Tactical analysis research - Joshua Askew from Holding Midfielder.
When building from the back, Valencia could both play out from the back and play more directly to get the ball down the channels for runners to run on to. The direct play was more involved during Rafa's earlier years, where they quickly looked to get the ball forward. However, the 4-2-3-1 had unpredictability when most oppositions utilised two in midfield, meaning Valencia usually had the spare man in midfield and could also play out from the back using a quick tempo.
With Roberto Ayala also being good with the ball at his feet, this also helped Valencia during their build-phase as he could play balls into the midfield beating the press initiating Valencia's attack.
In possession, everything happened at a quicker tempo which left the opposition chasing for the most part that allowed Valencia to find players in space and making use of the natural passing networks the 4-2-3-1 could form.
Defensively, Valencia were very solid. In the 2003-04 season, they lifted the La Liga title whilst maintaining the best defence in the league, conceding 27 and really, Rafa's success at Valencia was built around having a solid defence.
Teams that utilise the 4-2-3-1 in the modern era can be seen defending in a 4-4-2, and Rafa's system, even back in 2003, was no different. Off the ball, Valencia would shape up in a 4-4-2, which was very compact, leaving very little space between the two banks of 4. This also meant that the wingers had a defensive responsibility in helping their full-backs down the flanks. Valencia's wide men could be seen doubling up on the opposing winger to stop dangerous wingers, stopping them from going on the outside and cutting in.
David Albelda was also key in situations where defenders needed covering. A defender, mostly the full-backs, would sometimes need to leave their defensive position to close down an opponent. David Albelda had the responsibility of covering not leaving those areas exposed. The central midfielders, like in most systems, were vital and often operated as a double pivot. Albelda was more of the destroyer, whilst Ruben Baraja supported the attacking midfield by pushing further forward.
Rafa's side were also a pressing side. They would block the central route from the front and force the opponents out wide, where Valencia's press could become more intense, with the touchline being very useful. Of course, once they work their opponents out wide, they only have inside or backwards to play, and if they chose to play centrally, Valencia could force a mistake. Moreover, if the team in possession managed to find their winger, Valencia would heavily outnumber the winger now in possession, where the ball could now easily be won.
The backline was not extremely high, but they did have to push up to minimise the space between the defensive line and midfield. Nevertheless, they would not look for the offside trap and instead would look to drop back as a unit, making it difficult to play through.
In attack, Valencia had very talented footballers in Pablo Aimar, who played just behind the striker, and the unpredictable winger Vicente. When Valencia looked to play wide, Vicente was a nightmare to defend against as he was a very good dribbler and one equally comfortable going on the outside of defender and cutting inside. Pablo Aimar was the sides main creator and liked to operate in spaces between defenders and midfielders.
Both wingers had to work hard, but they were supported in attack by overlapping full-backs where they could overload the defending full-backs if the wingers chose to stay wide. If the wingers looked to cut in, this would leave space for the full-backs to find a cross or pullback for the men in the middle.
The creative Pablo Aimar was the main man in the attack. At times, the creative playmaker was unplayable, and though he had a slight frame, his balance allowed him to ride challenges and physical duels. This often resulted in defenders becoming more forceful in their duels, resulting in fouls. Pablo Aimar was simply the creative hub for Valencia.
Up top, in 2003, they had Mista, who was more comfortable with his back towards the goal, linking-up play before making his run forward. He was not the most technically gifted player, but in Rafa's final season, Mista had his best scoring 19 La Liga goals making him the 3rd highest scorer.