Some players explode into life and already dazzle among the best as teenagers. Others chart more of a steady, gradual rise.
The latter is the case for Dani Parejo, now establishing himself as one of La Liga’s most reliable at the age of 29.
Despite his prolonged path to the very top, no less than Alfredo Di Stéfano predicted the midfielder would be one of the best when few others seemed to believe it.
Parejo was the apple of the Madrid legend’s eye, and the late Argentinian insisted he was the finest player he had ever seen in Los Blancos’ youth system. When the Spanish giants disagreed and sent the then youngster on a humbling loan spell to QPR in the Championship in 2008, Di Stéfano stopped going to B team (Castilla) games in protest.
Di Stéfano’s vision ultimately proved to be sound: Parejo has now leapfrogged the likes of Koke and Saúl in the Spain pecking order thanks to an excellent club season.
For a while though, it was touch and go. Capable of truly brilliant moments, for years he also lacked the consistency to fulfil his true potential, not always as fit and sharp as someone without natural pace needs to be in order to cope in midfield.
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Inconsistency is what defined the early part of his time at Valencia. The first real high coincided with the arrival of Nuno Espirito Santo as coach in 2014. The Portuguese took advantage of Parejo’s natural ability in front of goal, giving him room to surge into space behind the striker and score 11 from midfield. That helped a revitalised and rejuvenated Los Che return to the Champions League positions for the first time since 2012.
But the lows were particularly low. In Valencia’s horrific 2015-16 season (the one with the Gary Neville experiment) Parejo became a scapegoat for everything that was going wrong at the club. He was stripped of the captaincy by Neville, and Valencia finished as close to the relegation zone as they did the European spots.
Things didn’t get any better in the subsequent year. Sections of the fanbase grew increasingly frustrated with a player they perceived to not be trying hard enough, and everything suggested Parejo would leave the Mestalla a fallen hero, the Madrid native actively looking for a way out. Then, for the second time in his career, someone saw something when others didn’t.
Marcelino taking charge in 2017 marked the beginning of a return to the top for Los Che, and more than any other, Parejo is the player he has built it around. Despite carrying out a sweeping dressing room clearout, the Asturian saw something worth fighting for when the midfielder was at his worst moment, convincing him to stay and making him the captain once more. Parejo has paid off that faith in spades.
Confidence and the mental side of things is certainly important, but there is a tactical explanation too: Marcelino has firmly established Parejo’s position as a deep-lying playmaker with license to make late runs into the area (think Xabi Alonso), and that has allowed him to truly excel.
With seven league goals he is the highest-scoring central midfielder in La Liga this season. For some perspective, next on the list is Santi Cazorla, with four, then Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic with three each. All are higher profile figures than Parejo, none have been as consistent.
And even if his spell in England was brief there is certainly a touch of the English style to his game, box-to-box and specialising in catching opposition defenders out by arriving late from the third line to either finish in the area or drill off a shot from distance.
The captain is absolutely indispensable for his coach, playing in 25 of 28 league matchdays so far.
Sergio Ramos is the only captain from the other Spanish powerhouses to have played more league games (26).
The first sign we were seeing the best of Parejo was his leadership role in getting Valencia back into the Champions League last year, but it is his repeated excellence this year, even when other members of the team have struggled to deliver, that truly confirms it.
A key defensive piece who has recovered possession more than any other outfield player for Los Che, he has also been their most dangerous creative threat, averaging 2.5 key passes per game and 85% pass completion – that’s particularly impressive considering his habit of receiving the ball in congested areas.
This year marks Valencia’s centenary, and it could yet prove to be one of the best. Fourth place is still within touching distance, a spot in a first cup final in 10 years has already been booked, and a Europa League quarter-final against relegation strugglers Villarreal offers a favourable path to European glory.
Be it David Albelda, Ruben Baraja or David Silva, Los Che’s best modern teams have always featured great midfielders. If they are indeed celebrating come the summer, they can thank the next in that lineage for his major contribution.
Di Stéfano would be proud of what Parejo has become.