Bakkali, Feghouli and Piatti: Why Valencia’s Wingers Might Hold the Key to Success this Season

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Only a couple of weeks ago, things weren’t looking so good for Valencia. On September 19, in front of their home fans, the club slumped to a disappointing 0-0 draw against Real Betis, despite spending over 40 minutes with an extra player after Dani Ceballos was sent off. In the eyes of the Mestalla faithful, it was yet another unacceptable outcome and, as a consequence, Valencia’s coach, Nuno Espirito Santo, bore the brunt of their frustration.

As Sid Lowe noted in the Guardian, the supporters started to turn on the man who had so recently achieved Champions League qualification. As the match approached its conclusion, they shouted “Nuno, go now!” The success of last season now a distant memory, the 41-year-old was forced to discuss the situation in the post-match.

“The question is normal and the response is obvious. The fans show their discontent and they express it towards the person responsible for the team and that’s me,” he said. “If that is what the criticism is, I accept it and I assume that responsibility.”

Valencia then went on to lose 1-0 to Espanyol in their following fixture, and so as September 25 approached, the home clash against Granada loomed large. Nuno described working on the next match as an “obsession” in the lead-up, so desperate was he to find a solution for Valencia’s early-season wobbles. He also called for the fans to get behind the players, and one of those footballers, too, in Zakaria Bakkali, argued that it would be “important” to have the backing of the home support.

It wouldn’t be easily achieved, but in order to get it, Nuno went back to basics. He dispensed with the 4-3-3, and opted for the 4-4-2. His focus on slick possession play, at least for the day, was left at the door, as he dispensed with an extra midfielder in order to field Paco Alcacer and Alvaro Negredo, two genuine strikers, up top and alongside each other.

In a nation now defined by ball retention and technical ability, Nuno’s line-up felt a little old-school. After all, the 4-4-2 is often associated with the English game, and along with that association, thoughts of hard-working wingers driving towards the touchline and whipping in crosses are conjured. There are also thoughts of goalmouth scrambles, the kinds defined by a show of strength rather than a subtle piece of skill. There is, therefore, a kind of directness and physicality attached to the 4-4-2, and with that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that a league inspired by the feats of Barcelona has followed a different trajectory.

But for Nuno, there was a need for spirit and a need for directness in attack, so he changed things up. Bakkali took the left flank and Sofiane Feghouli went to the right. Dani Parejo played a box-to-box role from the middle of the park while his partner, Enzo Perez, sat in front of the back four. If it seemed a little antiquated that’s because it was, and early on, the home support wasn’t overly impressed.

They jeered their team as the ball made its way back to Jaume Domenech, Valencia’s goalkeeper, after a promising attacking move had fizzled out. The white hankies were presumably at the ready, though slowly but surely, Los Che started to work their way through the teething troubles. As a side low on confidence, Valencia ceded possession more and more, so much so that they only ended the match with 46% of the ball.

Ordinarily, that mightn’t sound like such a good thing, but in a 4-4-2, holding onto the ball was never going to be their biggest strength. Instead, they started to use their pace and skill on the wings. Bakkali and Feghouli, and especially the former, played in a highly direct fashion. Their objective quickly became to supply Alcacer and Negredo with balls into the box, and they did that through a combination of slick dribbling and whippy service.

As mentioned above, Bakkali was most prolific in this regard. He stayed high and wide on the left-hand side, aiming to receive the ball in space before shaping up to his direct opponent. He completed three successful dribbles in this manner, and once he’d used his low centre of gravity to do so, he followed up with a steady stream of crosses.

In all, he crossed the ball 15 times throughout the course of the contest, and while accounting for the fact that around half of these were corners, his figures in open play were still quite staggering. Clearly, Nuno gave him a rather simple brief, one that consisted of using the quality attached to his right foot to give the likes of Negredo every opportunity to shoot. And, perhaps naturally enough, Bakkali was at the heart of Valencia’s 26th minute winner.

This time he popped up on the right, after taking yet another corner on that side of the field. After an initial clearance, the ball eventually made its way back to Bakkali, and with Shkodran Mustafi still up from the previous set-piece, the 19-year-old winger tried to find him. And with that trademark whipping motion, Bakkali did just that, placing his lofted cross perfectly onto the head of the German defender.

Mustafi did the rest, and though the goal came early on, it proved to be the only one of the contest. Valencia would win 1-0 and, by and large, the dynamism of their wingers provided the impetus. Indeed, and even after their first-half opener, Bakkali and Feghouli continued to create Valencia’s best opportunities to score.

Just after the interval, for instance, Bakkali’s cross created a chance for Alcacer, and while the Spaniard may have knocked it into the back of the net, it was soon ruled out for offside. Minutes later, another direct attack, this time through Feghouli and Joao Cancelo down the right, sparked a shot for the same player, but again, Alcacer was denied by a force beyond his control, although it was opposition goalkeeper Andreas Fernandez on this occasion, rather than the officials.

Yet while Valencia failed to take advantage of most of the chances generated by their flying wingers, the fact remains that Bakkali and Feghouli inspired the 1-0 win. It was a significant victory as well, given that, prior to its occurrence, Los Che had only managed one win in their opening five fixtures, something that had happened only once to them once in the previous 17 seasons (2012/13). Throw in the fact that Valencia had scored only twice over those same five matches, and it was clear that things weren’t exactly clicking into gear for Nuno and his players.

In that sense, the points against Granada were vital to their progress, and although Nuno later declared a certain “uneasiness” had carried over from the previous weeks, this felt like a performance to be built upon. Bakkali offered the kind of expansive showing that one would expect from a fearless 19-year-old, and his interesting mix of agility and skill seemed to give Valencia some additional enthusiasm.

Even Ruben Vezo, a centre-back, produced an exotic piece of skill, along the left-hand side, around 33 minutes into the match, and going forwards Nuno must surely be hoping this level of attacking zeal doesn’t desert them. Fortunately, it stayed around for their midweek Champions League clash with Lyon, as Valencia also took home a 1-0 win.

This time, Pablo Piatti lined up on the left, and in the build-up to Feghouli’s long-range opener, he zipped along the touchline before teeing up his Algerian teammate. Feghouli’s goal eventuated in the 42nd minute, and given that Valencia were playing away from home, Nuno opted to trust his wingers to a greater degree in the second period. “Possession was essential to our plan (initially),” he said. “We changed it in the second half. We defended well and played looking for Piatti and Feghouli on the wings and that worked for us in the end.”

From the last two matches alone, a pattern is clearly starting to emerge for the Bats. That relates to Valencia’s wingers, and in Feghouli, Piatti and Bakkali, they have plenty of talent to stock both the left- and the right-hand sides of the pitch. Add in the impressive Rodrigo, who divides his time between leading the line and playing out wide, and it appears that this is where Valencia may be able to experience the greatest joy as the season unfolds.

In terms of support, fullbacks Cancelo and José Gaya, both of whom are highly rated, will be able to bomb on and assist in Valencia’s assault of the wide areas. Right-back Cancelo, for example, has already formed an excellent partnership with Feghouli, and considering that he’s a 19-year-old who cost a reported €15 million, there’s still plenty of scope for improvement. Gaya, meanwhile, can provide a lot of energy from left-back this campaign, assuming the club hierarchy can fend off the advances of rival clubs in January.

Of course, it needs to be said that there are a lot of youngsters in this wing-based equation for Valencia, and Nuno will be required to show a great degree of faith in their abilities if they are to thrive throughout 2015/16. But as it stands, he mightn’t have much choice.

The last two wins have eased the pressure to some degree, but due to the summer of upheaval both on and off the pitch, Nuno needs to deliver. After all, he was appointed by new owner Peter Lim as manager last season, and with other famous Valencia figures such as former sporting director Francisco Rufete and scout Roberto Fabián Ayala being forced out under the Singaporean businessman, the fans remain somewhat sceptical of how he is running the club. And therefore, by extension, they remain sceptical of Nuno, too.

As a consequence, it is vital that Nuno brings his team together on the pitch. They must succeed in order to placate the Valencia faithful, and though Nuno described the squad as “united” following the win at Lyon, that is just the jumping-off point. Momentum must be sustained over a longer period of play, and right now, in Valencia’s current configuration, Nuno would be prudent to continue looking to his wingers for inspiration.