The Vélez Factory: a rare model of consistency
(Article also featured on Lovely Left Foot)
Instability in domestic club football is about as Argentine as steak, tango and dodgy barnets. With the managerial merry-go-round constantly spinning at a frenetic pace and clubs hampered by economic limitations, it all makes for a difficult environment for any sort of continuity.
As with anything though, there are exceptions to the rule and Vélez Sársfield provide one of the best models of a well-run club in the entire country. Unsurprisingly they have also been one of the most consistently successful over the past four years.
The appointments of club legends Christian Bassedas and Ricardo Gareca as director of football and manager respectively at the tail end of 2008 marked the beginning of el Fortín’s most fruitful period since the mid-nineties when José Luis Chilavert & co lifted the Copa Libertadores in 1994. The impact was immediate: In their first season Gareca led Vélez to the Clausura title, edging a wonderful, free-scoring Huracán side in dramatic fashion. The two sides met in the final game of the season with Vélez claiming a 1-0 victory courtesy of a late Maxi Moralez strike to leapfrog el Globo and snatch the title.
Vélez were once again challenging for honours in the 2010 Apertura going head-to-head with Alejandro Sabella’s Estudiantes but eventually fell just short, finishing the season second and a staggering 11 points ahead of nearest rivals Arsenal in third. Quite achievement in just a 19-game short tournament! The side from Liniers then managed to go one better in the following Clausura when they lifted the title once again, doing it in style with the dynamic front three of Ricky Álvarez, Maxi Moralez and Santiago Silva terrorising defences up and down the country.
Consecutive 3rd place finishes in the 2011/12 Apertura and Clausura have contributed to a hugely impressive three year point average – 1.968 points per game at the time of writing – that sees them sit head and shoulders above the rest of the league in the promedios.
What makes those achievements even more impressive is the fact that they regularly had to deal with the not insignificant challenges of continental football. The huge distances between countries – Buenos Aires to Mexico City is the equivalent of London to Mumbai – as well as the massive shifts in altitude and temperature all take their toll and domestic form often suffers as a result. Indeed no Argentinian club has ever won the league and Libertadores in the same season – Boca coming very close last year but ultimately returning empty handed being a perfect illustration.
However, Gareca’s men have expertly juggled the difficulties of competing on two fronts, reaching the Sudamericana semi-finals in 2010 and 2011 and still finishing 2nd and 3rd in the league, while an away goals loss to Peñarol kept them out of the 2011 Libertadores final in the same season they won the Clausura. Last season’s third place finish was coupled with a run to the Libertadores quarter-final where they were unfortunate to go out to reigning champions Santos on penalties. Much credit must be given to Gareca’s ability to rotate the squad to keep them simultaneously challenging in both competitions.
With no continental distraction for the first time in two years, Vélez have been able to focus fully on the league this past season. Newell’s set the early pace, playing some attractive possession-based football under Gerardo Martino in their hunt for a first title for in 20 years, and looked to be running away with the league. A first minute Maxi Rodríguez goal gave Newell’s a narrow 1-0 win over Vélez when the sides clashed midway through the Inicial (as it is now known) but, rather than sink Vélez’s hopes, it served as a catalyst for an impressive 7 wins from the following 8 – a loss against Boca the only blip – whilst Newell’s conversely seemed run out of steam with only one win and a catalogue of costly draws. A late surge from Lanús provided the most significant challenge but Vélez kept their heads to win their ninth ever title with one game to spare.
Surely this triumph should have come as no surprise? Placed in the context of a raft of key departures before the season though, this latest league title represents perhaps the crowning achievement for Gareca at Vélez. Out went the creative flair of Juan Manuel Martínez in a $7million deal to Corinthians while first choice and consistently excellent goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero left for River and defensive stalwart Fernando Ortiz joined Racing. What’s more, they also lost midfielders Augusto Fernández (Celta Vigo), David Ramírez (Godoy Cruz), Víctor Zapata (Independiente), and Héctor Canteros (Villarreal on loan), leaving Vélez with a young and largely inexperienced side.
Though admittedly not a new phenomenom, the cold hard economic realities mean that the loss of top players is endemic of the Argentinian game as a whole. Nevertheless, Vélez have grown accustomed to these departures and proved adept at adapting quickly. In recent years the attacking trident of Moralez, Silva and Álvarez that spearheaded their 2011 Clausura win all packed their bags for Serie A shortly after, while the likes of Jonathan Cristaldo and Nicolás Otamendi were also snapped up following decent performances under Gareca.
Their ability to continue to perform at the highest level despite this unfortunate but necessary situation can be contributed to a number of factors. Firstly, a sizeable portion of the money made from transfers is reinvested back into the club and has been used wisely to make smart purchases. This year, for example, Vélez beat off fierce competition to land promising striker Facundo ‘Chucky’ Ferreyra from Banfield for $1.6mil and the move has proved to be a masterstroke. Ferreyra has chipped in with 13 goals and has formed a decent partnership with Lucas Pratto who was himself initially brought in on loan in February to fill the hole left by Silva and has now made the move back permanent. Should Vélez cash in on Chucky in the future they are likely to make a tidy profit on their investment.
Secondly, Vélez possess one of the finest youth systems in Argentina. Many of their first teamers have come through the youth ranks such as record appearance holder Fabián Cubero, midfielders Ariel Cabral and Iván Bella and promising young defenders Gino Peruzzi and Fernando Tobio. Other notable alumni from their academy include Jonás Gutiérrez, Mauro Zarate and Diego Simeone to name but a few. Teenagers Brian Ferreira, Agustín Allione and Lucas Romero are the latest players this season to come from the relentless production line, making the seamless transition to the first team and have not looked out of place at all.
Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – is that Bassedas and Gareca have managed to forge a footballing identity at Vélez. As former players who understand the club, they have created a great team spirit and a distinctive style of play which in turn facilitates the incorporation of their well-prepared younger squad members into the first team. It also makes them an attractive destination for players who want to develop in a stable environment, as displayed by Ferreyra’s decision to turn down offers from bigger clubs. Though the current side has not hit the heights of the 2010/11 side that played such beautiful passing football, Gareca has cleverly tweaked the style of play to compliment the abilities of the squad he possesses, moulding them into a more solid efficient outfit. Nevertheless, examples of that flowing football still exist such as the magnificent 19-pass goal versus Arsenal de Sarandí.
On top of these factors, it’s certainly true that Vélez benefit from less pressure and media attention than the traditional grandes. Though often derided for their supposed lack of support, the absence of a vocal barra brava has no doubt contributed to Gareca long tenure which, by Argentinian standards, seems an eternity.
With their latest piece of silverware, Vélez continue to set the bench mark for the rest of the league. Other notable examples such as Lanús and more recently Newell’s – unsurprisingly the sides also challenging for the title – prove that the tide may be beginning to turn. But, with Gareca and Bassedas at the helm, Vélez’s consistent achievement must be applauded and their success shows no signs of abating any time soon.