How will Port Vale's 'foreign legion' adapt to life in League One under Bruno Ribeiro?
The appointment of Bruno Ribeiro at Vale Park has been the catalyst for a wave of optimism amongst Port Vale supporters that has been unseen at the club for many years. He has occupied the hot-seat at Vale Park for a matter of weeks and already proceedings have begun towards building a team fit to challenge for promotion to the Football League Championship.
What is clear to many supporters is that Ribeiro and Chairman Norman Smurthwaite share a common vision – that within the three years of the Portuguese manager’s contract, the club will be sat in the second tier with a wealth of talent which can be sold on to ensure the club’s long term survival in the harsh environment that is the top two divisions of English football.
The blueprint for the renaissance of the Burslem club that was a mainstay in the second tier during the late 80s and 90s has already begun to take shape, and as well as looking to recruit talent from the English leagues, Ribeiro has already been making good use of his contacts abroad in a bid to plunder talent from Europe’s playing pool to put together a team capable of an assault on League One next season. Nine players have arrived at Vale Park already from overseas, several from the top divisions elsewhere in Europe including Ligue 1, the Portuguese Liga Nos and the Dutch Eredivisie.
The general reaction amongst fans has been one of positive surprise and hope for the future but also one of caution. Of course it is a completely fresh and somewhat pioneering approach for a club at such a level and there can be no guarantee that these nine players will be able to easily adapt to the requirements of pace, physicality and the English climate that League One football demands.
Their manager himself has never managed in English football prior to to taking the reins at Vale Park, though has experience of the English game from his playing days at Yorkshire clubs Leeds and Sheffield United, but gaffer and players alike have already set about bedding into their new environment and playing with their new teammates as the majority of the new signings featured in Vale’s opening pre-season friendly against Non-League neighbours Newcastle Town. The Valiants ran out 4-0 winners, though none of the European based signings scored. However their impact and general showing was impressive according to supporters in attendance.
With regards to the demands of the climate of English football and being able to produce in difficult conditions, it is reasonable to assume that the three players recruited from the Netherlands should be able to adapt rather effectively. The players concerned are defenders Kjell Knops – who joins from MVV Maastricht in the Dutch second tier, and Calvin Mac-Intosch who came through the ranks at Ajax and last played in the Eredivisie with SC Cambuur. Another is Curaçao born forward Rigino Cicilia, a 6ft 5 inch target man who came though the ranks at Roda JC Kerkrade before a loan spell at Waalwijk in the Eerste Divisie.
Mac-Intosch boasts 34 games of experience in the Dutch top flight and at the age of 26 could prove a valuable asset in the Vale defence, and has been described as a “dark Jaap Stam” by FOX Sports analyst Jan van Halst.
Experience is certainly something Vale could do with in their rearguard following the departure of Richard Duffy to Notts County. 28-year-old Knops is also blessed with experience but after a knee injury in 2013-14 with Maastricht he is liable to be caught out by pace. A quicker and slightly younger counterpart alongside Knops such as Mac-Intosch, or Vale’s young centre half Remie Streete, could help remedy the dilemma, but Knops’ strengths are his eye for a pass, the precision of his left foot and a tendency to play out from the back, aspects which Ribeiro preaches in his style of play which understandably forges a link between the gaffer and his target.
The success of Cicilia will depend very much on how Ribeiro’s Port Vale team aims to play, and tactics and setup may indeed be critical in not only getting the best out of the new signings but also helping them cope with the demands of the English game. Under Rob Page in 2015-16, the team were criticised for playing narrowly when having a strong forward in the team rather than supplying balls from the wings, and vice versa for attempting wing play with no target man. This culminated in several toothless attacking displays and frustrating occasions where points would be dropped, particularly in away games, as the Valiants with much potential only managed a 12th place finish.
Lining up with Cicilia, despite continental style football often presenting itself as more ‘pass through the opposition’ orientated, supplying crosses from the wings would seem the logical way to play with such an asset in the air, with the potential to be clinical from set pieces. A striker with experience in Holland will also be familiar with similar playing conditions to England and potentially a similar type of aerial battle too, with the rough and tough hardy nature of the northern European leagues.
With this in mind, a winger who is accustomed to physicality, but with the quality to feed a forward, is a potentially vital component to the Vale machine. The solution Ribeiro has sought out has been in the form of his latest recruit, Zimbabwe born Swedish winger Christopher Mbamba who arrived from Norwegian football having played for HamKam in the third tier.
Similar to the Dutch-based recruits, Mbamba will be more than familiar with playing in the testing conditions that English football will throw up, but it is a case of adapting to the quality and the pace of the League One game that will provide the challenge, having only experienced the lower echelons of Scandinavian football. Familiarity with the climate is one crucial aspect in terms of a player being able to produce the quality of which he is capable, but having the quality to begin with in order to function in more competitive leagues is another matter. To account for this, Ribeiro and Smurthwaite have identified more technically gifted and pass minded targets to compliment the supply line for the new look Vale attack.
This is where Ribeiro has looked to technical flair in other, higher profile leagues around Europe. He has recruited mainly from Portugal and France to provide this, with midfielder Paulo Tavares and left-back Kiko arriving from Vitoria Setúbal of the Portuguese Primeira Liga Nos, and midfielders Quentin Pereira and Anthony De Freitas arriving from the academies at Ligue 1 clubs Stade Reims and Monaco respectively. Ribeiro has also recruited a goalscorer from the same surroundings in the form of 30 year old former Sporting Lisbon forward Carlos Saleiro from Clube Oriental de Lisboa in Portugal’s second tier.
It is these players which have the potential to be the most exciting, but with all of them having no prior experience to the English game, adapting them to the demands of English football may be problematic. The new signings will inevitably be faced with physical battles in the midfield which in more technically minded leagues, such players may not be accustomed to. Pereira and De Freitas having mostly been exposed to academy football abroad bar a loan spell in Portugal for the latter, are two examples.
Though the signing of creative players may hint at Ribeiro combating the brawn of League One with passing, possession football, he already has a tough tackling defensive minded midfielder in Anthony Grant to break up play who is blessed with technical brilliance and an eye for a pass. With Paulo Tavares likely to be a set-piece specialist to fill the void left by the departed Michael O’Connor, Pereira and De Freitas may be in Ribeiro’s mind components to the passing machine in a three man midfield, rendering Kiko at left back a box to box option who will provide the width with his athleticism and ability to whip in crosses.
A great deal will depend on whether this new look Vale team will prove good enough creatively to pass through opponents. Indeed playing around physical teams can counter typically hardy styles of play, but this is where quality is vital, and fans will be hoping the presence of a technically gifted, pacy and nippy forward like Saleiro will pay dividends with goals, similar to the breakthrough of Ajay Leitch-Smith, last season’s leading scorer who left for Shrewsbury Town.
Movement and pulling defenders out of position was his key attribute, and it can be expected that Saleiro will have a similar playing style whilst having an eye for goal of his own, and could feed off a target man like Rigino Cicilia or even line up alongside another more technical forward like Vale’s Newcastle United academy graduate, JJ Hooper. Leitch-Smith profited from a similar partnership in 2015-16 with a similarly minded player in Louis Dodds, and with Ribeiro’s attractive passing orientated style it is not inconceivable that he will look towards such a setup at some stage of the season.
Though the early signs are encouraging, this pre-season campaign will be a critical one for Bruno Ribeiro’s Port Vale team, as its nine promising European newcomers look to bed in and adapt to English football. A slow start may well be on the agenda for the Valiants as the team begins to gel and flex its muscles in a competitive league, but if the team is able to produce results, there is every indication that this pioneering approach by the Valiants at League One level can pay dividends and see the club elevate itself up the football pyramid.
That, however, is down to Ribeiro’s new recruits proving that they are good enough and versatile enough to play their football in a new, unfamiliar playing environment. With the new players signing on two-year contracts, they will be here for the long run in Ribeiro’s three-year project, which if they prove good assets to the club, will provide some much needed stability on the field in a side looking to build. If however they struggle to adapt, they have got the time on their contracts to do so but they will be under pressure before too long to produce the results the club, its hierarchy and its success starved supporters desperately crave.
Though one thing is for certain, 2016-17 will be a very interesting season to unfold at Vale Park. And it will not only be a new and fascinating chapter in the history of the club, but in that of League One itself given the courage taken by the Chairman to go down the continental route with manager and squad so far down the leagues. Only time will tell as to whether or not it will pay off, but Port Vale Football Club will certainly be one to keep an eye on in the meantime.