The Two Faces of Antonio Valencia
He had delivered cross after cross. Whipped them high across the box. Smacked them across the turf. No result. Manchester United were battling to stay alive in the race for the title and he was carrying them on the back. In the 81st minute he had had enough. If they couldn’t finish the job, he’d do it himself. And so he did.
There’s something beautifully nostalgic about a winger who thrives on getting chalk on his boots. They ply their trade bombing down the sides of the pitch just waiting for a chance to run at their defender and deliver a ball in. In the days where wingers are relied to move inwards and act as a wide attacker, the job the traditional winger used to do is passed on to the modern wingback. Nevertheless, any Manchester United fan relishes any time Antonio Valencia gets on the ball. Because things will happen. Well, they used to happen.
When Cristiano Ronaldo left for Real Madrid in 2009 the torch was passed on to the Ecuadorian. That was never fair. To be the man to replace the irreplaceable is never really fair. Valencia, however, brought something new to the table. When the ball was passed out to him, he’d hesitate, wait until he found a chink in his defender’s armor and then hammer at him. On the outside of his defender he’d get the first yard and would smash cross after cross in. A throwback to the days of Andrei Kanchelskis or David Beckham, Valencia represented something old, yet fresh, at Manchester United. With Ronaldo gone, United seemed perhaps a bit more like a unit whereas with Cristiano Ronaldo it was pretty much all about him.
As the season progressed, so did Valencia’s improvement. It was therefore valid to believe that he would really stake his claim in his second season. Unfortunately, a freak injury to his ankle saw Valencia out for five months. When he returned, it seemed like he hadn’t even skipped a beat. Former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola’s even said ahead of the 2011 Champions League final that Antonio Valencia was the best pure winger this world had to offer. Another testament to the development and importance Valencia had. The next season proved even greater for Valencia as delivering 5 goals and 15 assists in 32 games was enough reason for Valencia to be named both the “Fans’ Player of the Season” and “The Player’s Player of the Season”. He also completed his hat trick by having his goal against Blackburn named “Goal of the Season”. Having had endless crosses result in nothing, he took matter into his own hands and kept United in the title race with an absolute thunderbolt of a strike from the edge of the area. It seemed as if Antonio Valencia really had become “Toño Maravilla” (Amazing Tony).
Before the start of the 2012/2013-season Antonio Valencia switched his no.25 shirt for the legendary no.7. Does a shirt really matter in terms of performances? There are many theories both ways, but perhaps there are valid claims that it has become too big of a burden for the broad-shouldered Ecuadorian. There certainly weren’t any obvious factors that led to the drop in form. In fact, Valencia recorded the second highest amount of games as Manchester United player last season, second only to his first season at the club. Yet, the end product seemed increasingly worse. The one thing said about Antonio Valencia was “it’s one thing knowing what he’s going to do, it’s another to stop him from doing it”. The bombing down the flanks, the variation in crossing, the ferocious shot he unleashed from time to time had turned into short backpasses, getting caught out by his man and generally not looking comfortable on the wing. Sure, there were injury niggles here and there, but nothing that really would explain his sudden fall from grace. So what stopped Tony in his tracks?
The answer is that there really is no definite answer. Having gone from one of Manchester United’s brightest attacking weapons to somewhat of liability in under a season is nothing short of bizarre. With no real reports of there being an injury problem, it would seem plausible that the bright lights and big stage at Old Trafford just became a bit too bright and a bit too big when Valencia adorned the no.7. From having been a maverick, an alternative out wide, he suddenly became the headliner. It is one thing to deal with it in Ecuador, it’s another to deal with it at Manchester United. What does ring through is that the managerial change at Manchester United will lead to a career defining season for United’s no.7. As David Moyes continues to tinker with his team, it seems possible that Antonio Valencia will eventually get the chance to redeem himself. And as the 2013/2014 season brings to life a whole new era at Manchester United, the timing couldn’t be any more perfect for “Toño Maravilla” to make his long-awaited comeback.