He called it one of the most painful nights of his life and he isn’t far wrong there. Valencia’s humiliating 7-0 defeat at the hands of Barcelona in the Copa del Rey semi final first leg has heaped further troubles on manager Gary Neville and now leaves his position at the club very much in peril. The former England and Manchester United defender took over the reigns at the Mestalia late last year in a move that shocked more than a few people. But his dream of being a football manager is now rapidly turning into a nightmare as Valencia struggle for form under their new boss. Winless in the league after eight attempts and now with slim hopes of making the Copa del Rey final thanks to last nights capitulation in Barcelona, things have gone from bad to worse for Neville as the weeks progressed. Injuries, language difficulties and club politics have not helped during Neville’s first stint as a manager and at present he looks unable to cope and well out of his depth.
The question came shortly after the game – Will you quit and the answer was an empathic no. Neville is not a quitter such as the man he is however if results do not improve, he may not have the chance to leave on his own accord. Sitting 12th in the league, Valencia are not yet in danger of being caught in a relegation battle but they are sliding fast towards that. Five points from 24 is hardly the return that oner Peter Lim was expecting when he hired Gary to partner his brother Phil in the dugout at Valencia. So what has gone so terribly wrong?
To be fair to Neville, one of the club’s biggest problems has been hitting the back of the net. With only three recognized strikers at the club – Negredo, Alcacer and youngster Santi Mina the club has a lack of options upfront. Added into this, Neville has had to survive without two of the three for a majority of his games in charge with Negredo and Alcacer struggling for fitness. That has influenced the way that Valencia have been set up with usually only one solitary striker upfront supported either by three attack minded midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 or occasionally with a five man midfield in a 4-5-1 formation. The issue with this is that it proves too defensive for La Liga with the more successful sides in the league operating high pressing games, taking the game to the opposition rather than defending from the back and breaking from there. The decision to play in this way may be down to several factors including Neville’s comfort in structuring from the back (as he did as a player) or his knowledge of the English Premier League which tends to lean more heavily towards defending deeply as a group and breaking on the counter attack. Teams like Crystal Palace, Leicester and West ham have used this tactic well which Neville highlighted during his time as a punditry on Sky television and which makes sense why he has tried it in La Liga. But unfortunately it hasn’t worked.
Added into this is the problem of communication with Neville using either a translator or his brother Phil who speaks fluent Spanish as a mouth piece to get his messages across. Given time he will pick up the language but at present a lot is being lost in the translation. Several figures in the Valencia dressing room have suggested that morale is at an all time low and that Neville hasn’t won over the entire squad at this stage. With only a handful of the players willing to give their all for Neville and his approach, its not hard to see why Valencia are struggling for form. A lack of new arrivals in the January transfer window has not helped to solve this issue with a drastic overhaul of the squad probably needed. Making things worst is the legacy that Neville inherited and the unrealistic expectations of the Valencia fans. A passionate group that are nothing less than die hards for the club, Valencia fans have become somewhat delusional, strongly believing that they should be challenging for honours on a regular basis. Whilst they did lift the La Liga title in 2003-2004 under Rafa Benetiz, much has changed since then with the top two of Real Madrid and Barcelona stretching further out ahead of the rest of the chasing pack. The strengthening of other clubs like Atletico Madrid and Sevilla in recent years whilst Valencia stuttered has not helped but yet a releveling of expectations by the fans has not happened. This has made the challenge given to Neville an impossible one and is part of the reason why the club has had 13 bosses in 12 years since lifting the title.
So what next for Neville? There are some that believe that if Gary was to resign he could return to England with his reputation still in tact given the circumstances surrounding his time at Valencia. Others however believe that it is already too late and that his failure in Spain has forever tarnished his creditability as a coach beyond repair, much like David Moyes time in Spain has done. For Neville quitting is not an option and with Lim unlikely to sack his close friend, it can safely be assumed that Neville will continue on until the end of the season. That call is his and his alone but its some call to make. If he can correct the current slide that is happening by getting his players back on side and operating under new tactical instructions then finishing in the top half of the table could be viewed a a positive step toward Neville continuing in the long run. However failing to stop the slide and potentially seeing Valencia relegated for only the second time in their rich history could be disastrous for Neville’s long term chances of being a manager either in La Liga or any other league for that matter. Either way, the next four months will be a defining time in the managerial career of Gary Neville.