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  • Writer's pictureSam Leveridge

Carlos Soler: Valencia’s todoterreno born in the wrong era

Carlos Soler is a man born in the wrong era. That’s not to say that his style doesn’t suit the modern game. There are few players in LaLiga who suit it better. An engine which is second to none, vision which is unrivalled, and composure on the ball which gives him the edge in any given moment.

Yet, his talents deserve another era of Valencia Club de Fútbol. They are worthy of minutes alongside Rubén Baraja, David Albelda and the like. Had he been born 20 years earlier, he would have been in a league-winning squad alongside those names, some of the greatest in the history of the club.

Even if he were born only 10 years earlier, he would’ve featured alongside the likes of David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata on their way to dominating the European football scene. A tantalising thought for fans of Los Che.

For La Liga Lowdown’s resident valencianista, Paco Polit, his profile is a mix of some of the greats from across the years. “He was the first complete midfielder to come from the youth academy in many years,” Paco explains. “There were traces of the best of Baraja, coming in from deep and making it look easy to score.”

But Soler was born in 1997. Soler’s talents belie the era in which he was born. His arrival into the first team could not have come at a worse time in the club’s modern history. With Valencia in chaos on the field and off it, the emergence of this dynamic midfielder has been one of few high points over the past five years, providing an ever-present sense of valencianismo that can only come from a local boy done good.

A ray of hope

Growing up on the pitches of Bonrepòs just a 15-minute drive from Mestalla, he joined the club at the age of seven. It took some convincing though. “When we first got him playing, he didn’t want to because he enjoyed scoring goals past his grandad, but he bought him a Gameboy to convince him! Then he was playing with kids two years older than him, when Valencia came to play us, they asked how old he was and couldn’t believe he was so young,” Soler’s first coach, José Luis Rodríguez, recalled.

But even at that young age, Carlos Soler was a Valencia fan, as well as a future superstar. “We used to go to the entrance of the main stand and wait outside before kick-off,” Soler revealed, looking back on his childhood as he spoke shortly after his 2016 debut. “There would be old men who had many tickets but not all of their family could come, so we asked to use the spare tickets.”

Soler is Valencia through and through. When invited on to Spanish late night chat show ‘La Resistencia’, he took a gift for host David Broncano of traditional Valencian instruments used at the regional Las Falles festival.

Unlike many youngsters in the Valencia youth ranks, he put in the groundwork. There was no skipping age categories or jumping ahead, instead patiently building up his career. Playing alongside a certain Rafa Mir in attack, he was often the provider, but also a prolific finisher as he began his career as a centre-forward. His statistics at Paterna are reported to have included more than 500 goals scored and over 100 assists.

It’s easy to see why he caught the eye. His journey wasn’t always easy, though. His first call-up to the first team came in the short (but notorious) reign of Gary Neville. Under Paco Ayestarán he became a regular on the fringes of the senior squad, but Cesare Prandelli was the man to give him his debut. In the course of less than 12 months as Soler knocked on the first-team door, he had three coaches to impress, alongside interim coach Voro.

It was in fact Voro, the least likely of the four, to have the biggest impact on his emergence. “Prandelli might have been the one to claim the medal of giving him his chance in the elite, but if we’re honest, it was Voro who helped him to consolidate his position,” Paco tells us. Prandelli gave him 45 minutes across two appearances, but it was Voro who gave him five consecutive LaLiga starts immediately off the back of that.

Battling to climb up the table, Soler’s breakthrough was one with plenty at stake. “Arriving on the scene in a difficult moment allowed him to mature early,” Álvaro Benzal told La Liga Lowdown. “Going through moments of such pressure with the team is what has made him grow as a person and as a player.”

Finding his place

Even once in the team, it wasn’t a matter of slotting in and finding himself at home. Soler has had to adapt and grow, changing his position throughout. Breaking through as an offensive midfielder under Voro, a change of shape saw him drop into a deeper central midfield role, which later saw him pushed wide.

“I like him most when he’s closer to the area, he can get into the box and make movements that break defensive lines. You can’t forget that he started off as a forward and scored hundreds of goals,” Álvaro told us.

“With the under-16s he played more like a classic number 10,” Paco agreed. “The needs of the team under Marcelino pushed him to right wing, but he wasn’t uncomfortable, and he worked hard to improve his already impressive defensive work rate and physique when defending. His goalscoring abilities decreased, but he became a better footballer thanks to Marcelino.”

It was more a question of competition than a negative assessment of Soler’s talents. With Dani Parejo and Geoffrey Kondogbia for rivals in central midfield, they added the vision and bite that Marcelino craved, but he knew that his talents were too good to ignore. The Asturian pushed Soler to a wide role, with over two thirds of his appearances under Marcelino coming in that role. Yet even from the right flank, Soler found a way to influence games more than most would ever dream of even from a central position.

“That time has helped him now he’s back in the middle, with Javi Gracia and with José Bordálas, and his level is so high,” Paco continued. There is a word the Spanish use to describe players who are as robust as Soler, todoterreno. Literally, an all-terrain, or in other words, a 4x4. Soler is todoterreno in every sense of the word.

Capable of getting back to make a last-ditch tackle, but then equally as likely to be the man threading through an inch-perfect pass in the final third, he has it all. It is in attack where he really makes the difference, ranking among LaLiga’s elite with his assists, but to solely focus on one area would be to do him a disservice. Soler’s game is so powerful because it is so rounded, so versatile and so incredibly fundamental to Bordalás’ gameplan. That’s reflected beyond simply his midfield domination.

Becoming a leader

Appointed Valencia’s vice-captain in 2020, Soler’s growth has been remarkable for a player who is still only 24 years of age. “He seems a quiet person, who lacks leadership, but I’m told that he is highly respected within the dressing room,” Álvaro informed us.

That is proven by more than words. Following the departure of his midfield companion Dani Parejo, Soler requested to wear his number 10 shirt. The club rejected his request, with other plans in mind. Even a meeting with Jaume Domenech and Gabriel Paulista, two of the club’s veteran captains at the time, did not change Anil Murthy’s mind, and Valencia started the season as the only side in the league without a number 10 in their squad. “The club didn’t listen, they wanted Kang-in Lee to wear it for marketing reasons, but when the time came, Kang-in didn’t want it because he knew it’d cause conflict in the dressing room. Now in 2021, the importance of Soler as the number 10 is out of question,” Paco reflected.

Since Parejo’s departure, one area where the club’s management didn’t intervene was at set pieces. Soler has stepped up, scoring 12 of the 14 penalties he has taken in the past two seasons, including a hat-trick from 12 yards against Real Madrid.

This season alone, Valencia have taken 1.55 points per game when Soler has been on the field, compared to 0.5 points per game without him. He scored the first three goals of the season to kick off the Bordalás era, making an immediate impression even after coming off the back of the Olympics only weeks previously.

“We have to ask for more from ourselves, we have to demand more. In every area of the field, we have to give more,” Soler said as he faced the cameras after a disappointing home draw against Rayo Vallecano. Not only does he lead by example, but he acts like a leader with his words too.

The future

A lot has changed for Soler over the past 12 months or so. He’s gone from fighting to play in his best position, to vice-captain, undisputed starter and Spanish international. Having gone to the Olympic Games with Spain, sacrificing his holidays in order to be there, he won a silver medal with his country and has since been called up by Luis Enrique for the national team in both the September and November international breaks, missing the October break due to injury.

Soler’s profile is growing, but it’s doing so at a time when he enters into the final 18 months of his existing contract at Mestalla. “I’m calm, I have a contract until 2023. It’s true that I’ve had some interest, but not any firm offers,” Soler himself told ‘El Partidazo de COPE’, speaking openly on his contract situation. And the player himself has made no secret of the fact that he wants to stay.

“If it were up to Soler, he’d renew today,” Paco states. But as Valencia fans know only all too well, nothing is ever that simple at Mestalla. “The club has the league’s lowest wage cap for next season, at just over 30 million euros,” Paco elaborates. “Economically, Meriton can’t offer him what other clubs pursuing him can, and they can’t offer much in terms of the sporting project either.”

“Every day that he spends at Valencia is a gift,” his agent Javier Cordón told Superdeporte in September. “He lives in the city he wants to live in, and he plays and trains where he dreamt of being. Professional footballers always want to give their all, but if you combine that with an emotional factor, your implication isn’t for 90 minutes, it’s 24 hours, seven days a week.”

And so we return to the misfortunate case of Carlos Soler – a player of elite talent, yet let down by his club. “I’d love to score the goal that gives Valencia a title,” he told Onda Cero in November. This is a boy who has grown up dreaming of what he is now living. But that boy is becoming a man with an ambition that his club, a once great club, is struggling to live up to. Soler’s future may be bright, but he must now decide whether he will shine with his Valencia, or will reach superstardom elsewhere.

If you want to follow Carlos Soler's penalty-scoring heroics in LaLiga, follow us at @LaLigaLowdown.

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