A change in direction
The Europa League has so far managed to keep a low profile in my house, the reason being that Thursday, like Monday, seems the wrong day for football. I can't quite rationalise or justify that feeling, but it's there nevertheless. Besides, when it comes on the heels of a glut of Champions League stuff, it seems like lesser fare by default, stuck onto the fag-end of the week's viewing as if it were of minor importance - to watch if you have nothing else pressing to do.
However, given that the competition is a new version of the old UEFA Cup, and given that Spanish sides have generally acquitted themselves well in this tournament since the millennium (three winners in four finals, and two losing finalists), I find myself drawn into watching the tournament, as it begins to work its way into my weekly football-led consciousness. And one is often rewarded, as in last Thursday, when Villarreal took on Napoli.
It looked an interesting encounter because it involved two interesting 'outsider' teams, the Italians resurgent and second in Serie A and Villarreal fourth in La Liga. Villarreal won it 2-1, but the game was less important than the performance of the Spanish midfielder Borja Valero. What a player! How on earth has he managed to keep things under wraps for so long, and just how many more brilliant midfielders is Spain intending to unearth in this current period of luxury? Maybe it's a cyclical thing, something in the air. There have been periods in La Liga when it was all about great goalscoring forwards, or great goalkeepers. They're still around, but the 1980s seems to have produced an extraordinary crop of midfielders of differing types, as if it were some sort of genetic experiment. How many can we produce in the petri-dish, and how many different types can we come up with to fill up the Spanish midfield after the millennium and make them into world beaters? And, of course, like breeds like. Kids see these players, and they begin to emulate them. It's cool to play in midfield, to be the creator.
Valero is a strange case, although he belongs to that concept known as 'Castilla' - which on the surface of things is Real Madrid's reserve team but which in reality has become a provider for the rest of La Liga, probably more than La Masia. This is partly because Barcelona hang onto their pearls for longer - Bojan, for example, would long have departed the Bernabeu in a parallel life - but also because Madrid's policy of generating collateral, marketing opportunities and monopolising headlines through galactic policies has meant that some fine players have come through the ranks at Madrid but have not hung around to wait for improbable opportunities. It is simply untrue that Madrid do not 'cuidar la cantera' (look after youth policy). They do - but then they find that there is no room for them at the top.
Valero hardly played for the first-team, unlike recent successful exiles such as Alvaro Negredo (Sevilla) and Roberto Soldado (Valencia). Fabio Capello handed him his debut in the King's Cup in 2007, by which time he was already 22 and looking as though time had passed him by. If you're really promising, you should have broken into the first-team by then. Indeed, successive moves to Mallorca, where he showed promise, then to West Bromwich in England failed to reveal the player he has become, almost overnight. It's weird, but some players just click at a certain age. You can neither predict nor control it. Great players are usually great by the age of 18 and playing for their national side. Very good players sometimes take longer to emerge.
That said, when Valero was making noises about returning to Spain from England after one season (he was there for four years, in theory), Pep Guardiola was said to have expressed interest in his likely destination. Real Madrid were too busy getting rid of Sneijder, Robben and Van der Vaart to worry about bringing in yet another midfielder, and had in any case decided to bring back Esteban Granero from Getafe, in a deliberate public gesture designed to offset the impression that only galacticos could come to the Bernabeu, in the wake of Perez' Second Coming.
Valero's performance against Napoli, from the middle period of the first half until the end of the game, was sublime. If Vicente Del Bosque saw it, Valero will have been pencilled in for a call-up, along with Real Sociedad's Xabi Prieto, another case of a late developer. It was a lesson in how to contradict the theory that one player in 22 cannot change a game completely, cannot single-handedly influence the tidal ebb and flow. But Napoli were initially the better side, and Villarreal were looking shell-shocked. Suddenly, Valero was everywhere. He was dropping deep to dispossess like a Lass or a Makelele, he was distributing the play like a Xabi Alonso, he was running bullishly with the ball like a Steven Gerrard, he was turning and twisting in tiny spaces like a Xavi Hernandez, and then he was setting up goals - he made them both - with unpredictable and difficult passes like an Iniesta. Napoli's heads fell, because there was nothing they could do. The rather lugubrious, bald figure in the bright yellow shirt was simply taking them apart. No wonder forwards Nilmar and Rossi are so celebrated this season. The great provider Marcos Senna has all but gone - and yet long live this new king.
Inevitably, the papers at the weekend were full of Real Madrid's renewed interest in their prodigal son, following on from the news a few days earlier that they are also following assiduously the progress of another ex-canterano, Jose Callejon over at Espanyol. Valero was less impressive in the Sardinero in Santander on Sunday night, but neither were several of his classmates, looking jaded from their Thursday-night experience. Nevertheless, they forced a draw with an injury-time equaliser, to stay on the coat-tails of third-placed Valencia, who won a tough-looking encounter 2-1 in Bilbao.
Madrid's alleged interest - and you never know how much is simply the papers' fantasies - is slightly annoying - as if, now that Valero is proving himself, he can return to the fold. It would be fairer if he stayed at Villarreal, but you have to say that if he continues to improve he would solve Real's 'Alonso dependence' overnight. Once again, as demonstrated by Deportivo on Saturday night, if you do a marking job on Xabi Alonso, you strangle the life out of Madrid, despite their otherwise impressive array of armaments. Like Mary's little lamb, wherever Alonso went, Juan Rodriguez was sure to go. It didn't stop the visitors mounting a series of attacks and hitting the post twice, but it was all a bit random, a bit too hurried. When the metronome is marked, there is no-one else to draw up the time sequences. Ozil is a great player, but he's not an organiser. Neither is Kaka, in truth. Lass and Khedira are the hod-carriers, but when there's nobody to hand the bucket to, things go awry. What Madrid need, and I don't know why they need this column to point it out, is a player who can share the organising duties, but one more dynamic than Alonso. Granero makes a decent fist of it, but Mourinho is not convinced.
Valero is a much better player. Where would he fit in for Spain? That's a good question, given the riches already there, but Valero is a sort of mix of Busquets, Alonso, Xavi and Iniesta, all rolled into one. He might not be as good as any of those individuals, but he is a different kind of pearl, a fusion of every type of midfielder you can presently think of. West Brom look rather short-sighted, letting him go so easily, but he did want to come back to Spain. He's also two-footed, another attribute that not enough midfielders possess. This dates back to when he was 11, and was being trained by Del Bosque, who was taking time out to work with the Real Madrid youngsters. The old maestro insisted on him using both feet, pointing out the extent to which this facilitates a midfielder's ability to change the direction of play, to 'hacer cambios de orientación', as they say here. Valero was doing it all night on Thursday, probably even when he drove home after the game.
It's the big obsession in Spanish coaching circles, but there is nothing wrong with it. My son trains three times a week here, and almost every session is based on it. As a midfielder, he has this mantra drummed into him, in a boys' side that has produced Alonso, Arteta, Iraola and Aduriz, to name but a few of the current graduates. So they must be doing something right. And if you watch Barcelona, that is really their chief virtue, the thing that most destroys opposing defences. It's not just a question of tiki-taka but rather the fact that Xavi rarely passes the ball in the direction that he initially sets himself up for, and Iniesta rarely runs to the point that he appears to be heading for when he sets off. It's what makes Cesc Fabregas such a fabulous player, although sometimes you can't quite put your finger on what it is about him. There you have it - 'cambios de orientación'. The great secret. England's midfielders don't do it, which is why they haven't won the World Cup since 1966. Glenn Hoddle and Paul Gascoigne knew all about it, but they were never really trusted with the baton. It's also why the Gerrard-Lampard marriage has never been a happy one, because one player understands the principle (Lampard) and the other does not.
Even the Great Dane, Michael Laudrup, one of the supreme exponents of the art as a player, failed as a manager to pinpoint this as the reason his Mallorca side were trounced on Saturday night by his former club Barcelona. "They create this feeling of impotence in you," he said after the game. "You try to dispossess them and, when you get there, they've gone." Well, not quite. It's more a case of the fact that the Mallorca players were thinking east, but the ball was going west. It's interesting to reflect on the fact that, if his team had hung onto Borja Valero, they might have stood a better chance.