FEATURE | Bryan Gil, Valencia and gifted footballers

Whoever came up with the quote that lightning does not strike twice in the same place was definitely not aware of the existence of Valencia, where it absolutely does. Even if it has occurred in mostly negative ways in recent times, the positive instances have been akin to a dopamine release for fans of the club. This season’s January transfer window brought yet more lightning to them, in the form of one of the most gifted youngsters in world football, Bryan Gil – a player who just happens to be a throwback to two of the best players ever seen at Estadio Mestalla, both also left-footed.

Valencia has had its fair share of exceptionally gifted footballers, from the days of the unforgettable Edmundo ‘Mundo’ Suárez in the 40s to the majestic Mario Kempes in the 70s, to the elegant Pablo Aimar in the 2000s. Those players knew how to take the game by the scruff of the neck and decide them almost on their own. They were players capable of ridiculous feats or actions, or magical goals or moments. Even in the current team, they have Gonçalo Guedes, who has been lighting things up over the past five years. His most recent thunderous strike was the goal that took Valencia into the Copa Del Rey final, after all.

There have been three Gils at Valencia before Bryan. Two were brothers who never got enough chances to impress and probably never were the required level. The third Gil is one of Valencia’s greatest players ever and a former captain – Roberto. He was a true one-club man in his day, someone who embodied what it meant to be Valencianista and who went on to win every major trophy except the European Cup. While it is unlikely that Bryan will match Roberto’s feats at the club, especially since he is only on loan and may never play for the club again once this season is over, it looks increasingly possible that he could become and remain a beloved name at the club long after he leaves. In fact, he is already a fan favourite after eight games, and for a host of reasons.

The first thing that sticks out about Bryan Gil is his exceptional ball-carrying, with his ability to manipulate the ball at speed, keep it under control, and beat players. Because of this, Valencia fans are already likening him to Vicente Rodriguez Guillen, the electric winger who was one of the driving forces behind their famous doblete of 2004. His average of 31.4 carries per game so far is second only to Guedes in the team, who is the club’s primary ball carrier.

One thing that Pepe Bordalas’ system does very well is give a lot of freedom to flair players like Bryan and Guedes, who have a license to roam within the middle and final third and make spontaneous decisions. Valencia average the lowest pass completion rate in La Liga so these ball-carriers are heavily influential in ensuring that they make the best use of the ball when they have it. They also double as high volume dribblers who attract pressure from opposition players and consequently open up space for others.

Bryan’s Valencia debut against Cádiz, which came in a Copa Del Rey quarter-final, was a ball-carrying masterclass. He delivered a man-of-the-match performance, going through a bunch of players and cutting through Cádiz’s lines repeatedly. That day, he completed five of his five attempted dribbles, won nine out of 10 duels and won two fouls. They simply could not contain him. This performance gave Bordalás ideas, but more importantly, it convinced him that Bryan could be trusted with more responsibility.

Bordalás has been playing Guedes in a free role behind the striker for much of the season, with wingers and inside forwards marauding down either side. While it has proven to be effective in bringing out the best of Guedes, it has not been particularly successful for the other forwards who have had to feed on scraps. Teams know they have the option of man-marking Guedes or doubling up on him, effectively snuffing out Valencia’s only real x-factor threat.

Bryan Gil’s arrival has completely changed their dynamic, giving Bordalás the opportunity to rework the attack without reducing the numbers he has in midfield. He has switched things up now, unleashing Gil and Guedes in the half-spaces behind the striker and giving them the freedom to roam into winger positions or carry the ball into zone 14. That change has reformed how Valencia operate in the final third. Now, teams have two x-factor players to worry about and simply cannot commit too many of their resources into dealing with both players.

It is not only electricity that Bryan Gil has in his locker. He is also a player with great vision and a sublime final ball. It was on show during his La Liga debut with Valencia against Real Sociedad when he introduced himself to the Mestalla crowd and showed them exactly what they could expect from him in the months that would follow. Of course, they had already seen him light up Mestalla in the colours of Eibar last season.

That day, Valencia won 4-1 but Bryan was unplayable. Coming on in the 36th minute to replace Kevin Rodrigues with Eibar 3-0 down, he scored within two minutes of coming on. But he was not done yet. He ran the show and not even the stats could do justice to his performance. As Eibar created chance after chance and fluffed their lines, he was at the heart of it all with his explosive running, close control, supreme skill, and ability in tight spaces. Everyone was in awe, with him completing four of five dribbles, delivering two key passes, and 52 carries playing down the left.

This time, in a Valencia shirt, he delivered another performance reminiscent of that one. As the Mestalla crowd cheered, he ran the show again. When the moment did come for him to show his vision and execution of the final ball, he did it like David Silva used to while at Valencia. It was a sublime through ball that the Real Sociedad defenders could scarcely believe, a pass that took out everyone and found Maxi Gómez in space. Silva, who was on the opposition bench, must have wondered if his clone was out there on the pitch.

With strengths come inevitable flaws, and Bryan is no different. He does have his flaws and they’ve shown in bursts, not to be completely overshadowed by all his strengths. He has a tendency to get carried away and do too much sometimes, especially in the seconds following brilliant play. But that is to be expected from a young player still developing. He also seems quite inconsistent with his decision-making during games, but that too is expected from a young player. One can look at Guedes and see how similar flaws evaporated from his game the more he played and grew as a player. Expect it to be no different with Bryan.

During the celebrations following Valencia’s qualification for the Copa Del Rey final, Bryan saw firsthand how much of an impression he had made with the Valencia fans, after another gritty and explosive performance. On the Mestalla balcony where the players typically celebrate with the fans on big nights, he watched a huge crowd chant his name and ask him to stay at the club. It was not merely the euphoria of victory driving it, and not many players get that kind of adulation from the fans so quickly.

They may have a poor reputation outside – largely unfair because they are so misunderstood by many – but Valencia fans never make a mistake or hold back when it is time to be thunderous in applause and effusive in praise of players who do well in their colours. It took eight games for Bryan to earn that kind of adulation because it has been clear to them. He is special. The fans can see that lightning has struck again at Mestalla. It is Vicente and David Silva in one body, thundering through the Mestalla pitches, lighting up the faces of everyone who beholds him.

Astorre S. Cerebróne

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