Valencia would have been forgiven for running around with unbridled joy given that was his first league goal at Old Trafford since January 2014. However, the converted full-back was more concerned about returning to his half, it displayed a very business like attitude and is a reflection of the Manchester United team this season. The goals have flowed in the early part of the campaign, but make no mistake there is a desire to achieve results with ruthless efficiency and minimum fuss. Win pretty, win ugly, but win.
"Valencia would have been forgiven for running around with unbridled joy. The converted full-back was more concerned about returning to his own half."
Over the summer there were discussions as to who would be best suited to wear the captain’s armband at Old Trafford. Ander Herrera, the club’s player of the year, was a popular choice and Paul Pogba’s name was bandied about. In the end Michael Carrick was given club captaincy, but more often than not on-pitch it’s the Ecuadorian whom José Mourinho entrusts with the responsibility.
It could be the case that United’s Portuguese boss is more comfortable with an experienced, senior player wearing the armband. Or maybe, more pointedly, he is attempting to redefine the role. Under Louis van Gaal, Wayne Rooney was afforded “privileges” that came with captaincy, but José Mourinho has modified the metrics of the position, effectively removing an unnecessary perk.
More interesting is Mourinho’s decision to trust Valencia as his on-pitch lieutenant. At 32, the Ecuadorian isn’t exactly a long-term choice even though he could occupy the full-back role for the foreseeable future given his superb physical conditioning. Nor is he a demonstrative presence on the pitch, preferring to get on with the task at hand. But maybe this is the type of personality required to help the United squad grow.
It was argued, on this site, that this group of players didn’t need a larger-than-life character to lead from the front, but someone who would let the core group of players develop unencumbered. That’s not to mention that there are leaders all over the pitch now, from Nemanja Matić to Paul Pogba and that’s not forgetting a certain Swedish number 10 who’ll return by the turn of the year.
In that sense Valencia is the perfect fit for Mourinho. The Ecuadorian is undisputedly United’s first choice right-back and has successfully turned himself into one of the best players in his position in the Premier League. It is quite the transformation when one steps back to consider some of the mental hurdles Valencia has been forced to overcome. He never felt comfortable wearing the iconic number 7 top given to him in the 2012/13 campaign, ditching it in favour of the number 25 the following season.
“I think it turned out to be a very good number for me at the club as I was just given the number 25 more or less,” he told MUTV. “But things went really, really well. I played well in that shirt so I think it was a decision I came to in the summer [of 2013]. Maybe if I can get back to the form I showed before, why not? It is a good idea to start wearing it again. It had been something I had been thinking about for quite a long time. I’d been considering a change back and maybe it is psychological or maybe it is just all about a good-luck symbol, if you like.”
Perhaps more strikingly was Valencia’s metamorphosis into captaincy material. It’s fair to say that when the Ecuadorian first signed from Wigan Athletic in 2009 very few would have pinpointed him to lead United onto the pitch in years to come. Unsurprisingly, leadership didn’t come naturally to the full-back and it was only as a result of the passing of a close friend that Valencia, with much persuasion, started to bear the burden of the armband.
Captaincy was effectively first thrust upon him as a result of a tragedy. In the run up to the 2014 World Cup, Valencia told Off The Ball how the death of Christian “Chucho” Benítez led then Ecuador coach, Reinaldo Rueda, to give the United man the captaincy.
“After that [the death of Benítez] he [Rueda] felt forced to make a change of captain,” Tim Vickery writes. “Valencia was like Benítez’s twin brother. So it was a way for the group to rally around the memory of Benítez. Rueda the coach told me that Valencia was very reluctant to do it. He didn’t want to take over the captaincy and he had to be persuaded to do it.”
It was a case of Valencia putting his team above himself when the group was in collective mourning. It’s that selflessness, borne of tragedy, that Mourinho values from his understated captain. Valencia will bear the responsibility of the armband with no word of complaint, while ensuring that he doesn’t let his team down on the pitch. When it’s time to pass on the captaincy to his successor, United’s right-back will do so with a minimum of fuss.
In that sense he’s the ideal on pitch presence for Mourinho. A captain who gets on with his job in a business like fashion, guiding his teammates through deeds and allowing the team to develop its own identity.
In this stage of United’s evolution under Mourinho the quiet captain feels like the right fit. In his own unspectacular way could shape the character of the team for years to come.