When Antonio Valencia skipped past the Blackburn defence before unleashing a venomous shot that found its way past Paul Robinson, he looked to have given United a crucial edge in the title race. On that Monday night last April, he had also confirmed what many people had witnessed over the previous months – the Ecuadorian had developed into the best right winger in the Premier League, a menacing force ready to tear opponents to shreds.
After missing almost all of the 2010-11 season with a severe injury, Valencia’s return last season proved to be the brightest note of United’s campaign as the Ecuadorian finally developed into what the fans had hoped to see since he signed from Wigan in the summer of 2009, a traditional out-and-out winger whose electrifying pace and physical strength would make him an incredibly tough customer to deal with.
Such was Valencia’s form last season that, after the departure of Michael Owen, the unanimous verdict was that the former Wigan player had earned the right to don the famous number 7 shirt. Not as magnetic as Bryan Robson, not talented as Cantona or George Best, not as box-office as Beckham and Ronaldo perhaps, but Antonio Valencia, we all thought, could definitely continue the shirt’s tradition.
Unfortunately, the Ecuadorian has so far been one of the few disappointments of what is shaping up to be a potentially excellent season for United. An harsh judgment perhaps, but one that stems from what we had become accustomed to expect from him.
In his first season at United Valencia produced seven goals and 13 assists in 49 games in all competitions, while last season he scored six goals, assisting 16 in the process, over 38 games in all competitions, a very substantial return considering that Ashley Young and Nani’s form at the beginning of the season had seen Valencia confined on the bench.
This year, in contrast, Valencia’s numbers have dipped dramatically to six assists and no goal in 26 games in all competitions and, despite Ashley Young’s injuries and Nani’s petulance leading the Portuguese to spend large chunks of the season on the sidelines, Valencia has often found himself on the bench.
Speak with anybody that has watched United this season, and they’ll all say the same thing. Valencia’s game, once so direct and effortless has been plagued by a tendency to over-think and over-complicate the easiest of decisions. Where last year’s Valencia would take on his marker before delivering a cross, this year’s vintage stops, passes the ball back or sideways and seems generally bereft of confidence.
Pinpointing the reason behind this involution is a complex process, with many factors contributing to Valencia’s below-par season. The arrival of Shinji Kagawa meant that United employed a diamond-shaped midfield earlier in the season, a system that saw Valencia overlooked in favour of more traditional midfielders, while the hype that surround the number 7 shirt at Old Trafford is seemingly proving to be a mental burden for the Ecuadorian.
With Wilfried Zaha arriving in the summer, many had ear-marked Nani as the man destined to pack his bags to make room for the Crystal Palace youngster, but the Portuguese’s performance on Monday night was the one of a man that takes the pitch knowing that his very future is at stake, something Valencia hasn’t done this season.
While Nani’s approach isn’t exactly commendable and his petulance has by and large annoyed many at Old Trafford, his ability to provide moments of brilliance can’t be overlooked, a weapon Valencia does not possess in his arsenal for he bases his game on consistency rather than the odd flash of brilliance.
Ashley Young, often criticised by sections of United supporters, is also likely to find himself fighting for his spot once Zaha lands at Old Trafford but, compared to Valencia, the former Villa man has enjoyed a marginally better season, for his has performed rather well in big games this season, notably against Chelsea and Manchester City.
With 12 league games left, plus at least a FA Cup quarter final and the return leg against Real Madrid, Antonio Valencia has just over two months to wind back the clock to reach the heights of that Monday night in April last year and to secure his place at Old Trafford come August.
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Tags: Opinion Piece