At points of the season, there was a good chance this was going to be a farewell to Valencia post.
And then the season turned in remarkable fashion.
Part 9 documented the upheaval in the squad prior to the season, positive preseason form and 4 points from the first two games.
League form continued strongly for the first two months ending up with an unbeaten stretch of 10 games, but with 6 wins it was only enough to sit just outside of the top 4. The performance of this bracket was a 4-0 win over Real Sociedad.
We’d dropped our first game in some time against Ajax in the Europa League in the week leading up to our home fixture against Sociedad. It had been a poor performance against the Dutch so a response was required. It was duly delivered, led by Olivan, the burgeoning wonderkid upfront and Figgy producing the goods at left back.
The stumble commenced at the end of October. A 7-2 domination of Hapoel Be’er was sandwiched between two very poor league performances against Osasuna and Levante. Results only came in soft cup games, whilst we slid further and further out of reckoning in the league sitting anywhere between 8th and 11th.
The turning point came at the new year when a slight tactical re-think was required. We had been playing with a pretty classic 4-3-3. We kept this shape but changed some of the roles and instructions to the team to try to take control of games and use some of the quality we now had in the squad.
The back 4 stayed as it was. Two central defenders on defensive duties with two full backs either side set to attack. We moved to a permanent anchorman role in the DM slot. A role that had proved to be effective in FM16, I felt it was vital if we had full backs gallivanting up and down the wings.
We simplified the midfield two. We moved away from playmaker roles and box to box midfielders and replaced it with one CM on attack and one CM on support. This appeared to be the critical change in the formation. It seemed to balance the midfield, creating passing lanes from the back, ensuring we always had options to build up play through.
No huge changes for the front three. Our two best strikers Guillem Olivan and Michy Batshauyi were both comfortable with a complete striker role so we mixed and matched between support and attack duties depending on how things were playing out.
In the wide roles, the left side was either a winger when Julian Draxler played or an inside forward to accommodate Joaquin Correa’s preferences. On the right, we played with a Ramdeuter. Critically, our first choice Olly Zinchenko picked up an 8 week injury in early January so we jumped on the opportunity to bring Gabriel Jesus in on loan to replace his output.
We played with a Control / Structured shape. Team instruction wise we had four pretty permanent instructions, which we then blended with a few others dependent on how the opposition typically played.
- Work Ball Into Box
- Close Down More
- Higher Tempo
- Prevent Short GK Distribution
- Defensive line – would shift up or back
- Closing Down Much More – if opposition was poor on the ball
- Play Out From The Back – if we weren’t being pressed.
Outside of a tactical shift, we also focused on picking players on form. Previously the squad was rotating to keep the team fresh and to keep most players involved and engaged. Now we kept the team relatively steady on moving out if form slipped.
This has significant ramifications for our league form. In our last 18 games, we won 15, drew twice and lost just the once. It was a 16 game unbeaten streak. It was by far the most fun I’ve ever had in FM. We rocketed up the table.
Unfortunately in the Europa League, whilst we made it out of the group with a final game victory over Ajax, we couldn’t get past Lyon. After a first leg where we performed well, we didn’t show up for the second and were dispatched.
With 6 games to go in the league, we found ourselves in third. Atletico Madrid topped the table on 69 points, Barcelona were second on 67 and we had notched 65 points. Game day 33 was Valencia versus Barcelona. It was going to be a huge day.
Barca had a similar charge up the table and we were too concerned with their form. we changed to a much more defensive approach and were made to pay within 10 minutes. Enough was enough and we shifted to our normal Control / Structured approach and decided to see how it would pan out. A Michy Batshuayi hat trick later and we had leap frogged the titan of Spanish football. It was most likely the best win we’d had in our team at Valencia.
The results kept coming but Atletico were matching us every step of the way. With three games to go we had confirmed a top three finish and Champions League football. Draxler and Olivan were happy to stay and we paid out 2.5m in bonuses to players who received an incentive for qualification. Payments I was more than happy to make.
With three games to go, we were four points behind Atletico. It was approaching something near a miracle to catch them but we had second place in hand. Match day 36 saw both of us go behind initially before coming back to win.
Match day 37, Atletico played before us and were only able to grab a draw against Sevilla. We had Eibar, 17th in the league away from home with a huge chance to cut the lead to two and have it all to play for in the final game of the year. It would also confirm second place.
And we drew 0-0.
The team hardly showed up. Dragan Maksimovic was the only one to perform. He’d grabbed the CM(A) role as his and had been claimed as a wonderkid by the media. After the game he was announced as third place in the Spanish Young Player of the Year, to be beaten out by teammate Guillem Olivan. The youth approach was starting to pay dividends.
The title was handed over to Atletico and we went into the last game of the year needing a point to secure second. We travelled to Madrid to take on the Champion’s neighbors in Real.
And we collapsed. After taking a lead where Maksimovic pressed and won the ball, fed Draxler who crossed near post for Batshuayi we then proceeded to concede four and fall into third position.
After a roller coaster season, it was disappointing not to be able to finish off the job. Third place means we have a qualifier tie to confirm a spot in the group stages of the Champions League.
Then end of league play kicked off award season
- Michy Batshuayi – 2nd place, La Liga Player of the Season
- Pedrag Rajkovic – La Liga Keeper of the Season
- Pedrag Rajkovic, Marcos Castro, Dragan Maksimovic – Team of the Season First XI
- Michy Batshuayi – Team of the Season Bench
- La Liga – 3rd place, Manager of the Season
Club awards went almost exclusively to Marcos Castro winning Fan’s Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year. He ended the year under significant interest from Monaco.
Rajkovic’s average rating of 6.95 was down on previous seasons with other clubs however his 25 clean sheets in 48 appearances was an incredible result.
Marcos Castro blew away all expectations finishing with a 7.38 average rating from 32(3) appearances. 1 goal and 7 assists should be improved on as we play a full season in the formation that used the most of his talents. As long as we can hold off interest in him from other clubs.
Kevin N’Doram outdid Santa Cruz as an anchorman. He was always there intercepting and breaking up play, finding short passes to his midfield partners. 24(3) appearances, 3 assists and an average rating of 7.27. A steal at 1.5m.
In front of him, Ergys Kace and Dragan Maksimovic became our first choice midfield. Alex Witsel started to show his age and Mario Pasalic isn’t as dynamic. Both notched 7 times, with Maksimovic having more of an influence up the park adding 5 assists. Average ratings of 7.20 and 7.22 respectively.
Julian Draxler starred out wide. His first season with Los Ches was a bit underwhelming but he showed all his talents this season scoring 9, setting up 8 and averaging a 7.14 in the process across 33(5) appearances.
Up front we became much more potent. Unexpectedly from my perspective, Michy Batshuayi was the one who drove most of this. In 25(12) appearances he scored 22 and set up 9. Guillem Olivan had a solid season as well in 25(7) he had 15 and scored 4. Neither had reached these heights in previous seasons.
We move on into next season having bounced back into Champions League football. Barcelona and Real Madrid (Wenger appointed in the offseason) are clearly in transition with their key players aging. Our most important players are in their early 20’s. It is critical that we continue to develop them and bring in supplementary players to support their talents.
We’ll be looking to keep the majority of the squad together. There have been some other youngsters out on loan that we’ll look to bring into the squad and move out some of the fringe older lads.
The offseason saw me linked with Bayern, PSG and Manchester City. Some very attractive destinations, but there is an attachment to Valencia now and a job to finish off.