Gary Neville’s Tenure at Valencia CF

After one of the worst seasons in the team’s history, Spanish club Valencia CF have decided to fire manager Gary Neville after only four months in charge. Neville, former Manchester United and England right-back as well as Sky Sports commentator, was sacked after his team fell to 14th place in the La Liga table, was knocked out of both the Champions League and the Europa League tournaments, and was humiliated by Barcelona (losing 8-1 on aggregate) that resulted in their elimination from the Spanish Copa del Rey tournament.

Neville leaving La Mestalla

Neville leaving La Mestalla

Valencia CF, one of the most prominent clubs in Spanish football, finished fourth last year in the first division, only one point behind Atletico Madrid, and were looking to challenge for an even better place this year. Instead, in 16 La Liga games with Neville in charge, Valencia only won three games (after going winless through 11 games) and were only 6 points (two losses) away from the relegation zone at one point. After only 5 league games since Neville was fired, Valencia have won three games (which took Neville 16 games to do) and are now in 8th place.

So something was clearly going wrong. But first, let’s look at what Neville was doing right.

Neville brought some positive changes to the squad. First, he found a way to balance the team and give opportunities to the plethora of young talent Valencia has at their disposal. Singaporean owner Peter Lim has made some terrible decisions in buying players for too much money and in positions that were already filled, such as paying $27 million for aging 30 year old midfielder Enzo Perez last year despite having several other capable midfielders. 

Considering this talent and Peter Lim’s rash spending, Neville didn’t buy anyone in the January transfer window, and managed to give all players ample opportunity to prove their worth to the team. On Neville’s own admission, the club had “two players at every position” when healthy, so buying more players would have restricted opportunities for already established players to start and for young players to get first team experience.

Valencia CF's young prospects got opportunities under Neville

Valencia CF’s young prospects got opportunities under Neville

As a result, players like Bakkali and Santi Mina (both wingers) and João Cancelo (right back) got valuable first team experience, all of whom have shown strong potential—at least until the final third of the pitch. He even managed to find a way to bring players like the 31 year old striker Negredo back into form, more than adequately filling in for Paco Alcacer while he was injured for much of the season.

He also tried to manage the language barrier he has with his players by giving them iPads to help them understand training drills and game tactics. This type of technological development will help the players gain essential knowledge and be on a unified field with each other and the future manager, whoever that may be.

And despite terrible results, Neville had seen success in bigger league games, drawing Barcelona 1-1 in his first game after being appointed and later Real Madrid 2-2 (both of which Valencia deserved to win), and later beat Barcelona 2-1all very respectable results, especially for a struggling team like Valencia was for so much of the season.

Yet any amount of positive actions can’t excuse terrible results. And there were some deeper issues at play too.

Garry Neville struggled to adapt to Spanish life and football. Hiring a completely inexperienced pundit to coach one of the most prestigious teams in La Liga was always going to be a risk, but to add to that, owner Peter Lim hired a manager used to a very different style of play and who speaks an entirely different language.

This language barrier can’t be overstated. In the words of Real Madrid’s English forward Gareth Bale, “It is obviously difficult coming to Spain anyway and being a manager where you really do have to be vocal and speak the language.” Yes, he tried to use iPads to communicate his ideas to players and undoubtedly had translators, but not being able to communicate easily and regularly with his own players was, by his own admission, the “biggest frustration and challenge” for both himself and the players. 

Neville further struggled to adopt the more possession-based football so prevalent and successful in La Liga. As a player and an English commentator, he is used to the fast paced, end-to-end, counterattacking football of the Premier League and failed to play the way his team is best suited to playing.

Loyalty and commitment was one of Neville’s biggest downfalls. The Valencia boss stated to Sky Sports after he was hired, “I’m not going to say where I want to end up, and it isn’t in management or head coaching, so I want to be clear about that.” This makes me so madif he didn’t want to end up in management, why did he take a job as a manager of a top club? Why did you ruin a team’s season if you weren’t committed to their long-term future?

In another example of Neville’s lack of commitment, Neville continued to work as assistant coach to the England Men’s National Team while he was coaching Valencia. In one of the team’s worst periods, Neville went to England during the international break to work with the team instead of staying in Valencia, supporting and training the players, and trying to turn the situation around. Neville’s ineptitude in Valencia’s time of struggle likely prompted his firing a week later.

Neville also passively said, “I was signed for five months and I accepted this enormous challenge. I understand that the results are far from what was expected… the club will evaluate the situation.” He didn’t seem to care what the results were or whether he was fired or not.

What’s most worrying for Valencia CF fans is that the whole fiasco involving Neville comes in a string of questionable decisions by the ownership of Valencia CF and Peter Lim. Paying high prices for average players and hiring an English coach does not guarantee success as Lim seemed to think.
Valencia will recover from the poor results that Neville brought with him to the club. They already are. But the fans can only hope that their team will not be hindered by another poorly conceived decision, and Neville can only hope that his reputation wasn’t damaged so much that he won’t be able to get a managerial job in England where he should have stayed in the first place.

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