After a disappointing 2014/15 season, by his lofty standards, Borja Valero made a vow to be fitter for the upcoming 2015/16 Serie A campaign.
A crucial element in his quest to achieve his goal was to improve his diet. He made the tough call to completely cut pizza out of his diet, one of his favourite meals. Moreover, he decided cutting down his pasta intake and removing falsified sugars were also required for him to achieve optimal fitness.
Judging by his outstanding start to the season, his sacrificial decision has unquestionably been justified. The former Villarreal midfielder has started all seven of Fiorentina’s league fixtures, and played over 80 minutes in every game, which is a clear testament to his new found fitness.
With Fiorentina sitting atop the Serie A table, their new manager, Paulo Sousa, certainly deserves the credit that he is receiving. He’s got his team playing a dynamic, hugely entertaining brand of football, which has seen them pick up a remarkable 18 points already.
Key to this incredible start has been the way in which he’s managed to get the best of the hugely gifted Valero.
La Viola’s most recent fixture, against Atalanta, suitably demonstrated what a crucial weapon the Spaniard is for Sousa’s men, in a game where his superlative passing game continually unlocked the Orobici defence.
Valero created a whopping 11 chances for his team and completed a terrific 94% of his passes, as he orchestrated so many of Fiorentina’s dangerous attacking passages.
Playing alongside central midfield partner, Milan Badelj, who he shares an excellent understanding with, Valero would drop deep to receive the ball from his centre backs and look to instigate Fiorentina’s attacks from here, before moving forward with the ball.
Interestingly, he and Badelj always remained within close proximity to one another to ensure they had a low risk, short option if they ran into trouble. Statistics from StatsZone stating the duo found each other on 41 separate occasions aptly indicate how frequently they used each other.
It didn’t help Atalanta’s cause that they afforded Valero far too much time on the ball to do as he pleased (this wasn’t entirely their fault as Paletta’s early red card put them on the back foot), and once the 30-year-old obtained possession in the attacking third, he made Edy Reja’s men pay for giving him all that freedom.
Sousa’s well set out 3-4-2-1 formation, which sees the wing backs charge up into the space created by the inside forwards to provide additional offensive options, meant that Valero always had a slew of teammates to utilise. This also meant with Federico Bernardeschi, Josip Ilicic and Nikola Kalinic all buzzing around relatively central areas that Atalanta’s defence persistently got dragged about, thus successfully creating little gaps for runs to be made into. It came as little wonder then that their lethal, crafty frontman, Kalinic, slipped in behind with many a well timed run.
Despite Fiorentina not being able to directly score from the Valero-Kalinic link, they still provided a major threat throughout. Valero’s ability to thread his passes through with such pinpoint precision gave testament to his incredible awareness, vision and knack of reading the play. It was almost as though he could see what would unfold two moves before anyone else could.
Valero’s goal fittingly arrived following a delightful passing exchange, where he played a sumptuous one-two with Bernardeschi on the edge of the box, before coolly side footing his finish past the hapless Marco Sportiello. A bow to the crowd from Valero was the perfect way to celebrate this sublime piece of artistry.
His 82nd minute substitution gave the Fiorentina faithful inside the Stadio Artemio Franchi another chance to applaud the fan favourite on his man of the match performance.
It’s easy to understand why the fans love the Spaniard so dearly, for Valero doesn’t see himself as a star and is, instead, very much a grounded, humble footballer, which is refreshing to see in the modern game.
“When I first arrived in Florence, I would walk out of the stadium and nobody knew who I was. Maybe people appreciate me because I shop at the supermarket and I’m a tourist like anyone else. I’m privileged.
“There’s people who work 12 hours a day. We only train 3 hours a day. Footballers should never consider themselves as stars above anyone else,” he explained.
While there’s still a long, long way to go in the season, Sousa has got this team ticking beautifully in a cohesive and balanced way. They defend sternly and in an organised manner, as shown by them keeping a stunning five clean sheets in seven games, while they still manage to attack with gusto and intensity. Having the third best attack in Italy suitably depicts their attacking prowess.
If they continue along a similar path they might just be able to achieve the impossible and win their first Scudetto since 1969.
Sousa talks about his team needing to “seize the right moment in a match,” and with the help of Valero’s wicked passing ability, they’ve been doing just that.
Drawing inspiration from basketball legend Michael Jordan has given Valero a keen desire to keep striving to get to the top.
“He was so certain of himself, you could see in his face how much he wanted to make the difference during a match, then he got the best out of his teammates even though he was capable of winning by himself,” he recalled.
“There is nothing more important than that in a team sport. Plus he brought joy.”
All things considered, the fitter, recalibrated, reborn Valero looks set to continue to be a crucial component to the fortunes of this talented La Viola outfit this season.
There’s no reason why he can’t fulfil another of his dreams, which is to represent Spain at the upcoming European Championships in France next year. If he can keep his wonderful displays up, he’ll ensure Spain manager Vicente del Bosque has no choice but to select him. For a player of his quality to have only the one Spanish cap to his name somehow doesn’t seem right, therefore improving on this is justifiably in his sights.
It’s certainly going to be fascinating to see how things play out for Valero at club and international level as the season rolls on.
For now, though, his focus will be solely on helping Fiorentina. Being fit, happy and performing beautifully, it’s clear La Viola is the right club for him. “Florence is my place in the world,” he says.
Valero’s pizza eating days are now surely a thing of the past. His form is far too good to go back now.
About the author – Edward Stratmann
Edward Stratmann writes regularly about the on-field aspects of the game, with a particular focus on tactics and analysis. In addition to featuring on These Football Times, Inside Spanish Football, Anfield Index, Just Football, The Eagles Beak, Think Football Ideas and JuveFC, you can also find Edward’s work at Licence to Roam, a football blog he started with his brother in 2013.