Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia missed four months of the current campaign after suffering a foot injury in October’s Manchester derby which would eventually require surgery. As a result, the 30-year-old has only made four Premier League starts and just 16 appearances in all competitions so far this season.
The Ecuador international, who moved to Old Trafford back in 2009, now plays predominantly as a right-back having made a name for himself over many years as a powerful winger. Despite playing in the back four, Valencia’s attacking threat doesn’t seem to have diminished and in the vital recent league victories over Aston Villa and Wembley-bound Crystal Palace, he’s been one of United’s best performers.
In a lacklustre display from Louis van Gaal’s side against Villa last Saturday, Valencia was rarely tested defensively but looked menacing going forward. He benefitted massively from the return of Wayne Rooney, latching onto some quality diagonal passes from the United captain on multiple occasions.
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It was one of Rooney’s switches of play from a quickly taken free-kick which allowed Valencia to assist Marcus Rashford’s winner. The Ecuadorian, who still plays as a winger for his country, ran in behind the Villa defence, got his head up and cut the ball back perfectly for the teenage striker to stroke into the net.
United looked much better in the 2-0 win over Palace in midweek, albeit without being great, and Valencia impressed once more. With Juan Mata drifting infield and Jesse Lingard always taking up different positions, it was Valencia who provided United’s main source of width against Alan Pardew’s men.
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The former Wigan Athletic star was always available, he produced some very powerful runs down the right flank and he almost bulldozed himself at times into some decent crossing positions as United moved to within a single point of the Premier League top four.
Is he now first-choice right-back?
The winger turned full-back is blessed with pace, immense strength and dangerous crossing ability, attributes all of which make him a more than adequate full-back option in the modern game. In both the aforementioned games, Valencia never hesitated to burst forward and give his teammates an outlet, and he showed signs that he still has guile when he gets into the final third of the pitch.
Injuries to left-back duo Luke Shaw and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson have meant that versatile full-back Matteo Darmian has switched to left-back. Rising youngster Timothy Fosu-Mensah has looked extremely comfortable as a right-back, however he is primarily a centre-back or defensive midfielder, so Valencia could have the chance to enjoy a prolonged run in the team between now and the end of the season.
Provided he doesn’t have any fitness issues, Valencia will surely be in Van Gaal’s team to face a wounded Everton in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley come Saturday evening.