TACTICAL THOUGHTS: ANTONIO VALENCIA

Antonio Valencia had a great 2011-12 season but this year hasn’t gone so well. There has been much talk amongst United fans as to why this might be.

He joined as a right-sided attacking player in the summer of 2009 just as Cristiano Ronaldo left the club and so he had a hard act to follow. Since then, affected by a series of injuries, a pattern has emerged: good year, bad year, good year, bad year. Valencia himself has spoken of injuries and inconsistent form. Others have conjectured that he might leave the club this summer after an indifferent season.

Manutdtactics.com picked out Valencia as our player of the year last season. Not by a significant distance, but on balance over the course of the year we felt he was our most consistent performer and our most significant threat: so much so that in the second half of the season United’s attack became quite lopsided.

In praise of Valencia last season we wrote,

“Valencia is a very good player in-form. His greatest strength is that he usually chooses the right option and chooses that option early, so preventing the opposition from recovering, (Nani take note). He is quick, strong, has great vision, he has an awareness of where team mates are at all times. If a team mate is better placed he will pass to him, if there isn’t a better placed team mate he will run at speed at the opposition and this terrifies them. His pace and strength beats people, rather than any trickiness. When he crosses or passes he does so to somebody rather than to a general area, (a common United fault in others), and so he is generally more effective than other players. His interplay with Rooney is a great asset”.

So what has gone wrong then? There are a number of theories.

Injuries have played quite a significant role throughout Valencia’s time at United. Recently he has gone on record lamenting their affect on his game this season. It’s always difficult as a fan to fully assess the impact of injuries. Players are asked to play when not fully fit and the club naturally wishes to keep its cards close to its chest. But Valencia has had a number of absences, most notably in 2010-11 season when he featured in only 10 league games. On other occasions he has played more games, but those appearances have been punctuated by regular absences and like Rooney he does appear to be a player whose form benefits from a run of games. This brings us to the second theory.

Confidence plays a significant part in any footballer’s ability to perform. Some players have it naturally and in abundance; others do not. Without knowing the player as a person this is almost as difficult an issue for the fan to gauge as the effect of injuries. Valencia does not come across as a bullish personality. Quiet, thoughtful and unassuming would be our guess, and if he is this type then some of the other factors identified here may lead to the occasional bout of self doubt. A run in the side and a number of good performances, (as we saw in the second half of last season), would breed confidence. Injury and only occasional appearances may breed self doubt. Many United fans currently may feel that he does currently lack confidence as evidenced by repeated calls in frustration to “take the man on”.

In our assessment of Valencia’s contribution last year we said that he was a very good player in-form; that is a very good player, not a great player. A very good player who thinks about his strengths and weaknesses is not necessarily such a bad thing: he may be in a better position to exploit his abilities than a more gifted player to whom things come naturally. The more gifted player may not think too deeply about his game; is this the reason why many great players never quite cut it as managers? The point though, is that in the professional game, players and strategists will work out ways of stopping a very good player, something they may not be so easily able to do against a truly great player. This could explain the good year, not so good year pattern. Valencia had a good year last year and as a consequence opponents have devised ways of stopping him. Perhaps next year when their focus goes elsewhere he may find opportunities to excel again.

The strategy many have used this year is pretty transparent. Opponents show Valencia the inside track and so push him onto his left foot. Valencia is a very one footed player, not the only one at United currently, but it is an issue which at this stage of his career is unlikely to be overcome satisfactorily.

The final point we would make concerns how Valencia is used in the team shape. Currently we feel that his starting position is too high. Returning to our piece about the player last year we wrote,

“An important point to be made about Valencia is that his game is infinitely more effective when he receives the ball when he is on the move, often running from deep. Valencia usually doesn’t beat people for pace over the first ten yards, but rather over the second ten. When United play a high attacking line in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 he is significantly less effective. Then he is often static as he received the ball, and does not have the game to beat his man. In this scenario he usually passes inside back into midfield or to an overlapping or under lapping full back”.

This passing inside or back is the scenario that has led many United fans to scream, “Take him on!” But last season Valencia didn’t tend to take an opponent on in these situations because he doesn’t have the trickery or ace to beat his man from a standing start. He beats players with his power and momentum. When he starts deeper he has the time and space to accelerate to speed and overpower the fullback with this momentum. In that situation the fullback is often unable to divert Valencia onto his weaker side.

In our article last year we picked out four great performances in each of which Valencia, when he made his impact, was starting from a deep position. Against Fulham after Jones was removed United played a back three with Valencia starting from deep and using the space in front of him to devastating effect; against Arsenal he found space running from deep after Park dragged Arsenal’s left sided players inside; against Wolves he dropped deep to exploit the space created by the sending off of Zubar and against Blackburn he made the difference in the last twenty minutes as United changed shape and he dropped deeper to run diagonally at the Blackburn defence.

Perhaps Sir Alex recognises this as he has tried Valencia as a fullback or a wingback in the past and recently positioned him at fullback behind Nani in the FA Cup replay at Chelsea. What is sure is that United need to find a different way of exploiting his strengths if the player is to return to his form of last year.