As part of my feature titled ‘Manchester United Transfer Index’, we will look at the future of Ecuador captain and veteran full-back Antonio Valencia at Old Trafford.
Another season with Manchester United in the can for Valencia – who is now the longest-serving player at the club, now that Michael Carrick has retired from his playing duties.
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 – when United were 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 and 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 – as United would take on the challenge of local rivals Manchester City in 2011-12, as the two Manchester clubs dined at the very top of the table for the next few years. The 32-year old, in his time at United, has come under a lot of criticism despite his usefulness in a variety of different areas.
Starting his career in England as a right-back at Wigan, joined Manchester United as an explosive winger with a powerful right foot, which somehow seemed a natural position for him, blessed with the athleticism and discipline that made him one of the most reliable players in his position in the league. But in the last three years, he has been deployed in his old position, at fullback where he, at 32 years old, is Manchester United’s first choice under Jose Mourinho as he was under his 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, no wonder he is one of the first names of the team sheet when fit – and not to mention the fact that he is 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 fullback, 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, attempted more shots on goal and made more interceptions suggesting a general improvement on last season. Yet the one area where he sorely lacks is the one aspect of his game which he absolutely cannot afford to ill-perform in, which is crossing the ball into the box.
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 they have navigated the season with Valencia at right back averaging 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 averaging three times as much as 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 the 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 is that their build-up play has rarely been coherent and conducive to the marksman in front. They have never really made sense under Mourinho when they went forward, nor is their pace going forward has been reflective of the fuel in the tank, or to speak.
They almost always score a goal only by chance or coincidence and not by conviction and convention which usually mirrors 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 an illusion of one.
As for Valencia, his days as a first choice fullback at the club may need to come to an end, as cruel as it may appear – for United to move forward and bridge the gap between themselves and the seemingly insurmountable summit.
Verdict: Keep (as a squad player)