Antonio Valencia’s bright performance against Ashley Cole last Sunday bodes well not only for the winger’s future but Manchester United too. Indeed, Valencia’s continued progression over the course of last season has catapulted the 25-year-old from Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow to one of United’s most important attacking players.
Confidence, ever a fragile component of professional footballers, flowed through Valencia – affectionately known as Toño – at Wembley, aided in no small way by Cole’s predilection for offering the £16 million signing from Wigan Athletic time and space on United’s right flank. Even so the Chelsea man is arguably one of the world’s finest defensive left-backs and Valencia will take much from giving the former Arsenal man such a torrid time.
Although Valencia’s performances for United were consistent throughout last season, the player visibly grew in confidence as the campaign wore on, even if the goals dried up. Toño scored seven in all competitions last season, all before Christmas, before succumbing to a late season ankle injury that required an operation over the summer break.
Seven may have been a career best total for Valencia but, of course, it compares poorly to Ronaldo’s ability to hit the net even when deployed in wide areas. But the Lago Agrio-born winger’s goal at Wembley last weekend, coming shortly before half-time following Wayne Rooney’s outstanding work on the right, will certainly provide an additional incentive if any is needed for Valencia to spend more time in central areas this season.
Not that Valencia has ever promoted the comparison but if the Ecuadorian can take a leaf out of Ronaldo’s book and find the net more often, he becomes critical to removing the goalscoring burden from Rooney’s shoulders and therefore de-risking United’s strategy this season. No easy task of course but Valencia’s power, pace and shooting ability should enable the former Villareal player to reach double figures.
If confidence is the key to both improved performances and – hopefully – greater goalscoring feats, then it is hardly the natural state of being for Valencia, whose unassuming nature is the polar opposite of his predecessor on United’s right flank. More from the Paul Scholes school than Ronaldo’s, Valencia’s desire to shy away from the spotlight is, therefore, both a blessing and a curse.
That the player arrived at Carrington for his first day of training in a three-year-old BMW in a car park full of supercars says much about Valencia’s character. On the pitch though the coming season is one where Valencia could trade in his Volkswagen image – reliable, a good runner, keeps on going – for something closer to the thoroughbreds inhabiting his teammates garages.
It’s not solely the player’s individual performances that are crucial – Valencia has a critical role to play in Sir Alex Ferguson’s favoured 4-3-3 system, especially away from home, this season. The winger’s ability to work more effectively in more central areas is crucial to United becoming less predictable. After all, with little to no attacking creativity set to come from central midfield this season, United’s wide players will play a critical role in success or failure this season.
If there is a criticism of Valencia then it is his tendency to play too wide, marginalising Rooney and enabling defenders to channel the winger into blind alleys. After all, predictability is the downfall of even the quickest of wide men.
Not that Valencia will have it all his own way this season. In addition to Nani – whose improvement in the late winter months owed much to a switch to United’s right – Gabriel Obertan, Park Ji-Sung and new signing Bébé will provide competition for the right-sided berth in whatever tactical formation Ferguson deploys this season.
For the time being the man in possession will certainly start against Newcastle United on Monday night. “Enjoy, it, enjoy Manchester. Do things well,” said Ferguson on Valencia’s arrival at the club.
The player is certainly doing that.