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Matteo Darmian v Antonio Valencia: Who's the Best Right-Back Option for Man Utd?

Paul Ansorge@@utdrantcastFeatured ColumnistJuly 27, 2015

FC Barcelona's Luis Suarez, left, defends Manchester United's Matteo Darmian during the first half of an International Champions Cup soccer match in Santa Clara, Calif., Saturday, July 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Louis van Gaal caused some consternation among Manchester United fans in a press conference ahead of their game against San Jose Earthquakes by saying Matteo Darmian had been signed "for the second position" at right-back, below Antonio Valencia in the pecking order, per the Guardian

Of course, Van Gaal being Van Gaal, his use of language is always open to some interpretation. So far on United's pre-season tour, Darmian has had first dibs at right-back. This has partially been because of injury, with Valencia only returning to action against Barcelona on Saturday.

When he did return, though, it was for a 30-minute cameo. Darmian retained top billing.

This may be because of Van Gaal's process of bringing players back to full fitness. However, this discussion does raise the question, which of them should be first choice at right-back? Is it the man in whom Van Gaal trusted almost all of last season, or the freshly signed Italy international?

Let's take a look at various areas of the game that are important to a right-back and see which player has the edge.

Positioning

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For a full-back, correct positioning is a huge challenge. In the modern game, they are expected to cover huge swathes of their flank and contribute fully to both attack and defence.

Knowing when to stick and when to twist is central to the contemporary full-back art. And there is much more to positioning than when to join in with an attack and when to hold your defensive position. Exactly where you place yourself when facing the run of the wingers is crucial.

Jon Super/Associated Press

Darmian certainly has the edge over Valencia here. He is a full-back through and through, trained at AC Milan with players such as Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta to look up to.

Valencia came through the ranks as a midfielder. His defensive positioning has improved through his exposure to the role, but if you had to back one or the other player to be in the right place at the right time, Darmian would be a much safer bet.

Tackling

Not the sole weapon in a defender's arsenal by any means, but the ability to time a tackle is of course crucial.

Darmian is an excellent tackler. Both his positioning and his tackling ability were on show against Luis Suarez, as this clip demonstrates. 

Darmian waits for the exact right moment to extend his leg to meet the ball. He earns himself a knock from Suarez in return, thus showing plenty of bravery, but it is the technical know-how that impresses. Watch a couple of replays to appreciate the way in which he shuffles his body into position and strikes at the apposite moment.

SANTA CLARA, CA - JULY 25: Alan Halilovic #30 of FC Barcelona gets airborne after a tackle by Antonio Valencia #25 of Manchester United during the second half of their International Champions Cup friendly soccer match at the Levi's Stadium July 25, 2015 i
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Valencia got plenty of tackles in during United's last campaign—indeed, his average of three tackles per league game was higher than any other United player. He was successful in 69 of his 139 attempts to make a tackle, per Squawka. That is a marginally better success rate than Darmian's Serie A contribution last season, per Squawka again, wherein he succeeded with 61 of his 125 attempts at a tackle.

The difference, statistically speaking, is minor. Both of them succeeded with around half of their attempted tackles last time out. Thus, there is not much to choose between them here.

Passing

Antonio Valencia's safe passing may be one of the things that has most endeared him to Van Gaal. He hardly ever gives the ball away. Only Michael Carrick managed a better pass-completion percentage last season.

However, safe passing is not always good passing. There are plenty of occasions when Valencia checks back inside instead of challenging his full-back. His safety-first approach can get frustrating at times. Darmian is hardly a gung-ho attacker himself, but he has shown himself very willing to offer an overlap during United's pre-season.

SWANSEA, WALES - FEBRUARY 21:  Antonio Valencia of Manchester United in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Manchester United at Liberty Stadium on February 21, 2015 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Imag
Stu Forster/Getty Images

This will not surprise regular Serie A watchers, who have seen him serve as a wing-back for Torino. His pass-completion rate was much less consistent than Valencia's, but that is likely more to do with the team's approach than any technical shortfall.

The key metric here was that he attempted under 30 passes per game compared to more than 50 for Valencia. United's possession-hungry approach will likely improve Darmian's numbers in this regard.

Attacking Contribution

Darmian has the edge over Valencia here in terms of last-season's numbers. Although he put in fewer crosses, he managed 1.2 key passes per game, compared with Valencia's 0.8. That put him sixth in the list of Torino's chance-creators, whereas Valencia was down in 13th at United.

TURIN, ITALY - OCTOBER 29:  Matteo Darmian of Torino FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Serie A match between Torino FC and Parma FC at Stadio Olimpico di Torino on October 29, 2014 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty
Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Valencia, though, recorded two assists to Darmian's one, although he did not score in the league last season. Darmian scored twice.

Valencia's attacking contribution should be greater than it has been, though. He certainly has the tools to contribute in attack, but since his Player of the Season-winning performance back in 2011/12, he has rarely shown it.

Physicality

Valencia has a clear edge here. He is very strong and very quick. Darmian is neither of those things. It is important to say, though, that he is neither weak nor slow, it is just that Valencia is exceptional in both of those areas.

Rui Vieira/Associated Press

The Ecuadorian's physical prowess is a huge asset to his game. He is able to cover ground going forward at a remarkable rate and can also get himself back into position to cover for mistakes well. When he was at his best in an attacking capacity, he would often use his strength to great effect.

Darmian's strongest physical asset is his height—a tad unusual for a full-back and, obviously, useful with the ball in the air.

In fairness to the new signing, while he loses out here, Antonio Valencia is a superior physical specimen to a huge percentage of the rest of the human race.

Right-Backness

This is, of course, a made-up thing. However, it does seem important. The embedded positional awareness and experience that comes from playing a position for many years is something Darmian has in spades but Valencia lacks.

Gary Neville @GNev2

I like the Darmian signing. Watched him a lot in planning for Italy. If he can transfer his form and settle in then he will be very good.

Valencia has always looked like a makeshift full-back, able to do a pretty good impression of a right-back without really being one. It is not, like with some other converted wingers, that he looks to get forward too often. Rather, it is just the sense that he does not quite know where to put himself.

Everton away, Manchester City away and Arsenal in the FA Cup. Each of those games saw goals conceded last season at least in part because of Valencia's defensive errors. Darmian will have plenty to do to adapt to a new league, but his "right-backness" is assured.

Conclusion

Football in 2015 is a squad game, although managers do not tend to rotate full-backs if they can help it. Darmian's experience with the position should trump Valencia's experience with the league and his physicality and make the Italian the No. 1 choice.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

There may be games for which Valencia is better suited, and Van Gaal may have been sincere when stating that the Ecuadorian would be his first choice. However, by the end of the season, it will be a surprise if Darmian has not overtaken him. Full-back is a highly specialised position, and that is what gives Darmian the overall edge.

All advanced statistics, except where otherwise stated, per WhoScored.com

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