To much surprise Antonio Valencia signed a new, three-year, contract with Manchester United this week. Once bearer of the famed number seven shirt, Valencia’s star has fallen as much in reputation as output in recent years. The appointment of high-flying Louis Van Gaal is seen a sign of United returning to its attacking history, but retaining the Ecuadorian winger has taken much wind out of the United faithful’s sails.
Valencia’s form is such that many fans feel that the Ecuadorian is entirely undeserving of a new contract. There had been reports of Liverpool’s interest – and so poor has the player’s form been that very few United fans would object to a move – even to a major rival. Perhaps the most rational explanation is that United’s management has sought to preserve Valencia’s value in the market.
Contrary to many reports, the new United manager is not wedded to a 4-3-3 formation. In fact Van Gaal has often deployed a 4-2-3-1, while the Netherlands national team under his management is playing a 5-3-2 at the World Cup in Brazil – a point we’ll return to later.
Either way, a backup winger is required with United’s cupboard especially bare in wide areas. The suspicion, however, is that Valencia provide will cover Rafael da Silva at full-back instead, with the Reds lacking cover for the Brazilian, and Valencia having been deployed in that role already. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling will be required in more central areas, after all.
Valencia is now primarily known for his defensive dependability than his attacking numbers; the new Ji-Sung Park, if you will. The Korean was, with some irony, a protégé of another Dutch coach in Guus Hiddink.
Yet, the data shows that the 28-year-old Valencia is rather different from other defensive wingers. The blocks that Valencia made last season suggest that he dropped deeper than Chelsea’s Willian, for example, while the Ecuadorian was far more studious in tackling than United’s Ashley Young or Danny Welbeck.
The Ecuador captain has exhibited statistics more typical of an attacking full-back, although notice how many of Valencia’s defensive actions were interceptions last season. Valencia made less defensive actions than Rafael – a factor of Valencia’s higher position the pitch relative to the Brazilian – and he clears the ball less often than the full-back.
This observation is obvious, although the number of chances created by Rafael and Valencia is also interesting.
The images below – Rafael left, Valencia right – show that the Ecuadorian winger created chances in much deeper areas than Rafael. This suggests that despite Valencia’s more forward deployment, it was Rafael who attacked the byline. That is, Valencia was stationary and functional, Rafael more dynamic.
To pin down Valencia’s default position we must establish that the proportion of interceptions in each player’s defensive actions represents the player’s positioning. To do this we look at a randomly chosen defender and midfielder from each of the Premier League’s top 10 clubs, and then compare the number of interceptions to the number of shots per game. Each figure has been adjusted by the club’s point tally, ensuring that the experiment is unaffected by team quality.
The idea is that more advanced players will make more attempts at goal than deeper players. If there is correlation then we can deduce where on the pitch, and with what role, Valencia was deployed last season.
Data towards the right of the chart, below, represents among others, Frank Lampard, who aggressively ventures forward, and some central defenders. They are outliers for our purpose and we remove them and see if there is any underlying trend.
There is a distinguishable relationship between shots-per-game and number of interceptions. In this Valencia’s positioning is shown to be very close to that of Michael Carrick and Newcastle’s Vurnon Anita – both defensive midfielders. In other words, Valencia played in line with Carrick. Valencia played as wing-back rather than a true winger.
Very few top clubs play five across the back. Juventus, however, plays such system with Kwadwo Asamoah as left wing back. The similarities between the Ghanaian and Valencia are remarkable. Valencia left, Asamoah right in the images below.
The data is illuminating. In essence David Moyes played a back five last season, which helps explain the excruciating rigidity of United’s approach – and Rafael’s exile from the first team. This also sheds light on Valencia’s new contract – van Gaal could very well continue with the 5-3-2 system deployed at the World Cup. After all, United’s ace in Robin van Persie appears to be very happy with the approach.
All data: Squawka
A brief note on methodology
1) All categories are weighted equally
2) Each figure has been adjusted relative to the best in each category
3) Assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict