The press lazily claimed Antonio Valencia was our replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo when he joined in the summer of 2009. Having scored just a handful of goals over a couple of seasons, the media and rival fans scoffed at the idea of Sir Alex Ferguson believing this relative nobody from Wigan was going to replace the Best Player In The World (TM) who had been our top scorer for the past three years running.
In reality, he had been bought as a right winger, with the idea that Wayne Rooney would take up the burden of scoring our goals. Valencia was there to fulfil the traditional roles for his position of scoring a few, assisting more. In his first season that’s exactly how it worked out. He scored 7 goals in all competitions and assisted 9. He effortlessly made the step up to showing he was a player of United quality and settled in to our style of play immediately.
His second season was more or less over just a few weeks in after he broke his ankle against Rangers. He came back in to the team ahead of schedule in March though and hit good form pretty much instantly. He managed to force Nani, who was voted our Players’ Player of the Season out of the Champions League final team.
However, after picking up another injury on International duty this summer he missed out on the pre-season and lost his place in the team again. Ashley Young and Nani have both made great starts to the season and there wasn’t much opportunity for Valencia to try to prove his worth.
Luckily for him, United suffered a whole host of injuries at the back, with our first choice and cover for right-back missing. This allowed Valencia to have a go and for the most part he’s done well. His performance against Norwich was one to forget but generally I like the attacking threat he poses at right back, whilst still being solid enough defensively.
With Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and Rio Ferdinand likely to return to fitness after the International break, Valencia will lose his place at right back. So, where does this leave him?
“There’s a natural instinct in him to help out and defend,” said Ferguson. “Of course, we know all about Antonio’s qualities as an attacker, but he’s so quick and so powerful that he’s also suited to a full-back role. He’s incredibly difficult to beat if you’re trying to get around him. We also see him as an option in the centre of midfield. He’s very disciplined and able to carry out any instruction we give him.”
I’d never really considered Valencia as a central player, despite his appearances there for his country, although hearing the manager mention it got me thinking. The guy is nails and I would love to see him getting stuck in all game. Can you imagine how much fun it would be seeing other team’s hardest players bouncing off him when they went in to make a challenge?
Rio Ferdinand spoke about Valencia on Twitter last season after seeing him “throw weights around” in the gym, insisting that he was the strongest winger in the league. Remember when running at speed against Everton last season he shrugged Leighton Baines off like he was an U-15? Tough players like him, who are also skilful, are a dying breed. Would it be worth a go? Would Valencia be up for it?
“I’ve played at right-back a few times and I’ve enjoyed the position,” he told United’s official Spanish website. “I respect regular players in that position as they pick up quite a few knocks. But I have also played back on the wing this season and I’m happy anywhere on the field. I hope to be ready and to play well when the boss calls me.”
I’d personally prefer us see Jones in the centre of the park, even just as a trial run, because of the qualities he could bring to the position. Bryan Robson played in the centre of defence at West Brom before making the move to midfield and you could easily imagine Jones doing the same. Despite our young defender’s claims that his preference is defence, if Rio and Vidic are both fit, you would imagine they would get the starting positions and he would be keen to play anywhere. It would be good for him to have experience of playing elsewhere and if he pulls it off, we finally have the player we’ve been waiting for since Keano left six years ago.
Whilst we are still having injury problems at the back though, maybe Valencia is worth a punt for midfield. His pace may be wasted here and he may be out of his depth in the centre of the park after spending so much time on the right, whether as a winger or a full-back, but without sounding too negtive, it’s not as if what we already have in place is so special it isn’t worth trying someone else out. Anderson and Cleverley made a great start to the season but our Brazilian has struggled to make the same impression when playing alongside Carrick and Fletcher, who have both failed to set the world alight when given their chance.
Valencia in midfield? Go on Fergie, give it a go.