When United signed Antonio Valencia from Wigan Athletic in the summer of 2009 for £16m it was easy to be underwhelmed.
The Ecuadorian arrived as a replacement for the departed Cristiano Ronaldo, a cut-priced right winger who was joined only by Gabriel Obertan and Michael Owen at Old Trafford that summer. Some time later we would discover the reason for Sir Alex’s frugality as the club, under the still-despised Glazer family, used nearly £60m of the proceeds of the Portuguese genius’ sale to refinance the principle debt that they had foisted onto the club after the completion of their leveraged buyout.
With Carlos Tevez also departed, to City of all clubs, that 2009 transfer window represented something of a ‘reset’ for United, as the team that had just won three consecutive Premier League titles descended from untouchable status to the realm of the mere mortals. Valencia faced a tough task winning over a somewhat sceptical audience.
First impressions of the Ecuadorian were, however, largely positive. In a pre-season debut against Boca Juniors Valencia demonstrated his immense strength and pace by bulldozing past a defender and unleashing a powerful right footed shot that the Argentine club’s goalkeeper could not keep out. In an impressive debut season he went on to provide five goals and seven assists in the Premier League as United were pipped to the title by Chelsea. Enormously one-footed, the player had one trick, faking left and exploding right, before shooting or crossing, but it proved to be difficult to stop.
Valencia’s second season was injury-affected, but his third was arguably his finest, contributing four goals and 13 assists in 22 Premier League appearances, earning him the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award. The following year he played an important part in his second league title winning campaign, as United wished a victorious, glorious farewell to Sir Alex.
It would prove to be the end of the Ecuadorian’s purple patch at the club. Gifted the famed number seven shirt for the 2013/14 season, as David Moyes took the helm, it was a burden which clearly weighed heavy on his shoulders, and at the end of a disappointing campaign the reserved and humble Valencia reverted back to the previously worn number 25.
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Under Sir Alex, Valencia had occasionally been used as a right back and increasingly he found himself occupying that position, as subsequent managers realised that he no longer provided enough going forward to justify a spot on the wing. His crossing has always been a weak point, preferring to fire bullets across goal than drift inviting centres into the box, and his one trick made him somewhat easy to read given the unwillingness he has always shown to use his left foot.
After a period of adaptation the player has evolved into a decent full back, increasingly defensively mature and with the strength and lung-capacity to bomb up and down the flank. In a problem position he has provided an effective solution for both Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho and has seen off the Van Gaal signing Matteo Darmian, who looks set to leave the club in the next few weeks.
The problem under the Portuguese, however, is that the system used requires an enormous workload from the full backs and relies on them for quality delivery into the box from wide areas. Even as he approaches his 33 birthday, Valencia remains strong and fit enough to meet the physical demands of the role, but his crossing and penetration simply isn’t good enough for the role in Mourinho’s team blueprint.
Too often he stops and passes inside to a teammate rather than powering for the byline and his inability to provide accurate service, something which is also an issue on the left flank, can make the team one-dimensional. If United are to bridge the gap to City next season, exploiting more avenues of attack is an absolute must.
The signing of the teenage right back Diogo Dalot from Porto is an interesting move. With only six senior appearances in the Primeira Liga to his name, the highly-rated young Portuguese looks unlikely to be an immediate challenger for Valencia’s spot, but his purchase suggests that Jose Mourinho is planning for life after the incumbent.
Perhaps at most Dalot will be able to take some of the workload off the Ecuadorian as his body inevitably starts to decline. Many fans had hoped for a new senior right back, but United clearly wish to focus funds elsewhere, which means that Valencia will likely enjoy at least another year as number one in his position.
That will dismay many, who despair at the sight of a defence still dominated by Fergie signings and former wingers. But Valencia, for all of his faults, rarely lets his teammates down and is both sound defensively and unable to give anything less than 100% to the cause. Rightly or wrongly, that is the type of player that his manager tends to prioritise over those with more talent but less consistency.
Valencia, therefore, likely lives on for another season, but he will know that as he approaches his mid-thirties his shelf-life is finite. It will be his tenth year at United, completing a decade in which he has to date made 330 appearances for the club, scoring 25 goals and has two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, two League Cups and the Europa League to his name.
Despite his limitations and the frustrations that these bring he is well liked by supporters and when he finally leaves the club his contribution will be very much appreciated. Valencia has been a part of the post-Fergie malaise, but few would identify him as a significant contributor to it.
He will not let anyone down if he remains first-choice next season with his steady, all-effort contribution, but he will also be aware that the sands of time are now against him and to restore United to its former glories Jose Mourinho may ultimately need to upgrade his right back, whether that be through developing Diogo Dalot or signing another player.
It is unlikely, however, to happen for at least another twelve months and at 32 years of age the strength and dynamism the player has suggest that, physically at least, Valencia’s body is yet to show significant signs of decline.