Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher have indulged in their fair share of banter with one another on Monday Night Football. One of Carragher’s good natured taunts particularly resonates with me as I begin to elucidate and extol the virtues of this article’s subject. Carragher said “There are only two things for a full back. You’re either a failed winger or a failed centre back. No one wants to grow up and be a full back. No one wants to be a Gary Neville.” Parking the hilarity for one moment, there is a case that Antonio Valencia might have become a failed winger had he continued to play there. However, I sincerely hope that his immaculate performances in the full back position this season may have inspired members of the younger generation to aspire to play in the position Carragher so disparaged.
There were certainly some question marks from fans over our right full back area when the season began as our left back spot seemed destined to be Luke Shaw’s permanent berth. However, with Shaw’s struggle to return to the form he exhibited prior to his horrific leg break, Valencia, by contrast, has defied all the odds to become arguably our most consistent performer. The official Manchester United website still has Valencia down as a winger and certain pessimistic fans, myself included; felt that his positional sense and his relative novelty as a right back would be exposed repeatedly as the season wore on.
Valencia, however, has been a revelation. His pace and strength combined have provided him with the physical attributes to counteract his foibles and he has been absolutely incredible this season. The goal saving tackle which he made on Roberto Firmino, at Anfield this season, was absolutely exceptional, for instance. He had to show impeccable timing when chasing back and it was an incredibly pivotal moment, at a time when many of United’s other players simply weren’t performing. Even when passes played to him are placed astray his lightning quick pace makes the balls seem perfectly weighted, which is a gift to any of Manchester United’s other players who can rest assured Valencia will retrieve them.
He has been a constant attacking outlet for us this season, a more regular occurrence of Paul Pogba, in particular, spraying the ball cross field to him, you would struggle to find. He has provided ceaseless energy and stamina for the attacking element of our team. Valencia supplies width and positive wing play, characteristics which are particularly essential when the majority of teams form a very defensive shape and we are required to break them down. An illustration of that wing play was the inch perfect long ball he sprayed up the flank against West Brom which Jesse Lingard sprinted onto to cross for Zlatan’s opener. Valencia embodies the definition of the attacking full back that is adept at delivering through balls to his winger.
While Rooney for instance, chastised Luke Shaw for not getting beyond him in an FA Cup Match this season, we know that Valencia has proven he needs no such instruction to get beyond his winger and provide assistance. In this way he is a winger’s dream because not only does he support the attacks capably and effectively but also possesses the incredible athleticism to race back and cover any opposing counter attack which may break out. Our left back woes have been thrown into wider relief because of Valencia’s incredibly mobile work rate, contrasting clearly with that of the slower Blind or Darmian whom Jose seems to favour above Shaw.
Valencia has two main crosses in his arsenal which are the dinked variety into the box or the driven low cross. Both have proven to be effective this season, even against the same opponents (Leicester). Firstly, the chipped cross which Zlatan powerfully guided home in the Charity Shield or alternatively, the low driven cross which the Swede stroked home gleefully in the Premier League away game. This unpredictability is an incredible boon to have when we are looking to exact the most reward for our dominance in matches. It should be noted that Valencia’s crossing has been far more accurate than we give him credit for and a brief perusal of our matches will contain many circumstances when he has pulled a low cross back for one of our attacking players or crossed for a team mate to head over.
Another of Valencia’s assets is his incredible pace, which even puts him in the top bracket worldwide amongst the top footballers. Perhaps, he is not as quick as a couple of years ago, but of all players studied by FIFA at the time, Valencia was given a speed of 35.2 km/h. This was, at the time of the analysis, faster than the likes of Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Cristiano Ronaldo. Even accounting for the passage of time, have no doubt that Valencia in a race with the vast majority of the players in the Premier League would win. This is very advantageous in an attacking and defensive sense as it means he can tap the ball round players and collect it offensively, or make seemingly irretrievably lost causes redeemable in a defensive aspect. This also helps with interceptions, of which we have seen Valencia make a great deal this season. Opponents play passes to their team mates which by all logic should be perfectly adequate but Valencia’s unbelievable velocity has allowed him to intercept these passes, or if not, force opponent’s into wild and rash decisions by harrying them incessantly.
A good yardstick of Valencia’s consistently high level of performance is how general a consensus there is that he is our first choice right back. In this way, he has elevated himself to a near certain pick on the team sheet. Valencia is a tenacious tackler and has incredible abundant energy supplies, bombing up and down the flank to great effect in all matches this season. There have also been occasions where he has shown glimpses of the winger’s skill of his former years, with an impressive range of flicks and tricks when he is closed by the opposing players. The back heel he supplied for Mkhitaryan to set up Anthony Martial during our victory over West Ham, in particular, was quite simply sublime and is indicative of the undeniable attacking threat that Valencia offers our opponents when he joins in with our attacks.
Also, Valencia is unbelievably strong and physically imperious. This is such a great attribute when playing as a full back as it enables him to outmuscle many a tricky attacking player seeking to outmanoeuvre him. Who can forget against Stoke, for instance, when the colossal Marko Arnautović tried to go round the outside and was summarily dispossessed by Valencia in a supreme show of strength that had the big Austrian rolling around on the grass, through a firm but fair challenge? Even on the occasions where Valencia’s brute strength has not aided him in tough situations he can rely on his cultured feet which often find a team mate when clearing the danger. When you watch him against opposing wingers or forwards, there is never the sense that they can bully him physically or for pace and it is extremely refreshing and reassuring that we have someone so reliable as our right back.
Mourinho, for his part, when extending Valencia’s contract last month, was effusive in his compliments on Valencia’s merits and how important it was to retain the Ecuadorian’s services. He sees Valencia as “the best right-back you can have. There is no better right-back in football.” High praise indeed from Jose which is backed up by the crossing statistics which showed only two weeks ago that Valencia had hit the most crosses in the Premier League this season at 123. This was combined with a crossing accuracy of 29.3%, a higher accuracy than the ten players directly below him in the crossing table. Valencia clearly offers something unique at Manchester United, as the closest to him at that time of calculation was Marcus Rashford with 44 crosses. He has an excellent technique of squaring up to defenders before poking it round them which has led to this incredibly high supply of crosses for our forward players to utilise. It is a shame that his efforts have not seen further fruition when you compare him to his nearest contemporaries, who have provided fewer crosses and with a lower accuracy.
Valencia has proven that reinvention is the key to longevity and continued success when tested. He has proven that he can not only play at right back but also that the position is unquestionably his. The likes of Matteo Darmian and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Jose has used sparingly in that position as he reserves it for the Ecuadorian powerhouse. As Mourinho also stated “It is a privilege for us to have such a good player and such a good man”, which further indicates his fondness and admiration for Antonio Valencia’s character and his ability.
What is undeniable is what a revelation Valencia has proven to be this season; he has said recently that he plans to be at United for the next five to six years, perhaps inspired by golden oldies Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Michael Carrick, currently enjoying Manchester United football in their mid thirties. Valencia indeed, has been at United since 2009 and surely at least the prospect of a testimonial will inspire him for another couple of years or so. Valencia, like other footballers, uses his incredibly poor and tough upbringing to remind him to keep striving and working hard to overcome obstacles and challenges, like adapting his position to full back. One thing I’ve learnt when I was critical of playing him at full back at the start of the season is, writing off Valencia at any point, is extraordinarily dangerous as he has the power to far surpass anyone’s expectations.