Ok, hands up, who thought Antonio Valencia could be this good at right-back? Nope. Neither did I.
One man who did see his potential, and has masterminded the Ecuadorian’s resurgence, is Jose Mourinho, who has revealed he tried to sign Valencia when he was the manager of Real Madrid.
Mourinho’s time in charge of Los Blancos between 2010 and 2013 coincided with Valencia’s best form in a United shirt. After a miraculous recovery from a broken leg, Valencia went on to win the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award in 2012 playing predominantly as a right-winger. While he featured as right-back on several occasions under Sir Alex Ferguson, it was usually as a last resort or to cover for an injury elsewhere in the squad. It wasn’t until David Moyes took over that Valencia regularly played in a more defensive position.
Valencia was signed by Ferguson in 2009, a summer which saw Cristiano Ronaldo leave United to join Real Madrid. While Valencia never really managed to replicate Ronaldo’s form or replace the Portuguese in any meaningful way, his efforts contributed to two further league titles and a league cup success before Sir Alex finally retired. Fortunately for United, Mourinho was unable to tempt another no.7 away from Old Trafford. Speaking to MUTV, Mourinho said:
“I tried to sign Antonio a number of years ago, when I was at Madrid.
“Even though he was not playing right-back at the time, I thought he could be phenomenal in that position. As it was, United told me ‘no chance!’
“I am not surprised by his form this season. He has been clean of injuries, save for an operation on his arm which did not keep him out for long, and I have also been able to keep him fresh by resting him in certain Europa League games.”
His transition into a mainstay of this Manchester United team has surprised most supporters. Prior to this season, Valencia’s performances as a defender left a lot to be desired. Under Moyes he was erratic and defensively poor, his positioning was not up to scratch and United’s right-hand side always seemed to be a weakness. Under the tutelage of Louis van Gaal Valencia’s defensive qualities improved but his attacking flair was stifled entirely. With his rampaging running on the right flank a thing of the past, Valencia’s sole offensive contribution was to drive the ball as hard as possible across the penalty area in a fairly non-descript manner, hoping a forward could make something of it. With his confidence shot to pieces, many fans expected Valencia to be shown the door when Mourinho arrived, especially when you consider his penchant for specialists in every position.
But since the former Chelsea and Inter Milan coach arrived at United, not only has Valencia been an integral part of the defensive unit, he has thrived in an attacking role that gives United an added edge going forward.
“I think he is the right-back to give us the maximum we can in terms of our attacking football.” – Jose Mourinho on Antonio Valencia
Mourinho has revitalised United’s no.25 and it is no surprise that the manager has always seen his potential as a right-back, he really has been phenomenal. Valencia has been at his swashbuckling best. That all action, street-fighter style, typified by his return from a broken arm in just 24 days, is back. The timing of his forward runs, the pace with which he attack’s the full-back and the delivery of the final ball, all elements of his game that had been lost in recent seasons, they’ve all returned to him. He’s even crossing the ball with his left foot!
One man who’s enjoyed playing with Antonio Valencia more than most is Juan Mata. With Valencia dominating the right-hand side of the pitch in a role more akin to a wing-back, Mata is free to drift and create. Starting from the right, Mata can get on the ball a lot more by coming inside and combining with his teammates and is far more effective when he is not restricted to a more disciplined role on the wing. That flexibility spreads to the rest of the team and United’s whole forward line becomes much more fluid. When Mourinho speaks about what Valencia gives the team, he’s absolutely right. He gives United an added dimension in attack and gives others around him the freedom to play more expansively.
With so much speculation surrounding transfer targets for the new year, it almost felt like a foregone conclusion that United would target another right-back. Given his form and fitness, Antonio Valencia may have taken that decision out of the manager’s hands. With his contract expiring in the summer, the only things left to decide now are the terms of the contract and how long he’ll be asked to stay.