How Antonio Valencia came to epitomise the Man United way
One the one hand, it’s easy to feel some sympathy for Antonio Valencia, who, like a slow-burn arthouse drama released in the same week as a mega-money superhero blockbuster, has seen his most impressive season yet for Manchester United utterly eclipsed by the headline-hoarding debut campaign of one Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
On the other, though, there’s something apt about Valencia taking a backseat for far glitzier affairs. He might be a standout performer at a footballing superpower, but it’s fair to say that the Ecuadorian likes to keep his excellence low-key.
During United’s past half-decade of wild flux, Valencia has been one of the few consistents, a reassuringly dependable presence under Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and now Jose Mourinho. Each of those managers had their own style, system and selections, but all identified Valencia as a trusted accomplice. Among the entire United squad, only David de Gea, a player effectively without competition, can also claim to have been part of the first-choice XI under all four coaches.
Valencia's steady assurance and near-pathological self-improvement allowed him to see off competition from Nani, Ashley Young, Ji-sung Park and Shinji Kagawa
Odd, then, that his career at Old Trafford was subject to so much doubt and debate during its first few years. Not that he started off particularly badly – in fact his debut season in 2009/10 was hugely eye-catching, as his no-nonsense wing play ushered Wayne Rooney towards his most productive ever campaign – but his very nature as a footballer led to him being cast as a symbol of a wider malaise.
The summer he arrived in Manchester was also the summer in which Cristiano Ronaldo departed, and the fact that the transcendently talented Portuguese was ostensibly replaced on the right flank by a player so unglamorous, one-dimensional and patently limited – one winger sold for £80m to Real Madrid, another bought for £16m from Wigan Athletic – was held up by many as a symptom of the insidious Glazernomics that were eating away at the club’s core.
The theory was hardly wrong – indeed, the turbulence that has taken hold at Old Trafford since Ferguson’s departure vindicates the point. But none of that had much to do with Valencia, whose steady assurance and near-pathological self-improvement not only allowed him to see off competition from Nani, Ashley Young, Ji-sung Park and Shinji Kagawa during the Ferguson years (as well as make a full and ahead-of-schedule recovery from a nasty leg break and ankle dislocation injury), but also reinvent himself into one of the division’s finest full-backs thereafter.
While Valencia had dabbled in the trade under Ferguson and Moyes, it was Van Gaal – whose time in charge may come to be seen more favourably in hindsight – who converted him into a full-time right-back. In retrospect it was a canny move, if perhaps a rather obvious one: the shuttling, tram-like requirements of full-back seem far more aligned with Valencia’s abilities (stamina, drive, tactical intelligence) and limitations (low goal return, a severe case of one-footedness) than the more all-inclusive demands that befall the modern-day winger.