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Antonio Valencia, a growing liability in defence and attack

Manchester United currently sit second in the Premier League table. They have a date with Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup semi-final in a month’s time. They are fourth in goals scored with 58, a year removed from an anemic 54 goal campaign, and second in goals conceded. With 65 points from 30 matches, United are on pace for 80+ points. This would almost certainly be good enough to secure UEFA Champions League football next season, represent their best return from a league campaign since Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season five years ago and in many years would be a total good enough to win the league.

Yet, in spite of all that, there’s a certain lack of fulfillment in watching United play right now. They often look disjointed and toothless going forward with occasional sparks of individual brilliance bailing them out. The defensive record, though impressive, often feels like a mirage buoyed by David De Gea’s brilliance. Per the Daily Mail:

“By the number of shots faced, xG, assuming the United keeper is of average ability in the league, should have conceded 35.33 goals. De Gea, however, has conceded just 23, meaning he has prevented 12.33 Expected Goals.

“Essentially, it shows that De Gea has saved several shots this season that would have been expected to be scored.

“His closest rival, Tottenham’s Paulo Gazzaniga, is some way off, preventing 0.74 Expected Goals – but he has made just the one appearance earlier on this season.

“City’s Ederson, who has earned many plaudits for making a quick transition into the Premier League following his summer transfer, is even further behind De Gea in the standings, only preventing 0.41 Expected Goals. “

Many players have come in for criticism at various points for United’s inability to consistently hit the highs expected of them. Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw, etc. have all come under pressure for their performances.

One who has escaped such scrutiny is long-time stalwart and right-winger turned right back, Antonio Valencia. The Ecuadorian has been a fixture in Jose Mourinho’s starting XI since the Portuguese took over for Louis van Gaal, starting 54 of 68 possible Premier League matches.

For much of that time, Valencia has been in excellent form.

In particular, last season he was one of United’s most consistent performers. He was excellent going forward to provide width for a United side who did and still do lack a natural right-handed attacking presence. Defensively he was both disciplined in maintaining defensive shape while also often controlling and coming out on top in one versus one situations.

That form carried into the beginning of the campaign, but hasn’t sustained. In recent months he’s looked like a shell of himself.

His willingness to provide overlapping runs and width – which he was criticized for by Mourinho following United’s insipid 2-0 victory over Brighton – for a United side desperate for it has seemingly vanished. Valencia scored some wonder goals earlier in the campaign but his overall attacking contribution has dipped.

The numbers paint the picture of a player in decline. He’s averaging 0.71 key passes and 0.75 chances created per 90 minutes this season. This is down from 1.01 key passes and 1.12 chances created last year. He’s been less willing to take on a man as his successful take ons have dropped from 1.34 last year to 1.10 this year.

The knock on effect is United are now far too predictable and narrow in attack. Their most common attacking options on the right have been Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, both of whom like to drift inward. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have both been given chances on the right as well, but have looked like fish out of water.

If his dip in form primarily lay in his contributions going forward perhaps it could simply be chalked up to a lack of confidence. A right back’s primary duties, even in this day and age, still lie in defense. Unfortunately, Valencia has been a liability in this phase as well.

He’s winning fewer tackles per 90 minutes (1.06 this season, 1.52 last) and losing more (2.24 this season, 2.03 last). He’s committing more fouls and his positioning has often been found wanting as was the case against Chelsea when he single-handedly played Willian onside for his opener last month. Too often opponents are finding joy running at him and either getting to the byline to deliver a cross or cutting inside to shoot.

In particular, he received a hiding in United’s embarrassing 2-1 loss to Sevilla at Old Trafford in the Champions League. Joaquin Correa, Sevilla’s left winger, toyed with his time and time again. It was no surprise Correa received the highest score among Valencia’s attacking quarter by WhoScored.com following the match.

Valencia is still serviceable in matches where United sit in a low block and look to hit on the counter, like the recent 2-1 victory over Liverpool. He can still ‘do a job’, but United need far more than that. When United must be more progressive in their approach and push numbers forward to open up opposition defenses his limitations are debilitating.

He’s incapable or unwilling to get forward. He doesn’t attack the space which is so often there when he has the opportunity. This allows defenses to stay narrow and compact to limit the spaces as there’s no attacking threat on United’s right.

Defensively he’s been exposed when the winger in front of him doesn’t provide cover. Simply put, his performances haven’t been good enough for a Manchester United right back.

Now, to be fair, the lack of rotation hasn’t helped. Matteo Darmian is on his way out and Ashley Young can’t rotate because of Mourinho’s lack of trust in Shaw. Perhaps Timothy Fosu-Mensah returning from loan at Crystal Palace will provide the necessary opportunities for the rest and recover he needs. Maybe Mourinho will need to target a right back in the summer transfer market.

Either way, if United are to challenge for top honors domestically and in Europe Valencia must have competition for his place. He has been a great servant to the club over the years and contributed to two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, two League Cups and a Europa League, but the club cannot afford to be nostalgic. At 32 years old, Valencia’s time is dwindling and this season’s decline may signal the end is coming sooner than hoped.

Written by Ashwin Ramnath

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