It is a shame that a player who has been as brilliant and as consistent as Antonio Valencia this season will probably have his deserved spotlight taken by the ever-present Zlatan Ibrahimović, whose goals have truly ignited the Premier League. The Ecuadorian full-back, in his eighth season at the club, is arguably going through his best campaign for the Red Devils and to many, has been their finest player this season.
Antonio Valencia: The Best Right-Back in England
Jamie Carragher, on a Sky Sports broadcast of Monday Night Football, once jokingly said to his on-air compatriot Gary Neville that full-backs are either failed wingers or failed centre-halves, commenting that no one wanted to “grow up and be a Gary Neville”.
The remarks were obviously for comedic purposes and taken very lightly, but in hindsight, to a certain degree, the Liverpool legend was spot on. Not many budding footballers dream of spending their careers on the flanks of defence, they just happen to be placed there as per the situation with the team. And it is a similar case for Antonio Valencia.
A right winger by trade, Valencia always possessed the standard qualities of a natural full-back. Reliable stamina to move up and down the flank, endless energy, willingness to put himself on the line when defending and most importantly, one-footedness. You rarely get to see him use his weaker left foot, and even now, when he rarely gets a chance to use it in a relatively dangerous crossing situation, he’d prefer playing it safe with a low back pass with his right. He wasn’t that great a goalscorer in his attacking days either, a trait most synonymous with full-backs.
He’s lasted the test of time at Old Trafford, signing in 2009 when they had played two UEFA Champions League finals in as many years, winning one, and were the best club in England, playing at the peak of their powers. Since then, he’s been the club’s Player of the Season in 2011-12 as a right winger, seen Sir Alex Ferguson retire, David Moyes join and leave in a span of nine months, Louis van Gaal come and go in a dire two-year spell and be a part of football’s greatest inevitability in the modern era – José Mourinho managing Manchester United.
What’s consistent in that phase is Valencia’s desire and his ability that has kept him in each of the four managers’ first-team plans, which is a testament to his quality.
The third manager, Louis van Gaal, was the most influential figure behind Antonio Valencia’s current form. In the Dutchman’s two-year stint at the club, he never had the opportunity of deploying a natural right-back, with Matteo Darmian, purchased in his second season, being the only full-time right-back.
Valencia managed 57 appearances in that phase, with almost all being in defence, and along with the 2016 FA Cup, he was Louis van Gaal’s parting gift to the Manchester United faithful, along with his former apprentice and subsequent successor, José Mourinho.
As mentioned, Antonio Valencia is in his best year in the red of Manchester United. The first name on the team sheet in most games, he’s shown an unbreakable desire to perform at his best week in and week out, with his commitment to the cause being first-rate.
He was also the club’s Player of the Month in November 2016, an award he should never have been close to seeing as he only just made a swift return from injury in the middle of the month (he also went on to win it for a second time in January 2017). His performances have lit up the right flank this season, and he’s formed formidable partnerships with those he’s shared the right flank with – be it Juan Mata, Henrik Mkhitaryan, Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial.
The 31-year-old is in the best shape of his life and even under the spotlight, he continues to play his starring role with the same shyness off the pitch that he showed when he first arrived at the club. He’s even forced the Manchester United executives to trigger a contract extension earlier this year that keeps him at the club until the end of the 2017-18 season.
Though the quality of the final ball is still improving, he’s been a major asset to Mourinho, even playing at wing-back several times with the most recent being a potential Man of the Match showing in their controversial 1-0 defeat at the hands of Premier League leaders Chelsea in the FA Cup.
Valencia’s game by numbers vs. Chelsea:
5 tackles won
100% win rate
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) March 13, 2017
His form and attitude make a strong case that he is the best right-back in the country, overcoming rivals and continuously outperforming them over the course of the season. His two nearest competitors who can stake their claim to be the best in the country, Kyle Walker and Nathaniel Clyne of Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool respectively, have had less superior campaigns than the Manchester United man.
Despite playing fewer matches and fewer minutes, Valencia has outdone his two rivals in several aspects of the game. Defensively, the most interceptions (38), the joint-most defensive blocks (7) and the fewest defensive errors (0). At the other end, Valencia has a greater record of taking on the opposition’s defenders, succeeding with 62.96% of his take-ons, and has completed the most crosses in the league (39).
And on top of that, he’s racked up the second-most assists behind Walker with three, although Tottenham have a greater shot conversion rate than Manchester United. Statistically, he’s been better than both Walker and Clyne this season, especially in defence, with the Tottenham man providing a close shout.
Antonio Valencia has received plenty of praise for his showings this year, but perhaps the most esteemed has come from his manager, José Mourinho, who went a step further than most earlier this season and claimed that the Ecuadorian was the best in the world.
“There is no better right-back in football. It is a privilege for us to have such a good player and such a good man.” Mourinho’s comments are probably a bit far-fetched, but Valencia has a year or two to cement his manager’s thoughts.
Perhaps he doesn’t have the same suave as Bayern Munich’s retiring captain Philipp Lahm, or the same attacking prowess as Juventus’ Dani Alves, two of the greatest right-backs of this generation. But Antonio Valencia will be motivated by the fact that those two also reached their peak late in their careers and with the upward trend he’s following, he could possibly be there in the near future.