By Danny Armstrong.
Antonio Valencia was born to do what he does. Impeccably clad in long-sleeved shirt tucked neatly in to pristine white shorts, he embodied the ethos of a Manchester United winger: beat the man, get to the line, cross the ball.
His deft close ball control and an always reliable end product brought everything that Nani could frustratingly deprive the team of and his lightning quickness brought about comparisons to Andrei Kanchelskis.
But after winning the Sir Matt Busby, players’ player and goal of the season awards at the club for his efforts last term, this time out is proving to be the ‘difficult follow up season’ for the man from the Amazon. Much of United’s following have noticed a significant dip in his form as Valencia has only assisted 4 goals and scored none from his 21 league games this season.
Much of this is due to his style of play. While Valencia will never be showered by superlatives in the same vein as Ronaldo he could never be accused of not having mastered the fundamentals of his position. He used brute strength and pace to bull past defenders and then accurate crossing to produce a dangerous ball into the box. In short, he had the basics sewn up.
However, better defences have seemingly found the antidote to this: to double up on him when he receives the ball and force him inside onto his much less fancied left foot. When this was deployed by Chelsea in the recent cup tie Valencia’s threat was neutralised and he was forced to pass inside with many of them going astray.
This then creates a crisis of confidence. It can psychologically damage a player if what has worked for so long suddenly doesn’t and therefore lead to subsequent poor performances. A player can begin to doubt themselves and when they lose the trust of the crowd it can then lead to them not trusting themselves and their contribution to the team can become less and less spectacular.
An extended exclusion from the starting eleven has also been detrimental to the Ecuadorian’s match fitness as he has recently appeared weighty beyond his naturally bulky build.
The role of the crowd can play a big part in restoring his elusive confidence. Getting behind United’s number 7 and not greeting every misplaced ball or over-hit cross with groans or shouts of ‘get him off’ is paramount.
If United supporters are willing to get behind Valencia and do what their collective name suggests then his regaining of the form that made him the best player in the side last season will be as rapid as his loss of it.
For him to return to form he has to be able to adapt. For instance, his insistence on wanting to use his right foot can often severely limit his options. Sometimes the delay in shifting the ball to his right can break down momentum in attack and chances can fizzle out. If he can properly utilise the support of Rafael da Silva behind him at right back with the Brazilian drawing the extra defender away it will free up a lot more space for Valencia to move into his preferred position to cross, even if this means still insisting on using that revered right boot.
Hopefully the gap between United and City at the top of the table will mean Valencia can enjoy playing football a little more without the normal high-pressure environment of a close title run-in and allow time to work on the weaker points of his game. A prolonged run of starts will invariably lift his confidence and permit him to gather form.
The introduction of Wilfried Zaha next season is hardy likely to affect Valencia’s activity in the side as the youngster is raw and Ryan Giggs, at the opposite end of the career spectrum, is inevitably going to be used more sparingly.
Valencia’s imperfections do need to be addressed but hopefully a strong end to his season with United being crowned champions for a record twentieth time will precipitate this.