The long awaited return of Antonio Valencia

by Omar Soliman

Last season, Antonio Valencia was voted Manchester United’s Supporters and Players’ Player for 2011/12 and rightly so. Despite injury setbacks early in the campaign he became a vital part of the first-team and an explosive exponent of United’s attacking play. If he wasn’t terrorising left-backs, he was putting in a shift as an auxiliary right-back and some of United’s best moments were through the Ecuadorian.

This season he has regressed; instead of taking on his man and beating him for sheer pace he seems to shy away, check back and pass on the buck. The aggressive, powerful running and ability simply to cross the ball into a dangerous area all seem to have deserted him – what has happened?

There could be a number of factors at play. It could be an underlying injury, a shift in playing style or the Society for the Protection of Left-Backs have finally come together and devised a means to stop him. Whatever it is, Valencia has only notched up four assists without a goal and merely shown flashes of brilliance this season.

valencia-liverpool-sprintHe remains one of the fastest players in Europe with and without the ball. You only need to see his penalty winning sprint at Anfield to note that he could have spent pre-season training running the 100m at London 2012. Officially, it was measured at 27m in three seconds or roughly 100m in 11 seconds. Considering this was on grass after playing for 75 minutes, it seems his fitness cannot be brought into question so why the sporadic form?

Arguably the signings of Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa have ushered in a tactical nous which could be limiting Valencia’s potency. In a bid to mimic tiki-taka stylings, United have progressed to increasingly possession based play. The emphasis has shifted from the wingers to the midfield and short, sharp interchanges to open up space utilising the footballing brains of the new signings as well as Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick.

That’s not to say Valencia is surplus to requirements, rather his destructive wing-play is another weapon in the armoury. During the last campaign you could be relied upon to see him skin his man with eyes only for the byline to then drill in a cross. This simple method proved effective, most likely as it would have practiced over and over again in training. If the team is being disciplined to hold their shape with and without the ball, in turn this limits old fashioned line-hugging wingers and limits the space for them to exploit.

Perceptively, the Ecuadorian is also suffering from a loss of confidence, perhaps as he is now unsure how he fits into the team. If so, this is a distinct shame as during last seasons run-in he stepped on the gas. There was his clever one-two with Ji-Sung Park to set up Danny Welbeck’s winner against Arsenal, the exhilarating breakaway goal against Wolves and the opening goal against Blackburn that seemed to signal another league title. When the season drew to a close there was one man to be relied upon week in week out and he was often seen as a blur down United’s right wing.

A lack of competition could also be a cause for a subsequent lack of motivation. With Nani and Ashley Young both excelling, there was a real fight for the right-wing spot last season. Fast forward 12 months and Nani is seemingly on his way out after being singled out for childish, petulant behaviour both on and off the pitch whilst Young’s performances could be kindly described as inconsistent. Valencia has made the right-wing spot his own simply by default and is yet to be pushed.

With Easter approaching and United looking to edge further away from the chasing pack they need players fit and in form, including Antonio Valencia. The frustration lies with the anticipation that he has the beating of his man allied with the disappointment when he checks back. This time last year his form stepped up to the point where it could be argued that points were gained on his own effectiveness, a repeat would be welcome.

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