Manu Vallejo, Whizz of Cádiz
by Jamie Kemp
For a team that has scored just four goals in six league games this term, you may be inclined to think there’s not a lot to be noted about Cádiz’s attack. Álvaro Cervera’s side have had a rather anaemic start to the season, with their lack of finishing touch leaving them in 16th position and only one victory to their name. They’ve yet to score more than once in a league game in 2018-19, while only newly-promoted Elche and 18th-place Gimnástic have scored fewer goals than them.
A deeper look at their statistics tells a slightly different tale, however. Cádiz’s non-penalty xG of 7.5 is the third-highest in Segunda this season, yet they’ve only scored three non-penalty goals. That mixture of unfortune and lack of precision, suffice to say, means Cádiz are the side underperforming their non-penalty xG by the largest margin in the league (-4.5). Away at third-placed Albacete recently, they only managed a 1-1 draw with a last-minute equaliser, despite having 21 more shots than the home side, including a dominant performance in terms of chance quality (0.41 – 2.74 xG).
On a team level, we can’t say for sure whether Cádiz will end their glut moving forward. Perhaps coach Álvaro Cervera won’t be around to see it if their poor results persist; but in the form of one particular member of the team’s enigmatic attack, there is at least some concrete positivity to be taken.
Manu Vallejo played a total of six league minutes in 2017-18, yet this season he has started all six of Cádiz’s games in Segunda. In fact, the 21-year-old is one of only four outfield players to have been elected as a starter in every game by Cervera, as well as the youngest player in the division to have started 100% of his team’s games this term. On top of his league minutes, Vallejo also appeared in their Copa del Rey win over Tenerife, where he netted a 92nd minute winner in a 2-1 victory away from home.
Stationed on the left wing in Cádiz’s customary 4-2-3-1 system, Vallejo has quickly asserted himself as a fan favourite at the Ramón de Carranza. Noted for his direct attacking play and general intensity, the youth product has consistently been a bright spark in contrast to the team’s slow start to the campaign; almost instantly dispelling any doubts about whether he can be a first team contributor at Segunda level, when a contract extension over the summer had appeared to be nearing Vallejo towards a loan move to a Segunda B team.
What makes Vallejo’s promotion particularly impressive is that the youngster is directly following in the footsteps of Álvaro García, who was sold to Rayo Vallecano earlier in the summer. The 25-year-old was the team’s star player and one of the most influential attacking players in Segunda last season; his talents upon which much of Cádiz’s attacking strategy was built, with heavy emphasis on wing play. Although unrealistic to project that Vallejo could ‘replace’ the jet-heeled García, the youngster’s attributes have allowed the Submarino to maintain their 4-2-3-1 formation which is heavily characterised by direct wing play.
Through the opening few months of the season, the 21-year-old has shown himself to be among the league’s most gifted ball-carriers, and a regular headache for opposition full-backs. Vallejo is averaging 5.5 dribbles per 90 with a 56% success rate, making him not only one of the league’s most active dribblers, but also one of the most effective. It’s also where the youngster conducts those actions that makes him such a menace.
Indeed, Vallejo has been among the league’s very best at provoking action where it counts. Rather than looking to roam from his position, Vallejo has acted as a pure winger from the left hand side, with much of his on-ball actions coming in the final third and the edge of the penalty area. The youngster’s 1.46 dribbles per 90 in the opposition box ranks him second in the division, while he leads the league in fouls won in the attacking third (1.65), highlighting the issues that defenders have faced with his direct play so far.
His off-ball movement has also provided another issue, in that when opposition defenders get too close to try and shut down potential dribbling space, Vallejo can spin and get in behind the majority of his individual match-ups.
The 21-year-old’s recent goal against Tenerife was a good example of ability to generate opportunities through the speed and directness of his play. After feinting to go in behind and catching Raúl Cámara off balance, Vallejo creates space to receive the pass before moving sharply just as the Tenerife defender tries to recover and apply pressure. From there, his natural offensive instincts kick in and he carves out Cádiz’s winning goal with a piece of individual brilliance.
Although Vallejo’s contribution in terms of tangible goals and assists is yet to fully materialise, the early signs are that Cádiz have unearthed a player with notable attacking attributes. His combination of craft and speed has been an issue for a host of full-backs already, while it’s also those skills that have seen him occasionally used in central areas to try and stretch opposition defences. Whether it be on the wing or centrally, the challenge for the Chiclana native will be to develop end product on top of the dangerous positions he has been able to generate thus far; something he was noted for while playing for Cádiz B, where he scored frequently prior to his promotion.
For a recent youth graduate with fewer than 10 appearances for the club at senior level, the ideal situation would have been for Vallejo to get his opportunity in a team where he could have been the clear third or fourth attacking contributor, in terms of hierarchy. As it stands, the youngster – who has a release clause of eight million euros - is having to adapt on the fly and provide much of the drive behind a Cádiz side looking to start the engines on their season, with his importance growing by the week.
Jamie Kemp is a fantastic analyst and an even better person. Follow him on Twitter here.
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