30th June 2009, seven years ago to the day, Manchester United officially announced the signing of Antonio Valencia from Wigan Athletic. Valencia was the biggest signing in a turbulent summer window for United, as stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez both left the club. And so starts a roller coaster of a seven-year spell. After a solid first full season, Valencia suffered a terrible ankle injury in September 2010, which kept him out all the way to March 2011. But he returned in a big way, quickly cementing his place in the United team, eventually leading to a starting appearance in the Champions League final defeat to Barcelona. And that was just the start of his comeback.
The season after, Valencia was at his absolutely devastating best. When he was at his game, Valencia was pretty much unplayable, leaving fullbacks in his wake as he charges forward with blistering pace. Valencia’s directness was a nightmare for defenders, as he’d run at you with the ball and there’d be nothing you could do about it. His incredible form won him both the fans’ and the players’ player of the year award, and he was given United’s legendary number 7 for the following season. And this is where things started to go wrong.
His form seemingly evaporated into thin air the next season. Even though he racked up more league appearances than he did the season before, he never came close to replicating his old form, and he went back to his old number 25 for the season after. He never did regain that form, and his work rate and physicality lead to him being converted to a right back. Since then, he has been a useful squad player at best, and extremely frustrating at his worst.
And now, here we are.
You’d forgive United supporters for being frustrated with Valencia. After he lost his form, he lost his threatening directness but failed to replace it with any new tricks. You can expect to know exactly what would happen when he has the ball on the wing. He’d slow down and dither in the face of an opposition defender before passing it backwards or, more often than not, driving a cross to the feet of the first man. What could this player possibly bring to the United team?
Before we get to that, here’s a stat: last season, which he missed four months of due to injury, was the first since that ankle injury that Valencia has made less than 25 league appearances. Before the signing of Matteo Darmian last summer, Valencia had become United’s first choice right-back, and he was missed when Darmian’s form fell last season. Time and again, United have found themselves having to rely on Valencia, and say what you will about his wing play, but there’s no denying that he’s a grafter. And that makes him dependable, something the last two United managers saw and appreciated. As would new manager Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho has shown a liking for hardworking players with boundless energy in the past, regardless of their perceived ability. At Real Madrid, he signed out of favour Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien on loan, and upon his return to Chelsea gave Ramires a big part of the squad, a player who was sold in the transfer window directly after Mourinho’s departure. Mourinho puts a lot of trust in these two players because of their hard work ethic, and he can do the same with Valencia.
Sure, Valencia plays in a different position to Essien and Ramires, but that could work in his favour as Mourinho has played both in positions Valencia can occupy, with Essien being deployed at full back at times and Ramires at right-wing, to track and cover attacking full backs. This might not be the most glittering of roles, but one Valencia can excel at. Mourinho is a pragmatist, he’d do anything for a win, including sacrificing an attacking outlet for a player who will work hard to close the opposition down. This is why I won’t be surprised if I see Valencia start a big, must win game on the wing, and if Valencia’s time at United stretches further beyond this seven-year mark.