When José Mourinho waltzed into Old Trafford eyes were quickly cast at the playing squad. Who would be retained; who would be shipped out? There were a few names that immediately stood out as destined for the chop, but after the Community Shield and first couple of Premier League fixtures a number of these unlikely lads have stepped up to prove their worth to the Portuguese manager. Some could become components in a potentially successful season.
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
There is so little to dislike about Antonio Valencia. Off the pitch there are few late nights, no entourage of note, and no hint of the now wildly popular biennial tantrum during contract negotiations. The Ecuadorian is a family man, settled in Manchester and enjoying life in England. In training he is dedicated and professional; the “quiet, shy boy,” Sir Alex Ferguson so admired. On it a player who remains a sound professional, earning the reputation as a player who rarely lets his team-mates down.
Yet, the three-year extension to Valencia’s contract announced this week is a curious reward for a player who has endured two traumatic seasons in a row. The player will handsomely profit despite so rarely excelling that his value to the team has dramatically waned – a strange statement from a club that has so loudly proclaimed its aspiration to return to domestic and continental glory.
Indeed, supporters may view United’s move as one so lacking in ambition that there is a genuine fear the club’s summer strategy will once again realise far less than the sum of Ed Woodward’s vacuous spin.
The negativity surrounding Valencia hasn’t always been so. The winger enjoyed a fine début season at Old Trafford – probably his best in red – when the Ecuadorian’s pace, strength and drive earned sound reviews in Cristiano Ronaldo’s wake. Valencia could never be adequate compensation for Ronaldo’s departure, of course, but it was a positive squad addition nonetheless. Moreover, Valencia’s relationship with Wayne Rooney contributed much to the latter’s 34-goal season in 2009/10.
The winger suffered a broken leg against Rangers in the Champions League late in 2010, necessitating more than six months out of the game. Yet, the Nueva Loja-born midfielder enjoyed a fine end to the 2011/12 campaign as United built an eight point Premier League lead. From the depths of a hospital bed, Valencia once again became a central part of Ferguson’s team.
The Ecuadorian held less blame than others as the Scot’s side blew the points to hand Manchester City the title, although Valencia was dropped as the Reds capitulated at Eastlands in late April 2011.
Those glory days, such as they were, constitute a time now long forgotten.
Strange, perhaps, that United should be so effusive in announcing an extension that will keep Valencia at Old Trafford until 2017. The Ecuadorian holds a one-way option to extend the deal a further year, by which time he will be 32 and more than £20 million to the good.
“I’m really pleased Antonio has signed a new contract,” said assistant manager Ryan Giggs. “His contribution to the team since he joined the club in 2009 has been fantastic.”
Two years of poor form belie Giggs’ comments as little more than puff, coming after another season of chronically mediocre performances from a player demonstrating little sign of reaching previous heights.
Valencia’s terrace nickname – “Turn Back Tony” – says much about a man now utterly bereft of confidence. Not only does the 28-year-old remain one-dimensional, but fans are no longer witness to the player’s willingness to take on his opponent. And on the rare occasion Valencia creates space his final ball is routinely misguided.
The player’s degradation is born out in the statistics too, with Valencia scoring just four and assisting a further five goals across 39 Premier and Champions League games last season. There were just 43 successful dribbles, 24 shots and just 28 successful crosses from 147 delivered over the campaign. He produced five goals and 14 assists in 2011/12, with just one and six a year later.
What the new deal says about United’s propensity to invest in wide areas this summer will also concern supporters. After all, United’s lack of quality on the wings has become an aphorism for those frustrated with the club’s transfer strategy.
After all, brilliant though Louis van Gaal may be, Nani is unlikely to become more consistent, nor Ashley Young develop talent beyond his limited purview. In Adnan Januzaj there remains hope in youth, but the 19-year-old’s considerable talent cannot save United alone.
And there is no little irony in the comparison with Nani. The Portuguese winger signed a five-year deal last summer only to start just nine games in all competitions last season. It was, in effect, £5 million in wages wasted on a player likely to move on this summer. Valencia needs to be a regularly starter simply to justify the new deal; a pedestal on which he has done little to rest.
United may well spend this summer, but with Rio Ferdinand and Nemnanja Vidić having slipped the nest – and central midfield suffering from years of chronic under-investment – there is no guarantee that it will be on width. Valencia’s new deal suggests anything but – the club’s hierarchy enacting a considerable gamble for a manager habitually wedded to attacking players of higher quality.
Yet, van Gaal has once again demonstrated his uncanny ability to establish both tactical superiority against almost any opposition and build a winning strategy this summer. Netherlands remains outsiders to win the World Cup in Brazil, but the veteran coach has unveiled a team greater than the sum of its parts. In it van Gaal has done so amid a late tactical switch to a 3-5-2 that maximises Dutch strengths and negates obvious weaknesses.
Few will be surprised if United’s new coach makes similarly bold choices at club level next season – and with it Valencia may find himself in unfamilar territory.
The player, meanwhile, protects a financial future that had begun to look less than sure under a contract that previously ran to 2015. Such has been the Ecuadorian’s long-running poor form that there would have been few top-line suitors had United chosen to sell this summer.
Little wonder the winger is delighted to sign and the platitudes are flowing fast.
“My time at Manchester United has been like a dream come true,” said the 28-year-old. “I am so happy to have signed a new deal and am looking forward to working with Louis van Gaal.”
That will not come until van Gaal’s side is dispatched from the World Cup. After victory over Chile on Monday that is likely to be at least a week later than Valencia’s return. Ecuador probably need to beat France this week to stay in the competition – one in which Valencia has rarely excelled.
Plus ça change, fans of a more cynical bent might add.
It has not been a good week for right-wingers; not least new Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio, who has taken significant media heat for his less than conventional political views. Little wonder, given that the Italian once labelled fascist dictator Benito Mussolini a “very principled, ethical individual” who was “deeply misunderstood”. Those who died at the dictator’s hand may disagree.
But that’s a digression. Over at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson also has a problem with his right-wing. And his left. The one-time socialist, whose team has struggled in wide areas all campaign.
The season-long patchy form and fitness of Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young poses plenty of questions as the season draws to a close.
Manchester United’s FA Cup defeat to Chelsea on Monday night emphasised the problem once again, with those of a more charitable nature describing Nani’s performance as ‘rusty’. Fair enough, the Portuguese has spent the past fortnight on the sidelines.
Indeed, injury and questionable form has restricted former Sporting player to just 14 starts in all competitions this season. Hardly the progression expected of the 25-year-old after Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in summer 2009.
Such has been the winger’s fall that Nani’s is a career on hold; at least until a summer transfer to whomever bids the highest materialises. That Ferguson was prepared to sanction the winger’s departure in the winter window, to Zenit St Petersburg of all places, should leave the player in little doubt that his future lies away from Old Trafford.
United will take far less than the £25 million Zenit reportedly bid in the winter simply to see Nani leave after a frustrating six year period in Manchester. With him will go a huge talent, too often unfulfilled.
There is a similar story, of injury and poor form, to be told about Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young this year. While Valencia’s confidence seems unswervingly shot, Young has featured far too little this season due to persistent spells on the sidelines.
Valencia, such a powerhouse during United’s unsuccessful title challenge last season, has dropped off the boil so acutely that questions about the player’s true fitness will surely be asked during the summer. Rumours that the Ecuadorian regularly plays through a mystery injury appear more prescient with each tentative performance.
There is surely far more to come from a player who contributed 15 assists last season.
Meanwhile, Young has rarely garnered positive reviews from the Stretford End masses, and can do little to change the widespread belief that his is a talent born of mediocrity. Especially if he is rarely fit enough to play – the former Aston Villa man has started just 17 games in all competitions this season. Few of them with any genuine impact, cynics might add.
Tough though the assessment, Young was hardly destined to be more than squad filler at Old Trafford, although Ferguson’s shortage in wide areas has certainly focussed the manager’s thoughts on the limited Englishman.
None of this is news, of course, although Nani’s fall from grace is all the more disappointing following a productive campaign in 2011/12. While the player’s performances have always been inconsistent, the 62-cap international contributed 12 goals and 13 assists to United’s cause as the Reds fell just short of claiming a 20th league title.
Those numbers are hard to ignore, and hugely expensive to replicate.
No wonder the manager has deployed a plethora of stars to the wings this year – many out of position. While Valencia and Nani have shared right-wing duties, Young, Ryan Giggs, Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa have each played on the left. It is not a stretch to say that few have shone.
Ferguson’s difficulty is both in finding the right blend of players for the new season, given that exciting youngster Wilfried Zaha joins from Crystal Palace on 1 July, and how to extract more from those that remain at Old Trafford. After all Zaha is completely untested at the highest level, leaving Nani’s departure to effectively weaken United’s squad.
It should come as no surprise if the Scot bolsters his wide options with another signing, although Robin van Persie’s large acquisition fee and heftier wages may restrict Ferguson’s wiggle room during the summer window.
Getting the balance right – personnel and tactics – is a lesson Ferguson may take from the season, despite United’s huge Premier League lead.
The Scot, fired up by City’s last-gasp title winning foray last May, has constructed a team that will surely reclaim domestic hegemony with something to spare. But there has also been a compromise between defensive solidity and attacking prowess; balance, and squeezing his best players into an idiosyncratic tactical construct.
Indeed, it is two new signings that have seemingly disrupted United’s wingers as much as any injury.
Kagawa, so brilliant at ’10’ behind Robert Levendowski for Borussia Dortmund, started the campaign for United in a similar position. He will almost certainly finish the campaign having been deployed wide more often than through the middle.
Meanwhile, Robin van Persie’s form and quality ensures that Ferguson’s default formation includes both the Dutchman and Rooney, even if the former Evertonian is deployed in a shadow role.
Yet, even this simple tactical compromise – deploying two strikers and not three central midfielders – caused severe knock-on effects during the early part of the campaign, where United struggled to retain clean sheets or defensive composure. That would come as the season wore on and the Scot increasingly sought to compromise width by tucking one or more winger infield.
van Persie may have won United the Premier League, but his acquisition constrained Rooney, Nani, Valencia, Kagawa, and to a lesser extent, Young.
All of which says nothing of the choices that Ferguson needs to make in central midfield, where perhaps only Michael Carrick will emerge from the season with reputation fully enhanced.
Tom Cleverley has progressed, but must surely add goals and creativity to his neat and energetic approach, if he is to fully embody Paul Scholes’ central midfield berth. Anderson, and for different reasons, Darren Fletcher, may not be seen in a United shirt beyond the summer. Scholes will certainly retire.
An acquisition – of the rampant physical central midfield type – will do Ferguson’s hopes of adding a third European triumph before retirement a significant boost.
Yet, it is on the wings where Ferguson’s deepest concern will surely lie this summer after a season or poor reliability and much reduced productivity. Injury has of course played a part, but it has always been a risky approach to leave one’s hopes and dreams to the music of chance.
The strategist in Mussolini might agree. Having been caught unaware of the coming media storm, Di Canio certainly will.
Sir Alex Ferguson delivered mixed news on the injury front today, with Antonio Valencia now training with the reserves ahead of a potential first team return in March but Park Ji-Sung now ruled out for a month with a hamstring injury. Bittersweet news of course, although the sum total could still mean his Manchester United team is better equipped for the Premier League and European run-in.
“We got a blow on Saturday morning with the news that Ji-sung Park did his hamstring on Friday afternoon in training,” confirmed the 69-year-old United manager.
“It was very unfortunate because it was his last kick of the ball in training as well. We were really looking forward to having him back after being away for a month at the Asian Cup. He’ll be out for up to a month, which is a blow to us.
“The good news is that Valencia started training with the Reserves on Saturday. So he’s on his way back and that will be a real boost to have him available for the run-in.”
Valencia’s return on schedule after the agonising leg break and ankle dislocation suffered against Rangers in September adds not only to Ferguson’s attacking options but the flexibility of United’s squad. The Ecuadorian’s pace, eye for goal and – perhaps crucially – potential to ignite Wayne Rooney into a goalscoring run could prove the difference come May.
After all, Valencia’s sound delivery from the right-wing in no small part contributed to Rooney’s 34-goal haul last season, with the former Evertonian scoring an uncanny number of headed goals.
That said, United’s ability to cope with Valencia’s absence this season is not in doubt; a permanent switch to the right has brought greater consistency to Nani’s game and Ryan Giggs’ evergreen presence has provided some stability on the left, even if Ferguson’s options are limited.
Meanwhile, Park’s injury reduces – at a minimum – Ferguson’s alternatives in midfield, especially in European away matches where the South Korean has tended to play in a ‘defensive attacking’ role. Park is no doubt a negative choice on United’s win, offering much less in attacking creative output that some of Ferguson’s alternatives. Yet, the 29-year-old remains a key defensive tool in Ferguson’s tactical planning.
Even with Valencia at his disposal Ferguson faces something of a tactical dilemma in the coming weeks, presuming the players returns to last season’s level of consistency. After all, Nani is thriving on the right-side of United’s midfield, not only scoring but creating too. Indeed, the Portuguese has hit the net 11 times this season, contributed 13 direct assists and been involved in the build up in 31 of United’s 32 Premier League goals when the 25-year-old has started. These are impressive statistics on any level.
Switching Nani to the left not only risks upsetting the player’s form but potentially unbalancing United’s attack in crucial matches away from home. Ferguson’s desire for United to never be outnumbered in midfield is paramount and in that context, it’ll be a brave move by the Scot to deploy both Nani and Valencia in key away fixtures against Marseille, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, presuming fitness on both players’ part.
Indeed, recent history says that the Scot will adopt a wholly negative approach in those games, seeking first and foremost to protect United’s four-point Premier League lead and even up the tactical battle against teams that will each deploy three men in central midfield.
Moreover, Park has played a crucial role in some of United’s biggest fixtures in recent seasons, such as the Reds’ two-legged victory over AC Milan this time last season.
Whatever the tactical choices, Valencia’s return is a personal triumph for the player, who has become both with United’s fans and in the dressing room. The former Wigan Athletic winger’s unassuming nature, initially seen as potentially inhibiting on the pitch, is heartily welcomed by supporters keen to see performances not ‘brand development’.
The players return comes with a word of warning though. Positive as the news surely is, it may still prove a long road. After all, neither Dion Dublin nor Alan Smith made it at Old Trafford following similar injuries. Neither had Valencia’s talent of course but in elite sport inherent talent is only one part of the picture.
Antonio Valencia is set to miss the entire season after suffering an agonising leg break and ankle dislocation last night. The injury, which was almost as horrific as Manchester United’s unimaginative display against Rangers, required an operation this morning as the Ecuadorian winger begins the long and painful road to recovery.
But what should Sir Alex Ferguson do to replace Valencia in the team?
Ferguson’s likely options include shifting Nani to the right-wing and playing Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung more often than previously thought likely. With Dimitar Berbatov in great form, Ferguson could also choose to shift Wayne Rooney to the left-wing in a 4-3-3 formation.
However, left-field choices could be to bring French winger Gabriel Obertan into the side, promote new signing Bebé or look to an academy side packed with talented, if untested, youngsters.
Finally Ferguson could dip into the transfer market this January, after all the manager still claims to have money available.
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.
Antonio Valencia is enjoying his time at Manchester United after stepping out of Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow, says the £15 million summer purchase from Wigan Athletic. The Ecuadorian, who is United’s third top scorer with seven goals, has featured in 32 games this season in a highly promising first campaign at the club.
The unassuming 24-year-old could be forgiven for freezing in the wake of the Portuguese winger’s £80 million transfer to Real Madrid. After all, Ronaldo’s 91 goals in the past three years have contributed heavily to the club’s triumvirate of Premier League titles and two successive Champions League finals.
But the Lago Agrio-born winger has proven an astute buy on the right hand side of United’s midfield, slotting neatly into the side from the off.
“I thought I would be used sparingly at first and then more as I settled in at the club, but as a footballer you train hard so that you’re always prepared to play,” said Valencia, who missed out to the resurgent Nani for a place in United’s starting formation against Arsenal last weekend.
“Then it’s down to the manager to make the decisions, and he has given me lots of opportunities. I’m really enjoying my United career so far, and this is just the start.”
Many – including Rant – suspected that United would fall short of goals this season, with Valencia’s record of just seven strikes in two seasons with Wigan unpromising. But encouraged to get into more scoring positions, the wide man’s pace and shooting ability has proven invaluable to Ferguson’s men.
“I’m getting into the box more than ever before in my career,” said the Ecuadorian international, who has more than 40 caps for his homeland.
“I’m encouraged to get forward and there are a lot of balls coming in from the left side, so I’ve been able to get to the far post and get on the end of a few crosses.”
Should Valencia make double figures this season it will represent a productive return-on-investment for a player who cost less than a fifth of Ronaldo’s huge transfer fee. Not bad for a player who boldly turned down a move the Spanish capital a year ago.
“Cristiano was an unbelievable player. It was inevitable at some point he was going to leave. We have adjusted to it. Antonio has done well and his development has been good,” said Ferguson earlier this season.
“The good thing about him is that he is as tough as boots and has great stamina and speed. He’s a quiet and shy boy and I don’t think with his personality he would be interested in trying to outmatch Cristiano. He has been unaffected by the position he is playing in.
“We think he is important to us the way we play. We like to have width in the team and he is doing that very well.”
The player’s speed and direct running has impressed both fans and manager this season, although he has found himself on the bench in recent matches.
Indeed, Valencia’s greatest challenge now is not the shadow of Cristiano but competition from Nani, whose mesmerising form on the right-wing against both Manchester City and Arsenal in the past week has taken the fans by surprise.
With Nani creating two goals for the club on Sunday, Valencia may need to warm the bench for a while longer. Yet, there will be no tantrums from the hard-working former Villarreal player.
Summer recruit Antonio Valencia is improving fast, says Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The former Wigan Athletic right-winger, recruited for more than £16 million, has now scored six times in an increasingly prosperous season. It is already the Ecuadorian’s highest scoring campaign in European football.
“Antonio is improving, there is no question about that,” said Ferguson of the winger who has appeared 19 times this season.
“He was only a quiet lad when he came but he is more expansive now and he is expressing himself on the pitch very well.
“Six goals is a decent return because we know it is an area he can do better in. Overall we are really pleased with him.”
Valencia scored United’s third goal in the club’s victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford Wednesday night, in addition to strikes against CSKA Moscow, West Ham United and Bolton Wanderers.
The unassuming 24-year-old, handed the unenviable task of replacing Cristiano Ronaldo at United, is winning over both fans and manager with increasingly influential performances for the club.
When Antonio Valencia stepped on the Old Trafford pitch for the first time since his £16 million move across Lancashire from Wigan Athletic the spotlight shone firmly on the Ecuadorian. Not without good reason, as Cristiano Ronaldo’s heir-apparent, the mild-mannered 23-year-old held the weight of expectations on his shoulders.
The hopes and fears of United supporters, 13 games into Valencia’s Old Trafford career, now closer to being realised.
Valencia’s match-winning performance in Manchester United’s 1-0 victory in Moscow Wednesday night marked another progressive step in the Lago Agrio-born winger’s career. Hugging the touchline, with the confidence to pose a constant threat, the wide man scored for the second time in as many games for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
Valencia’s display against Moscow was a strong follow-up to a positive run-out for United in the Premier League Saturday last. Valencia’s old-fashioned display, scoring United’s second – ultimately winning – goal against Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford, may have been a turning point in the former Villarreal player’s career in Manchester.
But it was an uncertain start for the former Wigan player, with Valencia starting as many games on the bench as he did in the team during United’s first 10 games this season. Indeed, the Ecuadorian’s performance against Arsenal so lacked in conviction that Ferguson hauled the winger off and supporters were right to hold doubts about Valencia’s ability compensate adequately for the loss of Ronaldo.
Indifferent performances at the start of an Old Trafford career are hardly a problem unique to Valencia. The question for many players is whether they are able to overcome the increased weight of expectation that comes with playing for the world’s best-supported club.
Stage-fright says Nemanja Vidic, a man whom endured an equally shaky start to his United career after an £7.8 million move from CSKA Moscow in January 2007.
“At the beginning of the season, Antonio had some difficulties because he was bought to replace Cristiano Ronaldo,” said Vidic.
“The media paid special attention and were watching his every move, and the pressure paralysed him a little. He is a real artist, gradually gaining confidence and playing better and better with each match. Scoring will help him even more.”
Valencia’s record at Wigan and on the international stage – he has 40 caps for his native Ecuador – suggests a man big on talent but little in end-product in front of goal. The winger scored just seven in 89 appearances for Wigan and only a marginally more impressive return for the national team.
But if lack of goals is a concern then perhaps supporters are concentrating on the wrong aspects of Valencia’s game, says club captain Gary Neville. Where Ronaldo came to dominate both United’s goalscoring and tactical deployment, Valencia offers an altogether different proposition. A throwback to a day when wingers, were wingers, Neville argues.
“Antonio Valencia caused them [Moscow] problems after the break. He is strong and quick and an old fashioned winger who puts crosses in and is a constant threat to defenders,” said Neville after the victory over CSKA in Moscow.
Performances such as those delivered in the past week are likely to win round supporters grown used to high quality from the right in recent years. But unlike Ronaldo – and David Beckham previously – Valencia lacks the drive for stardom and celebrity. And while the Ecuadorian is less likely to seek fame off the pitch, the distinct lack of entourage surrounding Ferguson’s most-expensive summer signing comes as a welcome change.
“I think everyone is very pleased with what Antonio has done,” said defender Rio Ferdinand.
“He’s a really humble and quiet lad. He comes in, does his work and goes home. He is from the Paul Scholes mould of embracing hype and attention but he’s the most confident guy on the football field and he’s been very impressive since he arrived.”
“He’s playing very well and I’m sure he will keep improving and keep scoring goals.”
Ultimately it is Ferguson that will make or break Valencia, who won the fans’ voted FIFA World Cup 2006 Best Young Player. Naturally, the Scot is fully supportive of his new winger; perhaps even relieved to have a wide player dedicated to his art and not endorsements.
“Valencia has been a plus point for the last few weeks. He’s emerging very well, settling into the club, and his confidence is getting stronger,” said Ferguson.
“He has tremendous assets for a wide player, but the assets he didn’t show at Wigan were his goals, where he would maybe only get three or four a season.
“This was his challenge when he signed for us. Two in two games will help him.”
A winner at Anfield this weekend would be a special kind of hat-trick.