MADRID • Valencia's players were hungry. It was two years since they had enjoyed a decent run of results and it felt almost as long since they had a decent meal.
For the 13th time in five years, the LaLiga club were under new management and this time, things were actually going to change. Not just the coach but what was put on their plate. At the club's training ground, food was prepared for them while detailed diets were sent home: rigid new regimens written out to be followed, families called upon to help impose them on famished footballers.
Marcelino Garcia Toral, Valencia's new manager since taking charge in June, has a reputation for obsessing over weight and physical condition. A pioneer, every detail controlled, tests conducted daily, weight pinned on notice boards at training grounds worldwide, he goes further. He is so strict that stories circulate of players starving themselves or starting the day in the sauna, scared of arriving a gram overweight.
Fitness, speed, stamina and agility go hand in hand with Marcelino's style: playing in a 4-4-2 form, wanting the ball and, more importantly, wanting it back when they lose it.
Defender Gabriel Paulista said: "The first time I worked with him, I thought, 'What a pain this coach is'!"
The first time his new Valencia team-mates worked with him, they felt much the same. "We went hungry," said the captain, Dani Parejo.
But Gabriel knew and, soon, so did the others. When the Brazilian joined Arsenal he called Marcelino, his coach at Villarreal, to thank him. When Marcelino called him back this summer, he did not have to think. When he arrived at Mestalla and spoke to Parejo, the player did not think about it for long either. He had intended to leave, but the 52-year-old made him stay.
A SPECIAL APPROACH
From the very first session, I could sense something different. The way we trained, the way they saw football, the way they worked, prepared ...
DANI PAREJO, on his first impression of new manager Marcelino Garcia Toral.
"From the very first session, I could sense something different," the midfielder said. "The way we trained, the way they saw football, the way they worked, prepared games... I said to myself, 'I can't waste a year of my career not working with this coach'."
Within weeks, the captain was describing Marcelino as one of the two best coaches he had worked with alongside Ernesto Valverde.
It is a big field. At Valencia, there were four spells last season alone: Pako Ayesteran, Salvador "Voro" Gonzalez, Cesare Prandelli followed by Voro again.
The year before that, they had gone from Nuno Espirito Santo to Voro and Phil Neville, briefly, and then from Gary Neville to Ayesteran. And this summer, there was change again.
Born in Asturias in north-west Spain, a former Sporting Gijon player who began his coaching career at local side Lealtad and then at Sporting's B team, Marcelino took Recreativo de Huelva from the second division to an astonishing eighth place in the top flight.
He won promotion with Real Zaragoza, led Racing Santander to their best finish , and brought Villarreal back from the second division and to the top of the table for the first time. After two years finishing 12th, it was time to make Valencia Valencia again.
Only five players remain from Singaporean Peter Lim's first year as owner and 16 left in the summer, while seven came in. Marcelino called the players who went "prescindible" - expendable. He did not name names but it was "necessary… to change a negative run, there are players we had to get rid of".
Some players say the serious image is exaggerated, that his demanding nature does not make him draconian, that he engages with players, reaches them and convinces them, that he is likeable, his touch light at times, that Marcelino pushes them and it works.
Direct and honest, he has talked about his admiration for Arrigo Sacchi and Rafael Benitez, while Diego Simeone says he identifies with him, and Marcelino insists on building a committed, competitive team.
The word Gabriel used for him is "pesado": roughly, a pain, heavy, hard work, tough going. Intelligent and intense, he wanted a squad that he could lead and that would follow him, creating a climate conducive to a change in culture.
Some of his key men had things to prove: Simone Zaza had West Ham to leave behind; Goncalo Guedes, only 20, barely played at Paris Saint-Germain; things did not entirely work out for Geoffrey Kondogbia at Inter Milan; Rodrigo had never scored more than five league goals.
After 10 LaLiga games, Rodrigo already has six goals. The forward scored a 66th-minute penalty on Saturday against Alaves to seal a 2-1 win, cementing second place.
Valencia have 24 points - more than half their total haul last season. Only Barcelona (28) have netted more times than Marcelino's men (27) in the league.
The manager wanted them hungry, metaphorically, and now they are feasting on goals with an appetite for success.