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A Red Perspective. Will the real Tony V please stand up?

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  • A Red Perspective. Will the real Tony V please stand up?

    This article first appeared in the current RN197


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    Roberto Martinez, commenting in the build up to the Wigan away game towards the tail end of last season: “Antonio seems to have been great in every game of late, and we are happy because he left a massive stamp on this football club, but we hope he has a bit of a day off against us.”
    As we now know, the Martinez ruse worked a treat, as Figueroa and a young combative McCarthy worked in tandem to frustrate the ex-Latic, essentially sending Fergie’s go-to man into a run of form that is arguably the worst we have seen from him in Red. Of course, Valencia’s early season hip injury hasn’t helped, and the wide man has typically struggled for form after suffering longer absences - after breaking his leg in his second season at the club, he managed only 10 appearances in the league, and was in and out as we went on to secure ‘19’ – but there seems to be more to it this season, perhaps even an issue of mind, mental strength being one of the very traits that previously set Tony apart from the rest.

    Gone now are the swashbuckling displays of old, where it was not a question of if, but rather when, Valencia would stampede his way towards the opposition goal, knocking clear all who dared to block his path. At his best, he is far more cultured than many give him credit for, his fleet of foot and ability to time impeccably his crosses into the penalty area up there with the very best. And yet despite his poor run-in last season, his form prior to the Wigan game was enough to convince his colleagues and fans of his value; the 27 year-old scooped both fans' and player's player of the year awards (just ahead of Jonny Evans). This season, the £18m signing has at least performed well when it counted most. Ok, against City he didn’t sparkle as such, but he was a threat and worked incredibly hard – but at Chelsea and Liverpool, he was a constant menace, pinning both Cole and Johnson back respectively for most of the game; and importantly assisting van Persie and making the opportune run which led to the winning penalty too.

    It is not only because of his impact when he turns it on though, that Fergie trusts him so implicitly, keeping him in the side when many of us wouldn’t. His ability to keep the shape of the team, prioritising the collective above self is vital to the way we play. Looking carefully at Fergie’s selections, it is a strategy that Fergie uses frequently with his team’s core. The likes of Rooney, Vidic, (Evans taking on his mantra this past 12 months) Evra and Carrick, and now of course, van Persie combine with Valencia to compose United’s backbone. Even when any of the above are off their game, a wider contribution is often enough to ensure their place is retained. But can Valencia rediscover his mojo and become the player we know he is again?

    There have been times in the last 3 seasons where comparisons to Kanchelskis and Coppell were not entirely overblown, and his influence on the right has often led opposition managers to despair at his ‘unplayable’ direct approach. Not in the team to score (he often chips in with 5 or 6), he creates for others. Not only does he manipulate the space in behind the fullback, he creates it himself by pure ambition and strength.

    Wolves away in 2010/11, was a classic example of his power, where he scored a fantastic goal on the counter attack, and also assisting two. In the game at home to West Ham a couple of seasons ago (that will always be remembered for that Berbatov flick), he was superb, involved with everything that we created that night. His link-up play with Rooney was scintillating, and in general has often been telepathic. In 2009/10 in particular, we saw Wayne benefit considerably (when he played as last man) from the winger’s direct play, as he finished the season with 34 goals. The Blackburn winner last season seemed then to be a turning point – there he was, popping up when we needed him most.
    But we only need to witness the continued fall from grace of the likes of Tiger Woods post extra-marital dallyings, to show that even the strongest of sportsmen can suffer prolonged periods of self-doubt, and the inevitable slump in performance. The mind is a precarious place, and its importance in sporting endeavour huge. There is a worryingly comparable struggle with former world player of the year, Kaka, at Madrid (where Essien has also maintained his post-injury slump); and closer to home, Torres’ recent travails have shown little sign of halting.

    ‘While the mind is in doubt, it is driven this way and that by a slight impulse' ~ Terence (Ancient Roman playwright)

    It would be wrong too, to overlook the impact of his slight change in role in the last 12 months or so. In trying to develop a fluid-attacking quartet in the final third, Fergie has asked Valencia to come inside more often to link with Rooney, and van Persie. Added to that, the opposing left back is now fully aware of what to expect from Tony (his 4th season at the club, and 6th in England since Jewell took an astute punt), ensuring that they are not touch tight on him, showing him down the outside, forcing him back to Rafael. Valencia used to bully his opponent with ease, but for half a season at least, the hesitation, the poor execution when one on one, has been far too frequent.
    And it isn’t as though Fergie isn’t recognising the fatigue. Before his rest at Wigan and West Ham, he was left out at Stoke and Newcastle and has been substituted in half a dozen games. The problem has been Nani’s injury, and a lack of trust with other options. Luckily, Rafael has excelled this season down the right despite Valencia, which just adds to the perplexing nature of the situation. Aside from the game at the Bridge, their combination play has been less enthralling than we might have expected.

    Nani’s absence has clearly meant the over-use of Valencia, but his imminent return could well assist Tony in the second half of the season - by not only providing Fergie with the opportunity for crucial rotation, but also in challenging his right to the position. Yes Nani has learned the left hand-side role much better than most thought he could, but with Young’s recent run in the team (and his blossoming partnership with Evra), alternating Nani and Valencia may be the best strategy for both. The Portuguese has not started the season well either, but both Fergie and Valencia must now be craving his return.

    Likewise the recent return of Kagawa should give the gaffer more variety in attacking areas. Like Welbeck, the Japanese star is equally adept at playing off the left or right side of midfield (particularly in the diamond or 4-2-3-1). Although he is yet to find his rhythm in a United shirt, it should only be a matter of time that Kagawa's impact in the side is registered. (As an aside, Shinji could well find himself operating in the deep playmaking role that suits Jack Wilshere so well at Arsenal.)

    Antonio Valencia has not become a bad player overnight, and as with the bigger encounters this season, his contribution (and defensive work-rate) to the team is still evident. But with Nani coming back into the fray, Fergie finally has the chance to address his physical and mental tiredness. It shouldn’t be too long before we see the real Valencia back in full throttle, and coming alive versus Real Madrid would be the perfect antidote.

    by @Sleepy_Nik
    New Red News 266 out 20th October 2019
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