing defensive actions less than 1% further up the pitch than Nuno’s (35.1% vs 34.4%) a difference which is nullified if you include the 2014 season.
- Is he pressing more? Valencia have gone from 5.2 passes per defensive action to 5.5 under Neville, indicating less pressing.
- Is their tempo higher? Attacking pace has gone from about 3.4m/s to 3.6 m/s.
- Has he perfected the wing play that Valencia want and expect from a Ferguson acolyte? Nope, same number of crosses per game on average (about 23), key passes slightly narrower if anything. He’s added a couple of successful dribbles per game, but having watched them, you’d expect that, as they rarely create any sort of overloads to offer a passing outlet.
I’ve watched them several times, and I’ll admit I am finding it hard to put a finger on what philosophy Neville has actually brought to Valencia. I asked on Twitter and nobody else seemed to have much of a clue either. Euan McTear wrote a decent piece looking at their numbers and some of Neville’s personnel changes, so I’m reluctant to go into much more depth in hope of finding answers, beyond the obvious fact that they’ve been a bit rubbish.
Rubbish but unlucky? On the face of it, expected goals doesn’t help the picture: I have them about -2.25 in expected goal difference during Neville’s stint, -0.95 under Nuno. However, it’s certainly fair to point out that Neville’s Valencia have been singularly unable to carve open a lead in the league, and perhaps this skews everything. To look into this, I ran 10,000 simulations of the shots from each of his games looking at the winner, but also the first scorer:
|Home||Away||Home Score||Away Score||Home xG||Away xG||Home Win %||Draw %||Away Win %||Home Scores 1st||Away Scores 1st|
|Valencia CF||Sporting de Gijón||0||1||2.07||1.26||56%||25%||19%||76%||23%|
|Deportivo de La Coruña||Valencia CF||1||1||0.62||0.77||36%||38%||26%||38%||39%|
|Valencia CF||Rayo Vallecano||2||2||1.14||1.72||25%||24%||51%||20%||76%|
|Real Sociedad||Valencia CF||2||0||2.88||0.95||79%||13%||8%||62%||36%|
|Valencia CF||Real Madrid||2||2||2.48||1.50||62%||20%||18%||43%||56%|
Note: the ‘score 1st’ columns don’t necessarily add up to 100% because of the possibility of nil-nil draws.
They conceded late – twice – to Real Sociedad, but deservedly so. They certainly could have beaten Real Madrid, the Villareal result seems cruel, and perhaps a better result against Getafe was possible. And then last weekend, the game against Sporting Gijón was notable mostly for Negredo’s series of increasingly spectacular misses.
You would have expected them to nip the first goal somewhere along the line here, and it’s possible at that point all sorts of counter-attacking preparation that we’ve never seen, cooked up on Neville’s iPads, would kick in. That not being the case, at the very least you could argue, as Neville has, that Valencia’s performances coming from behind show they still have some fight. They’re third in La Liga for points after trailing, albeit with no wins, but last night’s awful result undoes this entire narrative, barring unimaginable heroics in the second leg.
To me, it looks increasingly like his 6am Spanish lessons are only going to be useful in saying his goodbyes this Summer. Whether this proves to be a learning experience for him as a manager, or a big enough blow to his ego to send him back semi-permanently to punditry remains to be seen.