Antonio Valencia Plus the Red Devils' Midfield Dominance

Antonio Valencia Plus the Red Devils' Midfield Dominance

Manchester United somehow conceded a late equalizer to Arsenal in a game that was pretty one sided until the last minute of normal time at Old Trafford – their third consecutive draw at home in the league, the first time that’s happened since April 1992.

After an unorthodox and patched up side that did the business against Swansea, Mourinho fielded a very strong eleven from the squad that was available to him with the midfield particularly consisting of Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba, something the fans have been craving for; there was a feeling of feverish excitement before the game and fairly so. Both Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial started which saw Wayne Rooney drop to the bench but the biggest positive in terms of the starting eleven was the reinstatement of Antonio Valencia who had made a remarkable recovery well ahead of schedule.

United started the game with a lot of intensity and aggression against the Gunners, probably for the first time this campaign against a side with title credentials. The midfield trio of the Red Devils looked very comfortable against the two-man axis of Elneny and Coquelin, with Ozil often having to drop a lot deeper than he would have liked to meant United had the crucial advantage (very often numerical) in the middle of the park where they not only enjoyed more touches but also were more productive with the ball. The three midfielders at United managed to touch the ball a whopping 232 times compared to 197  – with Paul Pogba covering a lot of ground on the inside left channel allowing Anthony Martial to drift into the box when he could, although the 20-year old had a minimal impact on the team going forward per se.

But United were always expected to do well at home going forward against any side especially given the players they have in their ranks. In the last two draws at home against Stoke City and Burnley they had created enough chances to win and take all 6 points and in the case of the former draw, a rare momentary lapse of concentration from the goalkeeper cost them two points. Against Arsenal, the mistake was rather collective at the back, which could easily be attributed to the lack of regular playing time, as it is hard to see how they are going to be able to build a successful side under Mourinho who strives to avoid errors of similar nature. Mourinho called his team, “the unluckiest in the league”. While that is a brave attempt to take the gloss away from Arsenal’s late heroics, it sounds too simple a reason to put these individual and collective mistakes at crucial periods down to.

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Player Influence Manchester United v Arsenal (courtesy – FourFourTwo Statszone)

One of Jose Mourinho’s successes at United has been the definitive role he’s given to Ander Herrera. Herrera may have a lot to thank Van Gaal for bringing him to Old Trafford in the first place but there is no doubt that the Spaniard is playing his best football probably in his whole career in the number 6 role alongside Michael Carrick or Paul Pogba. And Man United have been reaping the rewards. Herrera ultimately created the opening goal with a trademark run in behind their defence creating an overload in their left flank and the way he has been able to come out of a press with the ball and initiate one himself without it has been vital for United especially against good attacking sides this season.

But arguably the biggest positive of the day happened to come in the form of Antonio Valencia’s return to the squad and just how direct and threatening the Ecuadorian was throughout the game. It was even more evident with Darmian on the other flank as the Italian struggled to drive the ball forward as well as the 31-year old did. Both the full backs managed a combined total of 114 touches (Valencia – 70; Darmian – 44) and the amount of ground he covered on the day gave Juan Mata, the goalscorer, the license to play the kind of ‘false 7’ role that he did, scoring his fourth goal of the season under Jose Mourinho.

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Heat maps of Valencia (bottom) and Darmian (top) v Arsenal (courtesy whoscored.com)

Valencia was rightly awarded the man of the match award by the Premier League and he duly dedicated it to the Manchester United medical staff for helping quicken his recovery which could be the best thing that could have happened to Mourinho and United as they can now approach the next few games at home with more optimism and drive that their Ecuadorian full back has seemed to have brought with him.