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The Borja Valero Renaissance

Since his arrival in 2012, Borja Valero has served as the club bellweather. After a relatively disappointing 2014/2015 season, Borja has found new life under Paulo Sousa, and he may be the primary reason for the club's strong start.

Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Much like the club under Vincenzo Montella itself, Borja Valero had an underwhelming 2014/2015 season.  He wasn't bad per se; he was rarely, if ever, a liability, and continued to be a key component of Fiorentina's possession football, but he was often ineffective and uncharacteristically turnover prone. In Serie A he only got 3 assists; as flawed as assist numbers are, that was his lowest number of league assists since his infamous spell at West Bromwich Albion. Likewise his WhoScored rating dipped below 7 for the first time since they started keeping track.

Borja was dealing with minor injuries all season, and for some fans this suggested the start of his decline. With the departure of Montella at the end of the season, together with a very strong (and surprisingly healthy) season from Matías Fernández, who often eclipsed Borja as the team's primary playmaker last year, there was speculation that Borja, already a club icon, would be reduced to a smaller role or even on his way out as the club decided to change direction.

Then came Paulo Sousa's first preseason with Fiorentina, where despite the coach's insistence on a more physical, defensive minded presence in the central midfield, Borja looked like his old self, and is back to being the key to the Viola attack. Nikola Kalinić, Josip Iličić, and Khouma Babacar might be the guys responsible for the club's new found effectiveness in front of the net; Milan Badelj and Matías Vecino are also standing out in the midfield, but Borja is once again the key playmaker; serving as the brain of Sousa's possession focused but more direct brand of football much the same way he was key to Montella's "tiki-taka" esque brand of pass happy football.

Following Villarreal's relegation in 2012, Fiorentina swooped in and signed Borja Valero for around €7M. A Real Madrid youth product, Borja never got a real chance with the Madrid first team, and had to move to Mallorca to break out. After a disappointing spell in England where West Brom had no idea what to do with him (something Anglo commentators will never fail to remind us of), Borja returned to Spain, first back with Mallorca, and then with Villarreal, a small town club that was quickly rising in credibility after their Champion's League run in 2008/2009. Borja spent two years at Villarreal; in his first season the club finished in 4th place and was one of the most exciting sides in Europe; the next year the defense imploded, resulting in the club's shock relegation in 2012.

Thanks to the Spanish connections of then assistant sporting director Eduardo Macía, Fiorentina took advantage of the Yellow Submarine's relegation, buying Borja, Gonzalo Rodríguez, and Giuseppe Rossi in what were probably three of the greatest deals in club history. In the era of dominance by the Xavi-lead FC Barcelona and Spain teams, bringing Borja Valero (widely considered the middle class man's Xavi) to Firenze was recognized as a good deal, but one that would have to overcome the notion that Spaniards can't play in Serie A - a stereotype that no player was able to overcome since Luis Suárez (no, not that one) starred for the Grande Inter of the 60s.

Borja shattered that notion. In his first season with the Viola, Borja was easily one of the club's best players. His smooth passing became a symbol of Montella's Fiorentina and their beautiful football; off the pitch he found himself a beloved Florentine institution, embracing the city alongside his adorable family. His remains one of the best interviews in football, always thoughtful, with a level of self awareness often lacking in this sport. Borja was so successful that within a year, Serie A became flooded with Spaniards. Fiorentina lead the way, flooding the team with bargain priced Spanish players - first Marcos Alonso and Joaquín, later Mario Suárez and Joan Verdú.

After an equally successful sophomore season, Borja slumped in 14/15. The combination of injuries and inferior form to Matí resulted in less than 30 Serie A appearances for the first time since his move to Fiorentina. With an 86.5% pass completion rating (his pass competition rating so far this season is 91.9%), he was still an elite passer, but by his own standards he was slightly off, especially around the box.

After the club's bitter divorce with Montella in the summer of 2015, The appointment of Sousa -  a Portuguese coach with a known greater emphasis on defense and direct play from the flanks - Borja's future became slightly in doubt for the first time. His departure was unlikely - the fans love him and the Valero family appear as comfortable in Florence as they do in Madrid - however the possibility of a future departure emerged for the first time.

Nonetheless, it soon became clear that Sousa would not fully abandon possession football. While the total number of passes has dropped compared to Montella's slower paced, horizontal style, on-ball skill and passing remains the focal point of the Fiorentina attack and defense. And Borja has possibly been the most to profit from the change of direction. Since preseason, the addition of more balanced, more physical midfield, along with a more efficient game, Borja Valero has played with a freedom he often lacked under Montella, where he was often asked to do too much, especially as David Pizarro declined.

While the season is still early, Borja is possibly playing the best football of his Florentine career so far, and has been rewarded with full confidence from the coach. Typically playing behind the forwards but ahead of Badelj and one of Vecino or Suárez, Borja has been a natural fit in Sousa's aggressive high press, dictating play and pulling off the key passes and crosses that he often lacked last year. Fiorentina is off to its best start in club history, and it's never been more obvious that the club's success remains firmly tied to a certain bald Spaniard.

Although Borja is on the wrong side of 30, his game has always been more about skill than athletic abilities, and I think right now we can safely say that last season was more of a down year than a sign of things to come. His current level may not be sustainable forever, but it's clear to me that Borja remains a player we can trust even as the team around him changes. The Borja Valero story isn't even close to completion.