Valencia’s Jose Gaya is one of the most highly rated left-backs around, and his future could tell us a lot about whether the apparently nouveau-riche Mestalla outfit have really arrived as one of European football’s elite clubs.
Gaya is the latest pocket-dynamo off the production line which has also produced Barcelona’s Jordi Alba and Bayern Munich’s Juan Bernat. The three are all remarkably similar players, small in stature, lightning quick, technically excellent and aggressive in the tackle. Alba and Bernat quickly outgrew Mestalla, and Gaya’s displays over the last year have been good enough to suggest he could also be headed right for the top.
The Alicante-born youngster, who turned 20 just last May, had long been tipped for senior success by local pundits, but had hardly featured for the first team before the 2014/15 season. Then the exits of Bernat to Munich and Jeremy Mathieu to Barcelona opened up a starting spot, an opportunity he grabbed spectacularly well.
A stand-out display in Valencia’s 2-1 win over Real Madrid last January, when he was involved in both his team’s goals, really brought Gaya to prominence throughout Spain. The following month AS were claiming that Los Blancos hierarchy now saw him as the “new Roberto Carlos”, while Manchester City were among other big clubs to reportedly monitoring his progress.
These reports came alongside news that talks between Valencia’s directors and Gaya’s agents had broken down, and the Madrid-based media grew increasingly confident that an €18 million summer move to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu would take place.
However, on the eve of the return meeting between the teams in early May, Valencia announced that an agreement had been found and a new long term contract been agreed with Valencia's directors - which apparently raised his buyout clause to a new level of €50 million.
Gaya had an up and down game at the Bernabeu, setting up a goal for teammate and fellow Paterna-youth product Paco Alcacer as Valencia raced into a 2-0 lead. But then conceding a penalty for an awkward push on Gareth Bale as Madrid came back for 2-2. A point was an excellent result in Valencia’s ultimately successful push for a top four finish however, and their left-back had again looked far from out of place on the big stage.
By the end of the season, having made made just one league appearance before summer 2014, Gaya had played in 35 of Valencia’s 38 Primera Division games. He was a key part of what was one of Spain’s most organised defences, featuring mostly on the left side of a four man back line, while also getting forward to score one goal and make an impressive six assists. Ten yellow cards also showed a willingness to get stuck in, despite his small size. His displays lead to praise from Spain senior coach Vicente Del Bosque, although the La Roja boss has understandably stuck with Alba and Bernat as his two left-backs for now.
Even with the new deal running until June 2020, it was no surprise when transfer speculation hotted up again during the summer transfer window. Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United were the three clubs most often mentioned in paper talk. A €50 million release clause sounds like a lot for a left-back, but Valencia have been burned by losing Alba for what now looks a bargain €14 million in summer 2012 and Bernat two years later for a fee of €12 million which also now seems quite small.
Gaya has started the new 2015/16 campaign in similar form to last year - and has played a role in Valencia conceding just one goal in their first four La Liga outings.
He also showed his excellent understanding down the left with Andre Gomes while providing the assist for the Portuguese midfielder’s goal in Valencia’s Champions League group stages opener. On balance things have not been so positive for the team though - with Zenit Saint Petersburg winning 3-2 at Mestalla in Europe, and Los Che fans whistling the team and coach Nuno after last weekend’s 0-0 draw at home to 10 men Real Betis meaning an uninspiring start to their domestic campaign.
This has again lead to questioning of the ‘project’ being overseen by Valencia’s super-rich owner Peter Lim and his close associate Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes.
In theory the club should not be selling their best players, however the departure of last season’s defensive leader Nicolas Otamendi to Manchester City for €45 million has shown a willingness to do business if they feel the deal is right. The lack of any moves to bring in new high profile attackers during the summer window has also left the always demanding Los Che support feeling more than underwhelmed.
The opening weeks of the season have now seen issues arise in defence at some of Gaya’s reported suitors.
Branislav Ivanovic’s travails at right-back for Chelsea could see Cesar Azpilicueta moved across to the other side of the back four by Blues boss Jose Mourinho, opening up a potential vacancy at left-back. Luke Shaw’s awful injury means Manchester United are again short in just that position. And Madrid would need to buy should Marcelo be ruled out for a significant amount of time - given Blancos coach Rafa Benitez has no specialist back-up in his squad.
Valencia’s reaction to any further interest in Gaya during the January window would give useful insight into how serious the club’s current owners are about competing at the very top.
The arrival of Lim just under two years ago was supposed to mean long-time selling club Valencia could now hold onto their best players. Should homegrown favourite Gaya follow Alba and Bernat through the door -- even for big money -- Mestalla fans would not be happy at all.
Read more from Dermot Corrigan