Valencia’s La Liga Decline Might Not Have Bottomed Out
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Three years ago on Thursday, Valencia beat Deportivo La Coruna 2-1 to remain third in the table at the midway point of the La Liga campaign. A title tilt looked unlikely – they trailed leaders Barcelona by 11 points – but Valencia was right in the mix for a top-two finish. In the end, they dropped to fourth place, but that was enough for Champions League qualification. One of the biggest clubs in Spain was in its rightful place, according to its supporters; namely, among La Liga’s leading quartet.
January 2018 feels like a long time ago for everyone, but particularly for fans of Valencia. These days those supporters are looking down the table in fear rather than up it in optimism. Los Che might have beaten Real Valladolid at the weekend, but that was their first triumph in nine games and they remain just three points above the relegation zone.
Only Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, and Athletic Club have won more Spanish championships than Valencia. Only Barcelona, Madrid, Atletico, and Real Betis have larger stadiums. Valencia is the fourth-most supported club in the country and has a prolific academy. They should not, in other words, be involved in a relegation battle. Yet with each passing week, and notwithstanding Sunday’s last-gasp win, that looks like it might just be their fate for this season.
Trouble Had Been Brewing off the Pitch at Valencia for Some Time
It is incongruous to see Valencia at the wrong end of the table, but it was relatively easy to see this coming. In the summer the club sold several key players, including Ferran Torres, Francis Coquelin, Rodrigo Moreno, and Geoffrey Kondogbia. Dani Parejo, the long-serving captain, left for Villarreal on a free transfer. Two loanees, Jaume Costa and Alessandro Florenzi returned to their parent clubs.
The exodus was necessary for financial reasons, but it did not go down well among the Mestalla faithful. Indeed, the enforced sale of such key members of the squad drove a further wedge between the fans and the owner, Peter Lim. The Singaporean has long been unpopular at Valencia, with his sacking of Marcelino in September 2019 now looked back on as the moment when things started to go seriously wrong.
Football clubs everywhere have been adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic, but Valencia fans are entitled to ask why they have been especially so. Lim gambled on achieving Champions League qualification last season, but a ninth-place finish compelled him to enact significant cost-cutting measures ahead of the current campaign. Javi Gracia, the sixth permanent manager of the club in the last five years, was given a thankless task. He knew it too: in October he publicly stated that he wanted to resign but was essentially forced to stay due to a clause in his contract that would have forced him to pay €3m to depart.
“I was made aware from my arrival that the squad was undergoing construction, but I did not believe that there would be no signings whatsoever coupled with so many exits,” the former Watford manager said.
Underlying Numbers Make for Worrying Reading for Valencia Fans
Despite the off-field tumult, Valencia got off to a decent start this season. Just one of their first four games ended in defeat, with Los Che taking seven points from the first 12 available. It appeared as if Gracia had galvanized the squad, creating an us-against-the-world mentality that looked like it might see them thrive in adversity.
There have been few bright spots since then, though. Valencia has won two matches since September. The first of those was a stunning 4-1 victory over Real Madrid, but even that win was not as convincing as it looked: three of the goals were penalties and one came when Raphael Varane put through his own net. Despite that success and Sunday’s 1-0 defeat of Valladolid, Valencia has fallen from the second spot to 13th in the space of three and a half months, and several teams below them have games in hand.
On the face of it, there is an argument to be made that Gracia’s side has been a touch unfortunate. Valencia has scored 24 goals – more than five teams in the top half of the division. They have conceded 25, with a far-from-dismal goal difference of -1.
Yet when you dig into the underlying numbers, a worrying pattern emerges. Valencia has the second-highest Expected Goals Against (xGA) figures in the league, which suggests they have conceded higher quality chances than any team but Granada. At the other end of the field, they have outperformed their xG. That means there is a distinct possibility that their goalscoring numbers will drop off.
Valencia Still Not Among the Favorites for Relegation Just Yet
Unless Sunday’s success sparks a winning run, this could end up being Valencia’s worst La Liga season since they suffered relegation in 1986, and a repeat of that disastrous outcome cannot be ruled out. The biggest concern for the supporters is that a managerial change will not necessarily turn the situation around given Lim gutted the first-team squad last summer. This is a mess of the owner’s making, and it is difficult to blame Gracia for much of what has gone wrong.
The January transfer window could see more players depart, which would further undermine Gracia’s attempts to achieve a respectable league finish this term. Valencia’s crisis might not have bottomed out, and Lim does not seem to be going anywhere for a while. The Singaporean is more unpopular than ever among the fan base, and the fact the Mestalla is closed to supporters due to the pandemic might actually have prevented the situation from getting even worse.
Valencia is at their lowest ebb in decades. The bookmakers still do not think they will go down, with DraftKings Sportsbook listing them only as seventh-favorites for the drop at +325. But for a club accustomed to challenging at the opposite end of the table, simply being part of the relegation conversation is a painful predicament.