Sometimes a club can sign the right player at the wrong time. Borja Valero arrived in the Premier League as West Brom’s record signing in the summer of 2008. He played just one underwhelming season at the Hawthorns, failing to score a goal as the Baggies finished bottom of the table.
Valero is no shooting machine. Indeed, it is perhaps telling that Chris Brunt was Albion’s top scorer that season. The Spaniard prefers to thread clever passes through to the strikers. It’s fair to say that Roman Bednar and Craig Beattie were not as receptive as he might have hoped.
With the charms of the Championship beckoning, Valero secured a loan move to Mallorca before a spell at Villarreal really kick-started his career. His first season at El Madrigal saw Don Balon rate him among the top six players in La Liga and there was an international debut with Spain.
But the disintegration of the Yellow Submarine saw them relegated the following year and Valero’s latest resurrection has come in Italy with Fiorentina. Serie A doesn’t exactly have a rich tradition of Spanish stars thriving but the now 29-year-old midfielder appears to have taken that as motivation and in Vincenzo Montella has found a coach able to get the best out of his talents.
“I took my transfer to Florence as a new challenge,” Valero told El Pais. “I wanted to contradict those who say that a Spanish player cannot do well in Italy. I am a stubborn person. Moreover, I am lucky to be in a team who likes to play the ball, our coach seems more Spanish than Italian.”
Right from the start, the transfer has been a success for both player and club. Only Marek Hamsik and Francesco Totti came up with as many assists as Valero in Serie A last season and the playmaker has continued his form into this term. Alongside David Pizarro and Alberto Aquilani – two others who had brief stays in England – he has formed a creative midfield unit for the Viola.
Valero’s eight assists this season rank him among the top four in Serie A and is twice as many as any Fiorentina team-mate. With 71 key passes, he is among the top-three chance creators in the league and he’s in good company with the likes of Totti, Kaka and Andrea Pirlo also in the top eight.
|Serie A - Creativity|
Unlike Totti and others, this creativity is not reflected in a low pass completion rate. Valero isn’t forcing it – his passing accuracy is far superior to the two men who’ve fashioned more openings. He is providing control and thrust for Montella’s men. The plaudits are coming his way.
Veteran team-mate Massimo Ambrosini recently hailed Valero’s “sublime intelligence and fine technique” and the manager himself is making bold comparisons. Montella was the only player to hit the 20 goal mark in consecutive seasons between 1996 and 1998. It’s no coincidence that they were the two years for which he had Juan Sebastian Veron serving him from midfield.
“Borja Valero does remind me of Seba Veron,” said Montella. “Especially his haircut! He is a fantastic player who is able to read the play before anyone else. He’ll become a great coach one day.” He’s the orchestrator and that's been shown by how much he's been missed when not around. A recent ban proved costly for Fiorentina as they promptly suffered back-to-back league defeats for the first time in over a year. They’ve picked up just seven points from seven games without Valero starting this season compared to 54 from 28 with him in the line-up.
As the club prepares for Saturday’s Coppa Italia final against Napoli in the Stadio Olimpico and the prospect of a first major trophy in over a decade, preparations have been fraught. Valero is expected to start despite concerns about an inflamed patellar tendon, but ahead of him there are bigger problems.
Juan Cuadrado, who scored two against Bologna last time out, is suspended. Mario Gomez is missing through injury, while Giuseppe Rossi is unlikely to be fully fit having not featured since January. If Matias Fernandez is able to take his place in midfield, there have been suggestions that Valero could be asked to operate in a false nine role.
That would be far from ideal but Valero certainly has intelligence to make it work and, typically, is looking forward to the challenge. “For me it will be the first chance to win a title,” he told a pre-match press conference. “We will be missing a lot of players but we want to do well without them. Our strength is the group.” That’s true. But their strength also comes from the skills of Borja Valero.