Twelve months is a long time in football – rewind to April 2012 and Antonio Valencia was terrorising left-backs up and down the country as United made a late surge towards the title before he scooped the club’s Player of the Year award.
His rise from Spanish second division side Recreativo de Huelva to wearing the famous number seven jersey at Old Trafford was a rapid one but his fall from grace has occurred in doubly quick time.
His close control, speed and reliable end product is a throwback to wingers of years gone by. He embodies the ethos of a Manchester United wide man: beat the defender, get to the line, cross the ball.
However, his slump in form and extremely underwhelming season has put his United future in real jeopardy with reports suggesting he will be part of a major summer clear-out at the Theatre of Dreams.
The 27-year-old was one of United’s most consistent performers last season and was a key weapon for the Red Devils, as he provided a regular supply of crosses for the likes of Rooney and Hernandez to feed on. In fact, only David Silva managed more Premier League assists than Valencia in 2012 but his tally of 13 is a far cry from this term’s statistics.
One of the most baffling elements of this season for all at Old Trafford has been the fall from grace of the former Wigan man. With the impending arrival of Wilfried Zaha and speculation growing that Fergie is preparing a ‘clear-out’, will Valencia’s extended dip in form be tolerated or will he be shown the exit door?
Rewind to September 2011, Antonio Valencia made his Manchester United debut, impeccably lined-out in his long-sleeved shirt tucked neatly in to pristine white shorts. His old-fashioned, one dimensional style made him an instant hit with the Old Trafford faithful as he enjoyed a brilliant maiden season before being named in the PFA Team of the Year.
A horrendous injury to his ankle just weeks into the start of his second season as a Red Devil was a setback which many players wouldn’t recover from but Valencia returned fitter and stronger than before.
However, a year on from some of his finest displays in a red jersey, he is no longer a regular starter, and has been kept well clear of United’s most important games in 2013 with Sir Alex opting for alternatives on the right wing.
Valencia is still defensively invaluable, but this is where all comparisons fall flat. Seemingly short of a yard of the blistering pace he once possessed and with his crossing ability all but obliterated, Valencia is barely a threat.
The stats don’t lie either – without a league goal this season, and only four assists to his name is pretty grim reading for the winger who cost United an estimated £16 million. The question on every fans’ lips is why is this? What is behind Valencia’s rather sudden loss of form?
Firstly, the Ecuadorian international’s progress has been hampered by injuries since his maiden season in Manchester. He may have made a full recovery from the horrific leg break he sustained in 2010 but in truth, it seems to be rearing its ugly head again. It seems, Valencia is finding it difficult to shake off minor knocks and niggles with Sir Alex Ferguson revealing he had being playing through the pain before Christmas with a hip injury. However, he was then ‘rested’ for more than a month.
Valencia’s game is a dying style of the traditional touchline-hugging winger. While at his best, without great variety, he depended on strength and pace to beat his opponents. However, you can be sure every opposing full-back in the league has been well-drilled on the very fact before facing him on the pitch. Without that extra yard of pace and with sides doubling up against him, ‘Tony V’ has been left redundant as an attacking threat.
This then results in a crisis of confidence with Valencia surely now doubting his own ability as he becomes largely ineffective going forward. It must be psychologically damaging for a player if something which has been the key to his success no longer works.
The player himself has admitted that injuries have prevented him from reaching top form this season. He told The Mirror:
It’s not been quite the season I would have hoped for on a personal front.
I think the injuries I’ve had have held me back a bit. I still get the odd twinge from the last injury I had to my leg and that has perhaps affected my progress slightly.
Valencia’s Old Trafford contract expires in two years, meaning a decision on his future will more than likely be made this summer. Therefore, the remaining games of the season will be crucial to him on an individual level as he aims to prove to Sir Alex that he can return to his blistering best.
However, a prolonged run of starts will invariably lift his confidence and gain him to gather form before the campaign ends and after all at just 27, it’s too early to write him off.