An ode to Antonio: the growing importance of Manchester United’s ‘makeshift’ right-back

By Sean Ranson

Jose Mourinho recently declared Antonio Valencia ‘the best right-back in the world’ as the club announced another contract extension for the Ecuadorian, now in his eighth year with the club.

Many an eyebrow was raised. And who can blame them – he’s not even a proper fullback right?

And while Mourinho’s comments were no doubt sprinkled with a touch of hyperbole aimed at boosting the player’s confidence, there’s no doubt they point to an underlying recognition of the 31-year-old’s importance to the team.

Valencia has had a rollercoaster career at United. Signed from Wigan Athletic as a right midfielder in 2009, he enjoyed a successful debut season, spent much of his second on the treatment table and returned to be named the club’s Player of the Season in his third. However, a couple of far less successful campaigns followed, during which he was handed and then subsequently relinquished United’s famous number seven shirt in favour of the less high profile 25.

He was first used as a full-back fairly early in his United career, in a 2011 League Cup tie against Leeds – a move Valencia only saw as temporary at the time. He was one of a number of players used in the position by Sir Alex Ferguson, particularly in times of injury crisis, as the manager sought a truly commanding presence for a position last truly excelled in by Gary Neville in the mid-00s. Despite some good performances, not least that game against Leeds, the truth was that Valencia never really shifted the look of an out of position winger.

It wasn’t until the arrival of Louis Van Gaal in 2014 that Valencia played at full back with any regularity. And while he performed admirably under the Dutchman, the rigid system employed during those two seasons never allowed Valencia’s true quality to shine through. When Matteo Darmian was signed from Torino in 2015 it seemed that Valencia’s days at right-back, and perhaps even at United, were numbered as there were (on paper at least) better alternatives at both fullback and right midfield. However, fast forward 18 months, and it is the Italian whose future is under scrutiny, while Valencia has become a pivotal part of Jose Mourinho’s starting eleven.

There are a number of reasons for this turnaround in fortunes, and no doubt his quiet diligence and commitment to learning the position are major factors. But so too is what he is being asked to do by his manager. It’s well documented that Jose Mourinho places greater emphasis on defensive shape than attacking function, preferring to give his forward players the freedom of expression in the final third, while making his back four organised and hard to break down. United have now settled on a 4-3-3 formation with Michael Carrick sitting in front of the back four and a generally narrow front three, with the likes of Martial, Mata and Mkhitaryan preferring to cut inside from the wings and find space between the opposition’s defensive line and midfield. This system puts an added onus on the fullbacks to provide attacking width – overlapping and providing crosses into Ibrahimovic.

It is because of these requirements that Valencia is so ideally suited to Mourinho’s system. Being a winger ‘by trade’ he has the natural instinct to get forward and put balls into the box (all the while being covered by the ubiquitous Carrick), but also a discipline that means that without the ball he is retreating down this flank and back into position. It requires pace, strength and ability on the ball as well as defensive intelligence and positional understanding, all of which Valencia has demonstrated with aplomb this season. The former attributes have always been present, while the latter have been mastered through hard work and dedication to his new position.

He has started 26 games in all competitions, an ever present but for an arm injury and when being rested, providing three assists. In attack, he’s often found hugging the white line and providing an overlap, drawing his opposite number out of position and creating space for United’s attacking talent to do damage. But it’s not just his attacking credentials that deserve credit. Valencia has blossomed into a very accomplished defender. His statistics for successful tackles (46%), aerial duels (45%) and take-ons (65%) are all well within reach of established fullbacks Nathaniel Clyne, Kyle Walker and Hector Bellerin, and despite his efforts going forward, he’s rarely found out of position. And who could forget his goal saving tackle on Roberto Firmino at Anfield in October? A brave, perfectly timed challenge of which any defender would be proud.

With United continuing to find goalscoring arduous, and understudy Matteo Darmian far less accomplished going forward and prone to lapses in defence, Valencia will remain one of the first names on the team sheet as the squad chases success on four fronts. It would still be no surprise if the manager opts to bring in another right-back this summer. With Valencia turning 32 before a ball is kicked next season, it’s a shame he didn’t find his hidden talent a little earlier in his career.

One thing is for sure though, while he might not be the best right-back in the world, Antonio Valencia has surely earned the right never to be called ‘makeshift’ again.

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