There was an interesting question that Mourinho faced before the European game against Fenerbahce regarding potential ‘untouchables’ in his current Manchester United similar to a few he had named during his time at Chelsea. ‘Untouchables’ in this context, refer to the players that would start every single game unless they are injured or suspended and the Portuguese has a habit of working with small squads with a particular pool of players (usually the spine of the team) that he always counted on, home and away.
Manchester United have a few players one would think could be named as certain starters – Paul Pogba, for instance, is generally expected to feature when he can while some would consider 35-year old Ibrahimovic to be one of those select group of outfield players that will always get picked irrespective of a dip in form. But Jose Mourinho, interestingly, brushed aside both the aforementioned suggestions that were put across to him claiming he could not replicate that at Old Trafford. He said:
“No. That was a different Premier League and situation – it was the best team by far. It was a different story. Not untouchable. Untouchable in our team has to be the spirit, the pride, the commitment to the club, the respect to the fans – that has to be untouchable, not players.”
Mourinho may be right in a way when he refers to the ever increasing competitiveness of the Premier League and also clearly recognising and to some degree hinting at the fact that he does not have the best squad in the league at his disposal, quite unlike his most recent title success at Chelsea in 2014/15.
But that is not to say he was entirely right when he made that statement. One player that has truly emerged to the point where he is relied to put in a shift week in week out in the Premier League is Ecuadorian captain Antonio Valencia. Valencia, is not a right-back in its purest form, but has made the transition look fairly easy in the last two years, under two different managers with slightly varied demands and ideas.
At 31 and this season being his eighth at the club, Valencia is one of the more senior players at United, so it’s not difficult to imagine the kind of influence he is having on young footballers, especially the tight-knit Spanish contingent at the club of Herrera, Mata and De Gea who are three of the most important players in the squad. On the pitch, he has been immense for United, especially in the big games, where he is strangely expected to falter or let his teammates down for different reasons and often perceived as the weak link in a back four that has been performing quite well in the last 18 months. People cannot be more wrong.
Valencia, in this season, has been very good. Safe to assume he is a mainstay at United under Mourinho who prefers a more positive approach from his full-backs than the previous manager Louis van Gaal, and this will only suit the naturally attack-minded Valencia down to the ground.
But what, since the pre-season under the Portuguese, he has shown is his ability to read the game at a pace he could run up and down, which is an interesting development and one that definitely made the difference between a devastating loss and a hard earned point on Monday at Anfield when he made that last ditch tackle on Firmino to absolute perfection.
The heat map against Liverpool shows the work ethic of the man – something that has never been in doubt for all his other shortcomings, and the Ecuadorian deserves credit for continuing to show his dedication for the club, so much so that he does not have an agent trying to manipulate his every professional decision, and where he has often been the scapegoat when things did not go well.
But things are finally changing for the good. Jose Mourinho has finally found a player who may not be the best at what he does as Ander Herrera claimed in late August, but one that is utterly dependable to give his 110% when he puts that shirt on him, which has made him a true untouchable in this new era at Manchester United.