Another season with Manchester United is in the can for Antonio Valencia. The Ecuadorian is currently the longest-serving player at the club, now that Michael Carrick has retired from his playing duties.
On for CR7
The former right-sided midfielder/full-back from Wigan joined Manchester United as a modest replacement to departing superstar Cristiano Ronaldo back in 2009/10. At that time, United had been going head-to-head with Chelsea for the league title almost every year since 2006. Chelsea won the league that season, as United finished second by a point deficit. But the post-Ronaldo Manchester United would regroup and reclaim the title – exceeding expectations – in the very next season. They would also reach the Champions League final in Wembley, finishing runners-up to Barcelona in a memorable campaign.
Valencia played very little role in that successful season but he would prove crucial in the following year. During 2011-12 United would take on the challenge of local nemesis Manchester City as the two derby rivals dined at the very top of the table for the next few years. Now 32-years-old, Valencia, in his time at United, has come under a lot of criticism despite his usefulness in a variety of different areas.
Valencia goes wide and then comes back
Starting his career in England as a right-back at Wigan, by the time he joined Manchester United it was as an explosive winger with a powerful right foot. Winger somehow seemed a natural position for Valencia, blessed with the athleticism and discipline that made him one of the most reliable players in the league at his position. But in the last three years he has been deployed in his old position, back at full back where – despite his age – he is Manchester United’s first choice under Jose Mourinho (as he was under the special one’s predecessor, Louis van Gaal).
Under Mourinho and aided by his own wealth of experience gained playing at the highest level for almost nine years now, Valencia has developed himself into a resourceful footballer. His unyielding demeanour makes him an ideal Mourinho candidate; small wonder his is one of the first names on the team sheet when fit. And he seems always to be fit. Valencia is indeed almost always match-ready, which ticks another important box when it comes to playing under the Portuguese.
While the Ecuadorian has become a defensively solid full back, his waning powers going forward should not go unnoticed. Having made 32 appearances (31 starts) this season, he has been one of the mainstays in the first team in 2017/18. This season Valencia has found the net thrice which is more than the previous two seasons combined. He has also attempted more shots on goal and made more interceptions suggesting a general improvement on last year. Yet the one area where he sorely lacks is the one aspect of his game which he absolutely cannot afford to ill-perform in: that is crossing the ball into the box.
Missing the mark
Given the array of aerial abilities at Manchester United, it is rather criminal to have full-backs who don’t average 1 successful cross per game. Yet somehow the side have navigated the season with Valencia at right back averaging just 1 successful cross into the box finding a fellow a red shirt in every two games.
Now, this is a problem for United.
Tottenham’s Kieran Trippier – who has enjoyed a strong season with Spurs completing 5 assists (second highest for a full-back) – has averaged 1 successful cross per game for Spurs. And Valencia himself, in 2016/17, found a lot of success in crossing the ball; his success rate then was three times as much as his current average.
If there is a reason why Manchester United have failed to score enough goals in the last two seasons – 6th among top six for a second year in a row despite having at least three individuals in their first team squad who are all capable of scoring 15-20 goals a season comfortably – it is that their build-up play has rarely been coherent and conducive to the marksmen in front. They have never really made sense under Mourinho when they went forward. Nor has their pace going forward has been reflective of the fuel in the tank, so to speak.
They almost always score a goal only by chance or coincidence and not by conviction and or by any convention which might reflect the work that was put in on the training ground. That should change only when more capable personnel are brought in to improve the engine room. Only then will we see them accelerate their way towards real progress and not merely an illusion of one.
As for Valencia, his days as a first choice full back at the club may need to come to an end – as cruel as that may sound – in order for United to move forward and bridge the gap between themselves and the seemingly insurmountable summit of becoming EPL champions again.
Verdict: Keep (as squad player)