There was a time when people thought Antonio Valencia slotting into the right-back berth signified an end to his days as a flyer down United’s right wing. The Ecuadorian struggled to rediscover the blistering form that saw him scoop the Sir Matt Busby player of the year award in the 2011-12 campaign. He suffered that horrendous leg break against Rangers in the Champions League that denied him the chance to continue in devastating fashion.
There have been times previously when he has lived up to that makeshift tag, notably in the Moyes days and the early stages of the Van Gaal snorefest. Many considered the popular and effervescent Rafael Da Silva as Gary Neville’s heir apparent, and Matteo Darmian showed early promise, but there is only one undisputed right-back at United this season.
United, self-inflicted in nature, were made to sweat by relegation threatened Middlesbrough. As their box came under the pump, a surge up field gave United some much needed respite. There was something truly telling about the goal that clinched victory. No, it wasn’t that former United keeper Victor Valdes epitomised his wretched fall from grace with an embarrassing slip, it was that Valencia was the man to capitalise on the mistake.
He has taken his game to another level this season, buoyed by the awe-struck compliments of his manager, who has transformed a mild, introverted Valencia into a real tour de force, with emphasis firmly placed on the force aspect. Mourinho openly admitted that he sought to replace the distinguished right-back Julien Faubert at the Bernabeu with Valencia. The animosity from the Cristiano Ronaldo transfer arguably helped dig United’s heels further into the ground but Ferguson managed to keep Valencia out of their clutches. Who knew that move would turn out to be a masterstroke?
Valencia has gone from this hesitant, reticent to cross the halfway line defender to give United an outlet to be feared down the right and become the undisputed right-back of the country. He has rediscovered that power, dynamism and pace that made defenders backtrack at speed. He has added defensive nous to banish that makeshift tag. In an ever changing backline this season, including vast amounts of centre-back pairings and rotation at left-back, Valencia has remained the ever constant as he has simply been undroppable.
In an era where pacey wingers are all the rage, more and more questions are asked of full-backs as their demands become more intense in order to combat this evolution. You have next to no doubt that Valencia can handle even the toughest of players, the form he has shown this season. It was duly rewarded with a contract extension, which was richly deserved. Mourinho has even lavished stronger praise, stating his belief that no-one in world football betters his Ecuadorian in that right-back slot.
Antonio Valencia being the best right-back in world football would have drawn sniggers of derision and would have been completely unfathomable a few years back. It is testament to the man, who seemingly gets better with age and a bit of belief, that he could be talked in that regard and would arguably rival David de Gea and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, almost dead certs in their own right, and potentially repeat his feat from 2011-12.
An understated squad member for so long, Antonio Valencia is now making a name for himself.