Last year I made the claim, supported by a large dossier of compelling evidence that Antonio Valencia was, in my eyes, the ‘best winger in the world’. Such is the case with myriad of controversial opinions, the response was split, however the analytic debate that stemmed from the article served to justify the opinion.
If I were to rewrite the article today I would have to make wholesale changes to avoid being sectioned. Antonio Valencia appears toothless, devoid of the bite and surging power that was the bane of the leagues defenses last season. Indeed, it is a testament to the club’s attacking prowess that they have scored so many goals despite Valencia’s anonymity.
Coming into the 2012/13 season you would have been hard pushed to find a more indulgent wing roster. Dripping and oozing with class, from Nani to Valencia, through Ashley Young and Shinji Kagawa, it was a delectable melting pot that couldn't fail to yield excellence.
Yet, so it has proved. Young is far to injury prone, Kagawa has serious problems adapting to the speed of the league, Nani’s chronic lack of form and childish petulance has frozen him out completely, and Valencia is almost completely anonymous. Apart from that, everything is looking brilliant...
It really is a testament to the class of Sir Alex Ferguson’s team, or the deficiencies of their rivals, that they are so favorably positioned. Clear at the top of the Premier League, in the fourth round of the FA Cup and into the knock-out stages of the Champions League, the Red Devils couldn't wish for much more.
The stats flatter the reality.
A squad decimated by injury has dragged itself over the line with an incredible penchant for leaking needless early goals, before staging improbable comebacks. Relying hugely on the quite unbelievable talent of the clubs forward roster to dig them out of their multitude of potentially embarrassing holes, it is not a sustainable game plan.
Two distinct conclusions can be drawn from thus. Firstly, by simply watching Antonio Valencia it is pertinent to debate just what has happened to him.
A powerful, if decidedly one-sided runner, Valencia made a mockery of his opposite number, with pace strength and a great eye for a cross. Weighing in with his fair share of goals, the Ecuadorian international was a mainstay in the United lineup, where his defensive capabilities made him invaluable.
Valencia is still defensively competent, but this is where comparisons fall flat. Seemingly shorn of a yard of pace and with his crossing ability seemingly obliterated, Valencia is barely a threat.
His season stats prove damning reading. Without a league goal, and with only four assists to his name—an attribute that defined Valencia’s incisive play—it pales in comparison with last season when six goals and a multitude of assists marked him out as a player of the year contender.
The second conclusion is an ominous one for United’s rivals.
Thus far with a central midfield, although playing well, that is of insufficient caliber with ailing wingers and a crocked defence, the Red Devils are seven points clear of rivals Manchester City.
Although Nani’s days may be numbered, Valencia is a brilliant player who will surely improve. With Kagawa back from injury and the defence starting to settle, logic would assume that United will improve.
The crux of Valencia’s obvious stagnation is less hard to define. Transcending from a marauding tiger into an amiable zebra, this Valencia does not strike fear into his opponent's hearts as he once did.
In an attempt for justification, I will throw out the only explanation that carries any logic.
Last season Valencia was the best of an incredible bunch. His form was incredible, but also required with both Nani and Ashley Young both playing exceptional football. With only two spots in the starting lineup, competition was fierce and so exemplary performances had to be maintained.
This year that pressure has all but evaporated.
No-one has maintained the levels of last year and so the competition for places is far less fierce. On current form, Valencia has essentially assumed the wide role on default. Although he is playing as well as he can, there is no longer the pressure to elevate his performances to the next level. In football, competition breeds excellence. Complacency is not conducive to progression.
The explanation may be fitting a square peg in a round hole. It may be too simplistic to assume that Valencia is simply struggling from a lack of competition for his space, but the reality cannot be explained in simplicity.
Whatever the reason, it is safe to assume that Manchester United, can only rely on their strikers for so long.