Borja Valero Could be Key to Inter’s Success this Season


On the surface, Inter signing a 32-year-old might not seem like such a big deal. On the surface, the Nerazzurri are a physical side packed with plenty of young talent, which ranges all the way from Geoffrey Kondogbia to Roberto Gagliardini and Gabriel Barbosa. On the surface, the backing of Chinese owners Suning should allow them to compete for star players who aren’t on aging, 32-year-old legs. On the surface, crosstown rivals AC Milan are spending ludicrous amounts of money, with moves for athletes such as Leonardo Bonucci taking their summer outlay to around €175 million. So with all of these things considered, it might seem a little strange to invest a minimal €7 million on Borja Valero.

Yet if you look beyond the surface, it’s actually a pretty tidy piece of business. Of course, it’s a risk to give a 32-year-old a three-year deal, but Valero’s qualities can not be discounted. He’s a very Spanish midfielder, one capable of passing crisply and without waste, and when some of Inter’s play from last season is brought into view, that can only be a good thing. “Inter’s fans are going to love him, I’m sure,” new Inter boss Luciano Spalletti asserted. “He’s one of those players who has his own style and shows it every time they go onto the field. He’s got experience and quality, in addition to knowing how to play a variety of roles across the field.”

For Inter, that ‘style’ of Valero’s could be critical to their success next season. The Inter project is an ambitious one, but when you think back to the 2016/17 campaign, it didn’t really look like it. They lost game after game towards the end of that season, and in the midst of meandering disconsolately to 7th place on the standings, then-manager Stefano Pioli was sacked and the Inter fans protested by walking out of stadium, mid-match, on more than occasion.

Things had degenerated into an almost zombie-like state, something which culminated in an absolutely dreadful performance against Sassuolo. This was Inter at their worst, and as a result, they lost 2-1 at home. It wasn’t all terrible, it must be said. The Nerazzurri held onto the ball quite well, and possessed it quite readily. In fact, the central midfield trio of Gagliardini, Joao Mario and Marcelo Brozovic enabled them to enjoy 61% of the possession. Not bad, at least from the surface. Dig into it a little deeper, though, and the lack of artistry was breathtaking.

Inter couldn’t generate anything through the middle of the pitch, and their only real means of putting the ball into dangerous positions came via crossing. They crossed and crossed and crossed through wingers Ivan Perisic and Antonio Candreva, so much so that, by the end of the 90 minutes, the two men had generated 56 crosses between them. For context, Inter usually cross 32 times per game, and even that’s a massive amount when you consider that they finished as Serie A’s biggest crossers last season. The next most cross-happy teams, Roma and Genoa, averaged only 24 crosses per game, so to say Inter lacked variety would be a massive understatement.

Again, considering those numbers from Roma and Genoa, the fact that Candreva hit 26 crosses against Sassuolo, on his own, is absolutely astounding. This is the kind of play that led to fan walkouts, and when the Inter fans left during the Sassuolo game, unveiling a banner that read, “You don’t deserve our support. We’re saying good-bye and we’re going to lunch,” it was clear they had endured enough. It therefore isn’t overly surprising that Spalletti wants to recalibrate Inter’s possession game, chiefly as a means through which to add some fluidity and variety to it. That won’t necessarily come easy, but Valero could be key to the process.

The major reason for this is his intelligence. Inter currently have a number of talented midfielders, but guys like Kondogbia and Brozovic are physical, energetic and aggressive in the way they operate. Valero, meanwhile, is a very technical midfielder. He likes to get on the ball in space, weave around oncoming midfielders through tight dribbling and, perhaps most importantly, set up his teammates with creative distribution. Indeed, watching Valero is at times like watching a maestro at work. He floats in and out of pockets seamlessly, and as the ball is coming into his feet, there’s a sense that he’s already assessing his surroundings, wondering how he can most effectively move the ball on.

His dribbling – he’s arguably the best exponent of the stop-go dribble in world football – and passing then allow him to do just that. For evidence of this, you only need to look at his statistics from the most recent Serie A season. He finished the campaign with 10 assists, only two behind league-leader Jose Callejon, and he averaged 2 key passes per game. Throw in his 89.5% passing completion rate – the best of the 13 Serie A players to average 2 or more key passes per game – and it’s clear that Valero combines creativity and efficiency with the ability to put his teammates through on goal.

With all of this taken into consideration, it’s no wonder that ‘intelligence’ is often the first thing people associate with Valero. Gagliardini was one such person to speak of the former Villarreal midfielder in this manner. “He is a quality player, tactically intelligent,” the midfielder said. “He knows Italian football very well and will give us a big hand.”
At this stage, it’s hard to argue with that assertion. Valero will give Inter the kind of creativity, guile and vision that they currently lack in the central midfield area, and instead of countless crosses from the flanks, they will have a player who can set things up through the centre as well. The major talking point, of course, is where Valero will play for Spalletti. He can operate as a deep-lying playmaker, as the guy who sets things up in an Andrea Pirlo-esque fashion, or he can play higher up as a No. 10.

During his time at Fiorentina, he slowly ventured further and further forward until he made the No. 10 slot his own. Inter could do with him in either position, but Valero himself stated that he “likes to go forward when given the chance,” and considering Inter’s lack of invention in the final third, that might be where he can have the biggest impact for them. Of course, things are likely to change at Inter, and Spalletti has already talked of his desire to add a number of new signings to the first-team squad. That means Valero’s position could be determined, at least in part, by Inter’s transfer dealings, but regardless of where he lines up, he’ll be important.

Valero was so good for Fiorentina that the club’s fans actually camped outside his place of residence in a bid to convince him to stay, but now that he’s at Inter, he finally has the platform to show what he can do at a traditional powerhouse of Italian and European football. The fact he has only recorded one cap for Spain, largely due to the sheer quality of their recent generation of midfielders, speaks to the fact that he is still somewhat underappreciated as a playmaker. From that perspective, this move isn’t only ideal for an Inter side who need a point of difference in their build-up play, but also for him to demonstrate his qualities to a wider audience.

Who knows, in a transfer window where money is freely being exchanging between teams, that €7 million fee for Valero might even become one of the sharpest deals to be made in Italy this season.