Manchester United’s recent history has been filled with nothing more than divisive figures. The most often noted was Nani, who varied from the most inconsistent winger in the Premier League to the most potential in Europe depending on the viewer. Also divisive is Wayne Rooney, who divides United fans regardless of the unity behind his testimonial. However, the most divisive of all United players currently at the club has to be Antonio Valencia.
In the simplest form, Valencia’s good days are splendid and his bad days are abhorrent. There is no average when the former United Player of the Year plays at right-back. Yes, he’s an incredible athlete, and yes, he’s incredibly fast. That does not excuse the misconception that he can ever play on the right side of defence for Manchester United. Louis van Gaal’s obsession with balance in the side prompted him to make Valencia United’s starting footballer at right-back to help the attack.
His rise to prominence on the right side of defence sees him play right-back for his attacking impetus, despite the fact his crossing is worse than Phil Jones from right-back. He provided the energy that Juan Mata couldn’t in United’s great March run. Also important was the defensive covering clinic put up by Ander Herrera. Once Herrera had to be moved around the pitch (due to injuries), we were subtly exposed to the fact he cannot make his trade defensively. By subtly exposed, I mean three straight losses after six straight wins. If United’s 3-0 defeat to Everton wasn’t example enough, the signing of Matteo Darmian should’ve been.
Darmian had a shaky start to the Premier League that has caused many to write him off, regardless of the clear potential he showed to be an incredible right-back with a little bit of attacking training. His passing and energy down the flank along with his diligent defensive work are proof that only crossing divides him from the best right-backs in the world. Back on topic, though, as Darmian dwindled and United’s attack stunted on the right, Timothy Fosu-Mensah emerged as an option.
The advantages of having two players of the tactical intelligence of Fosu-Mensah and Darmian is their ability to interchange. Their ability to play specific tactical roles in the side allows them to move deep into the deepest fixtures, and they can change based on the match. Fosu-Mensah offers more moving forward, in the air and in the tackle, while Darmian offers the consistency and experience to show a defender both inward and to the byline. Fosu-Mensah clearly made this impact with his world class performance against Tottenham Hotspur. He was replaced by Darmian to capitulating effect, but Darmian was clearly not properly informed to perform the tasks Fosu-Mensah carried out on Christian Eriksen and Danny Rose.
The real problem occurred when Valencia was added to the side against West Ham United. His inability to defend in central areas comes due to his lack of ability to use his left foot and mark other players. This reluctance causes him to stay out wide at all times in defence and attack, passing sideways to compensate for his inability to move forward (hence his high pass completion rates). Valencia’s reluctance to move centrally forced Morgan Schneiderlin into a squared area of about 10 metres, and he was ripped apart by Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini despite doing a decent job- many fans called for him to be sold that day. But it isn’t Schneiderlin who needs to be sold from that defensive unit.
Valencia’s horrid crossing also causes problems with attacking, with often creative build-up play typically ending with the Ecuadorian’s over-hit cross. Granted, he got 3 assists in United’s recent 5-2 friendly win over Galatasaray- however, one was a Zlatan Ibrahimovic bicycle kick and the another a looping Marouane Fellaini header. Two of the three assists came as a result of the quality of the goal scorer, not the cross. This isn’t a minor problem, either- with Ibrahimovic, Rooney, Anthony Martial, Morgan Schneiderlin and perhaps Paul Pogba bombing into United’s box, the fullbacks are going to need to cross properly. Mourinho’s teams always dominate in the air.
To summarise, not only is Valencia a misfit in United’s tactical system, but there are also multiple players who represent better options at the club. Fosu-Mensah and Darmian must be United’s right-sided options moving forward before Eric Bailly and Ashley Young are mentioned as emergency options- both have shown more quality in the position at the club. Valencia lacks the technical ability, football intelligence and his physical quality is beginning to decline (he turned 31 on the 4th August). Valencia has had some incredible moments at the club, but it is time to stop living in the past because it makes the present more difficult and puts the future at risk.