Wearing the number 7 shirt at Manchester United is considered a great honor and is a shirt worn by many red legends. George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, and Cristiano Ronaldo being the best examples of the past four decades of legendary number sevens, but since Ronaldo’s departure there have been a couple of odd choices to wear that legendary shirt.
First there was Michael Owen, former Liverpool player and general bench warmer at Manchester United. He spent most of his United career in the dugout or on the injured reserve, scoring a couple of memorable goals but nothing of real note. The highlight of his Red Devils career being a late winner against Manchester City in his first season, which was exciting but was also about it. He now “plays” for Stoke where it is likely Owen’s career will come to an end.
The current man in red uniform to wear the number 7 shirt is Ecuadorian Antonio Valencia, who began his United career in 2009/10 wearing the number 25 jersey and perhaps he should have continued with it. Valencia is a true number 7 though as he is a pure right winger and never really leaves his role of hugging the side touchline and was rather successful at doing so in his three seasons at Wigan Athletic. Scoring 7 goals in his three years at Wigan, he was not overly impressive but showed good signs of being a consistent Premiership performer. When Alex Ferguson snapped him up for £16 million, it seemed like a heavy price for a player of reasonable quality who had not made too much of an impact in England, while although a good performer was not someone who most Manchester United fans had really envisioned as their new signing.
In his first season with United, Antonio Valencia went on to prove Ferguson right by earning 5 goals and 7 assists in 34 appearances (29 as a starter) in the Premier League and was largely Manchester United’s most consistent player. When in his second season he suffered a serious injury in the Champions League that kept him out for most of the year, it was a major blow to the team as Valencia had proved to be less tricky but more consistent and defensively sound than Nani on the wing. When he made his return later in the season it was a big boost to the whole team and went straight back to his good wing play. Valencia has become Ferguson’s top choice for the right side of midfield because of his attacking abilities and defensive soundness, but now in his fourth year with Manchester United things are starting to go a bit downhill for the bulky Ecuadorian.
Antonio Valencia is United’s new Park Ji-Sung, a wide player who gives a team options going forward but is very good about tracking back and tackling, which has earned him the respect of manager Ferguson and has cemented his place in the starting XI. However unlike Park, who has now departed for QPR, Valencia is very one dimensional in his forward runs and with the spotlight growing on Valencia as a Manchester United player, opposition defenses are starting to figure him out. This past summer Valencia had his number changed from 25 to the iconic number 7 and after a few good seasons with Manchester United this seemed like a good fit. Oddly enough this has become his worst season as a United player as his effectiveness as an attacker has been largely stunted. Park’s qualities were diminishing in his final years in Manchester due to injuries but he was still very versatile and could play anywhere across the midfield four (he wore #13), while Valencia is strictly a right sided player and has only one specific skill set. Staying very tight to the right side Valencia makes gut-busting runs up and down the sidelines, with his favoured move being pushing the ball towards the end touchline past the opposing left back and swinging a cross in. At this he is very effective but his main ability is now becoming his greatest shortcoming. Where Manchester United’s other wingers Nani and Ashley Young do not offer much defensively, they do possess a bag of tricks that makes them a nightmare to defend as they can cross, cut inside and shoot or simply dribble past defenders opening up space. Valencia has pretty good ball control but no left foot and no other creativity to his game other than running to the end line and crossing and even his crossing of the ball is getting a bit wayward with more simply going out behind the goal. Now all defenders do to stop Valencia is get in front of him and force him to cut inside where he will not shoot on his left or really make any other play other than pass the ball back to Rafael, the defender behind him who surprisingly has many more ideas on the ball.
Manchester United’s weekend 1-0 loss to Norwich is the latest example of Valencia’s ineffectiveness as an attacking player. Norwich, who do not possess world class defenders, had no problems whatsoever nullifying each of Antonio Valencia’s attempted runs to the end line, and once again when he was forced inside he had no ability to create any scoring chances. Javier Garrido, Norwich’s left back who is known more for his attacking prowess, was made to look a solid defender against United’s dreadfully dull right winger. This has been happening for a few weeks now where Manchester United struggle going forward and Ferguson decides to switch things up by taking off a winger for a striker and playing what on paper almost looks like a 4-2-4 formation. Something that was championed by Herbert Chapman’s W-M formation with Arsenal in the 1930s and was used as the default formation by teams across Europe in the following decades. Usually Ferguson would remove Ashley Young and play with Van Persie, Rooney, Chicharito, and sometimes even Danny Welbeck across the frontline, with Antonio Valencia taking on a more defensive role. This has worked on many occasions this season as Manchester United have become the comeback kings, giving up the first goal in 8 of their 13 victories of the season. However, this time around Chicharito had started the match and with Wayne Rooney out injured, Ferguson’s only option was to bring on Welbeck so he has to replace Valencia this time and keep Young on for attacking options once they went down 1-0 to Anthony Pilkinton’s goal (the former United youth player who Ferguson said before the match he does not remember) in the second half. This does not necessarily mean that Ferguson has lost faith in Valencia as I have, but perhaps shows that he recognizes his limited abilities as an attacker.
Last season Alex Ferguson started using Antonio Valencia as a right back when Manchester United were suffering from a massive defensive injury crisis and Valencia was actually quite effective in that position. His large frame, tackling abilities, and defensive soundness proved to be a decent fit, more so than Michael Carrick forced to play at center back. Valencia is quick and is able to keep his temper in check better than the skilled natural full back Rafael, and should perhaps be trained to play that position full time. It is not that Antonio Valencia is a terrible player, it is just that with his favoured move going forward being his only move, he is not a great midfielder. However he is technically gifted and with his speed and strength could become a quality right back if given more playing time and training in that position and because he has a more stable head on his shoulders than Rafael, in time it could become his main position. United’s long serving right back Gary Neville had almost no abilities going forward (“almost” is actually giving Red Nev some credit) but he was sound defensively, whereas Valencia does have some qualities in attack, which could make him a well rounded wing back linking up with the midfielder in front of him and making some overlapping runs.
Wayne Rooney is making a slight move back himself, where before he was seen as a central striker, he is now dropping deeper into Paul Scholes’ old role just behind the attackers where he can both create and attack. This is a great move for Rooney as although he is a goal scorer, he is also a tenacious tackler and a great passer of the ball. Scholes himself has also dropped back himself into more of an Andrea Pirlo role as a deep lying playmaker. Although Ryan Giggs is a great player, he is not as fluent in the center of the pitch and there was a notable difference in the game when Scholes came on and Giggs went back to his wide left position. If Scholes is fit, he should be chosen over Giggs to play alongside Carrick in the middle. A few players in Manchester United’s line up have made new roles for themselves or should be moved into a new role by Ferguson to improve the team’s overall play, not just Antonio Valencia. Rooney’s absence from the match was very apparent as he has proved to be United’s spark in the center and there was almost no creativity on the pitch for United without him pulling the strings. The loss to Norwich was very much a showcase of how United truly rely on Rooney in his new role. Scholes starting ahead of Giggs when it comes to central spots is a point Ferguson seemed to understand with Scholes’ introduction on hour into the match and it definitely made a difference in that area. Where defense has usually been Manchester United’s problem this season, against Norwich it was their attack. Rio Ferdinand coming off for Anderson for the final 10 minutes was a nice forward thinking move by Ferguson, but Rooney’s absence really proved Rooney’s worth. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has also shown that he is a great finisher but still cannot quite cope with physically aggressive defenses, and should perhaps remain United’s Solskjaer-esque super sub. When they need a goal he is there man, but when starting he is often pushed out of matches as he was against the Canaries (and every time United play Chelsea). Manchester City have their own super-sub striker in Edin Dzeko, while Manchester United may have to keep theirs as Chicharito.
Therefore if Valencia should play right back and with Nani in the doghouse, who should play on the wing opposite Young? The answer could be United’s versatile striker Danny Welbeck. Although not a great goal scorer, Welbeck does know where the net is and always puts in a solid performance when on the field. He has played on the left wing for Manchester United before showing a fantastic fighting, tackling spirit to go along with his striking abilities. Alex Ferguson has noted that Welbeck scores more for England where he plays as a central striker and he would like to bring those goals to the club, however with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie (and Chicharito when he comes on as a substitute) operating in the middle already, Welbeck should be chosen to fill the role on the flanks. He has similar tenacity and spirit to Valencia, but also possesses an abundant amount of ability to find the net and create for his teammates. As for Norwich, Irish international Wes Hoolahan showed that he is their main man when it comes to playmaking, and if Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni continues to ignore him in his Irish squad, perhaps someone can give him a wake up call to his player selections as well.