Individuality vs History: A Look at Antonio Valencia and Manchester United’s number 7

By Jared Mercer

It’s no secret. The number 7 jersey at Manchester United has been worn by many heroes, many legends.  George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, and Cristiano Ronaldo being the best examples of the past four decades of legendary number sevens, but since Ronaldo’s departure, a natural phenomenon has yet to emerge as the bearer of the legendary shirt.

First there was Michael Owen, former Liverpool player, who spent most of his United career in the dugout or on the injured reserve, and scored a couple of memorable goals but nothing of real note. The highlight of his Red Devils career being a late winner against Manchester City in his first season, which was exciting, but was also about it. He now “plays” for Stoke where it is likely Owen’s career will fade into an end. The current man in red uniform to wear the number 7 shirt is Ecuadorian Antonio Valencia, who began his United career in 2009/10 wearing the number 25 jersey. While supported by the Old Trafford faithful, Valencia and the history of the old Man Utd 7 have not mixed.

Valencia is a true number 7 in the sense that he is a pure right winger who rarely leaves his role of hugging the side touchline. He was successful at doing so in his three seasons at Wigan Athletic. Scoring 7 goals in his three years at Wigan, he was not overly impressive but showed good signs of being a consistent Premiership performer. When Alex Ferguson snapped him up for £16 million, it seemed like a heavy price for a player of reasonable quality who had not made too much of an impact in England.

Antonio Valencia went on to prove Ferguson right in his first season by earning 5 goals and 7 assists in 34 appearances (29 as a starter) in the Premier League and was largely Manchester United’s most consistent player. In his second season, he suffered a serious injury in the Champions League that kept him out for most of the year. It was a major blow to the team as Valencia had proved to be less tricky but more consistent and defensively sound than Nani on the wing.

And when he made his return later in the season, it was a big boost to the whole team and went straight back to his good wing play. Valencia became Ferguson’s top choice for the right side of midfield because of his attacking abilities and defensive soundness, but now in his fourth season with Manchester United and things are starting to go a bit downhill for the bulky Ecuadorian.

He’s very one dimensional in his forward runs and with the spotlight growing on Valencia as a Manchester United player, the opposition defence are starting to figure him out. This past summer Valencia had his number changed from 25 to the iconic number 7, which could have been handed to either Kagawa or Van Persie, and after a few good seasons with Manchester United this seemed like a good fit.

Oddly enough this has been his worst season as a United player as his effectiveness as an attacker has been largely stunted. His style, which revolves around staying very tight to the right side, Valencia makes gut-busting runs up and down the sidelines, with his favoured move being pushing the ball towards the end touchline past the opposing left-back and swinging a cross in.  At this he is very effective but his main ability is now becoming his greatest shortcoming. 

Where Manchester United’s other wingers Nani and Ashley Young do not offer much defensively, they do possess a bag of tricks that makes them a nightmare to defend as they can cross, cut inside and shoot, or simply dribble past defenders opening up space. Valencia has pretty good ball control but no left foot and no other creativity to his game other than running to the end line and crossing, and even his crossing of the ball is getting a bit wayward with more simply going out behind the goal. 

Now all defenders do to stop Valencia is get in front of him and force him to cut inside where he will not shoot on his left or really make any other play other than pass the ball back to Rafael, the defender behind him who surprisingly has many more ideas on the ball.

Manchester United’s weekend 1-0 loss to Norwich, two weeks ago, is the latest example of Valencia’s ineffectiveness as an attacking player. Norwich, who do not possess world class defenders, had no problems whatsoever nullifying each of Antonio Valencia’s attempted runs to the end line, and once again when he was forced inside he had no ability to create any scoring chances.

Javier Garrido, Norwich’s left back who is known more for his attacking prowess, was made to look a solid defender against United’s dreadfully dull right winger. This has been happening for a few weeks now where Manchester United struggle going forward and Ferguson decides to switch things up by taking off a winger for a striker and playing what on paper almost looks like a 4-2-4 formation.  Something that was championed by Herbert Chapman’s W-M formation with Arsenal in the 1930s and was used as the default formation by teams across Europe in the following decades.

Usually Ferguson would remove Ashley Young and play with Van Persie, Rooney, Chicharito, and sometimes even Danny Welbeck across the frontline, with Antonio Valencia taking on a more defensive role. This has worked on many occasions this season as Manchester United have become the comeback kings, giving up the first goal in 9 of their 14 victories of the season.

However, this time around Chicharito had started the match and with Wayne Rooney out injured, Ferguson’s only option was to bring on Welbeck so he has to replace Valencia this time and keep Young on for attacking options once they went down 1-0 to Pilkinton’s goal (the former United youth player who Ferguson said before the match he does not remember) in the second half. This does not necessarily mean that Ferguson has lost faith in Valencia as I have, but perhaps shows that he recognizes his limited abilities as an attacker.

Last season Alex Ferguson started using Antonio Valencia as a right back when Manchester United were suffering from a massive defensive injury crisis and Valencia was actually quite effective in that position. His large frame, tackling abilities and defensive soundness proved to be a decent fit, more so than Michael Carrick forced to play at center back. Valencia is quick and able to keep his temper in check better than the skilled natural full back Rafael, and should perhaps be trained to play that position full time.

It is not that Antonio Valencia is a terrible player, far, far from it.

But with his technical prowess alongside his speed and strength, perhaps could become an elite, Dani Alves-esque right back if given more playing time and training in that position. Because he has a more stable head on his shoulders than Rafael, in time it could become his main position. United’s long-serving right back Gary Neville had almost no ability going forward (“almost” is actually giving Red Nev some credit) but he was sound defensively, whereas Valencia does have some qualities in attack, which could make him a well-rounded wing back linking up with the midfielder in front of him and making some overlapping runs.

A few players in Manchester United’s line up have made new roles for themselves or should be moved into a new role by Ferguson to improve the team’s overall play, not just Antonio Valencia. Rooney’s absence from the Norwich match was very apparent as he has proved to be United’s spark in the center and there was almost no creativity on the pitch for United without him pulling the strings. The loss to Norwich was very much a showcase of how United truly rely on Rooney in his new role.

Ferguson said he misses Ronaldo and still hopes he will rejoin United someday.

Therefore, if Valencia should play right back and with Nani in the doghouse, who should play on the wing opposite Young? Eden Hazard would have been ideal, but the answer could be United’s versatile striker Danny Welbeck.

Although not a great goal scorer, Welbeck does know where the net is and always puts in a solid performance when on the field. He has played on the left wing for Manchester United before showing a fantastic fighting, tackling spirit to go along with his striking abilities. Alex Ferguson has noted that Welbeck scores more for England where he plays as a central striker and he would like to bring those goals to the club, however with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie (and Chicharito when he comes on as a substitute) operating in the middle already, Welbeck should be chosen to fill the role on the flanks. He has similar tenacity and spirit to Valencia, but also possesses an abundant amount of ability to find the net and create for his teammates. 

Despite Valencia’s work rate and nonchalant, even under-appreciated set of skills, the search for Manchester United’s all-encompassing number 7 goes on…

This piece was written by Jared Mercer, a regular contributor to AFR. You can follow Jared on Twitter @jaredwilly. The images used in this piece are by Zoran Lucic. Comments below please.

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  13. itsthefatkid answered: i dont think antonio valencia is ready for the number seven…but at the end of the day it is just number,right?
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