Last season Manchester United fans were excited by the arrival of Matteo Darmian in July. He cost them £12.7m but it seemed like an astute signing. The former Torino defender promised to bring consistency and pace to the club and under Louis Van Gaal’s guidance it was hard to see why he wouldn’t be a good fit. Putting together a combined XI for Liverpool and Manchester United for example, wasn’t an easy choice to choose between Nathaniel Clyne and Darmian as both seemed like solid, consistent full-backs during the opening matches of the 2015-16 season.
However, as Darmian’s time at Manchester United continued, his performances seemed to drop and the initially pleasing impression he’d made upon the Manchester fans was quickly diminishing. In the early stages of the season, Darmian had shown confidence and determination to push forward from the full-back position, offering assistance in attack and forming a great overlap on the right. He notched up 28 league appearances in total last season but as the defender became more tested, he was exposed and the right-back looked less assured against tougher opponents.
Whether his form just took a dip mid-way through last season is yet to be said as he’s not yet featured for the Reds under Jose Mourinho this season but there was little to suggest he’d remain a regular at Manchester United should the new boss find a more suitable replacement. In Antonio Valencia, Manchester United have found just that. The winger-turned-full-back has been an ever reliable performer at Old Trafford and though he’s not one often sang about, he’s earned respect from many of United’s fans for his performances in the past.
Valencia joined Manchester United in June 2009 from Wigan and has gone on to earn over 170 league appearances during a seven year spell. Although he’s not often earned the praise he deserves, he’s provided some valuable competition to many top footballers at United over the years. Plenty have had to battle against Valencia for a place in the starting XI and when injury-free and on top form, it was hard to find a reason to keep the Ecuador international out of the starting line-up.
One of the great traits Valencia possesses is the ability and confidence to take on defenders in the attacking third. As a full-back, he’s constantly expected to provide support on the overlap but he isn’t afraid to drive towards the back-line, beat players and eliminate opponents. This has proved valuable to United on several occasions and the full-back supports his attacking play with excellent ball deliveries. It’s now less common to find a full-back who can deliver crosses with as much precision as Valencia does within the top sides.
Valencia has always been a threat going forward but what has made him stand out so far this season is his improvement in his defensive duties. As a winger, he can be forgiven for naturally pushing high and in the past, he may have been caught out of position on occasions. However, so far this season, he’s looked measured, restrained and more rounded as a full-back. He uses his pace well to get himself back into position quickly when United’s possession is broken down and he’s developed a good sense of defensive positioning.
It seems he’s made the role his own so far under Jose Mourinho and Darmian has been left fighting for his position back. Last season’s signing never really consolidated a position in the starting XI and that may have affected his opportunities for the future at Manchester United as Valencia has taken his chance well. The position seems to be Valencia’s to lose. Mourinho has reportedly stated Darmian will stay at the club but for the time being, it appears he’ll be kept simply as competition for Valencia and as cover should the 31 year old’s injuries return.
Manchester United’s right-back has suffered a string of injuries in the past and it’s prevented him from tallying a large number of appearances for the Red Devils. But Valencia seems to be in great shape and it could be an important season for the defender as he attempts to become a regular feature under Mourinho.