Antonio Valencia has been in good form for Manchester United at right back this season.
Guest Author: Doron
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Louis van Gaal likes footballers who stick to the plan; players that can understand and execute his instructions. Those who fulfil this expectation and perform well will be rewarded with their manager’s loyalty and will continue to be selected in his team. One player who seems to have cemented his position in the side is Antonio Valencia, a player who had seen his initial popularity amongst supporters dwindle following two indifferent seasons prior to van Gaal’s arrival. Under van Gaal, Valencia has been used almost exclusively as a right back and this reinvention has been to the benefit of both manager and player as the Ecuadorian has become a consistent cog in United’s suddenly improving side.
It was Alex Ferguson who first used Valencia as a right back and for occasional games you could see the logic; he’s quick, strong and tactically aware enough to do the job. It was never the intention for it to become a long-term solution however, and his selection on the right of the defence was usually born out of injury problems rather than tactical choice. In fact, Ferguson pretty much solely used Valencia on the right of midfield, despite praising his performances as a central midfielder when playing for Ecuador. Under David Moyes, Valencia again played the occasional game at right back, but this was again a rare occurrence. Under van Gaal, nearly every one of his appearances has come at right wingback or right back.
Signed to replace Ronaldo, the pair couldn’t have been more different. A no-frills selfless player, Valencia quickly endeared himself to United fans even though he had the unenviable task of replacing one of the club’s greatest ever players. Despite being a star in his home country, his quiet nature off the pitch contrasted with the beast on it. In a very different way to Ronaldo, he was at times, particularly in his third season, unplayable. The speed with which he’d travel with the ball, together with his single-mindedness, must have made opposition defenders feel like taking on the man-mountain of a footballer was like taking on a tank.
His good form was rewarded by his team-mates voting him Players’ Player of the Year for the 2011/2012 season but what followed was a surprising and awkward withdrawal into a prolonged period of self-doubt. The burden of being United’s no.7 coupled with a few niggling injuries created a gentle giant in a bad way. Everyone knows someone who should be intimidating but is a softie, Valencia became that person. No longer did he want to take opposition players on, no longer did he take risks; instead he would take the easy way out of situations by delegating to a team-mate or, failing that, by drilling a cross as hard as he could (often with his eyes closed, judging by the inconsistent results). The threat he carried in the final third of the pitch had practically disappeared by the time van Gaal arrived after the World Cup.
That he is a mainstay in the current United side in a defensive role is on one hand a credit to the player and on the other a frustration. On the one hand it’s the final act of recognition that he’s very unlikely to ever be an attacking threat again for United. (Of course wingbacks and fullbacks have a duty to be attacking at times – Evra was often United’s best threat going forwards – but their duty is to defend rather than just attack.) Against this, van Gaal has turned the fortunes of a dependable player around and over the last few months Valencia has provided consistent 7/10 performances in a team that required stability.
Valencia’s inclusion has tended to be at the expense of Rafael and whilst this decision has often irritated and confused fans this season, it has become increasingly justified; not because Rafael is a bad player, he really isn’t, but because Valencia’s doing very little wrong. The right hand side is an increasingly secure defensive zone. He’s quicker and stronger than most opposition attackers and has added some defensive nous to his game, whether it’s blocking crosses or winning crucial back-post headers. In addition, his link up play with Mata and Herrera over the last three games should not go unnoticed either.
Then there’s the things that will really please van Gaal, the facts that cannot be argued against. He’s won a club-high 86% of his club-high 90 tackles, a ridiculous feat given that he makes a tackle more often than any other player in the squad (every 22 minutes). He’s also made a club-high 144 ball recoveries (recovering the ball when it’s gone loose in play), that’s one every 14 minutes, unsurprisingly also more often than any other player in the squad. Going forwards he has a better cross completion rate than Di Maria and has the second highest number of assists after the Argentinian. He seldom gives the ball away either; only Rooney and Blind have played more passes but neither boast the 90% accuracy he does.
Some will roll their eyes at such statistics and say that they are just numbers, but they reflect what we’ve been seeing from him on the pitch; consistency both in defence and, although the end product has been hit and miss, a greater presence going forward than he often has been in recent years when played in midfield. The error against Arsenal was unfortunate but van Gaal had been right that he’d played well as he kept Alexis Sanchez quiet all night. The reality though is that the good things he does aren’t particularly memorable; they won’t make good YouTube compilations nor Vines, but that’s probably how he likes it. This is a player who’s shy, remains uncomfortable with the English language and more often than not would rather get off a pitch at full time than go and applaud the United fans. He’s a character of little, well, character.
Despite his renaissance, Valencia has received little praise from United fans for his performances this season. This is probably due to two main reasons. Firstly, United fans are used to having fullbacks who offer more than just solidity; as touched upon, Evra in particularly was often better in the opposition’s final third than his own. Secondly, in Rafael, he is keeping a well liked character out of the side. Ultimately, however, it is Valencia and not Rafael who has earned van Gaal’s trust and he is within his rights to state that his decision has been rewarded.
It seems to be the general consensus that on United’s ‘wanted list’ this summer will be a specialist right sided defender to replace Valencia in the side and Rafael in the squad. Earlier this season I’d have been relieved to see the likes of Clyne or Coleman linked to the club, but now I’m less sure. It’s hard to find flaws in Valencia’s contribution and whilst he may not excite fans the way he used to, he has made himself an important part of the team once again.
Thanks to @KarateJesus82 for editing