Antonio Valencia is not the number 7 Manchester United need

The Ecuadorian has not displayed the kind of form or guile befitting of a United number 7 and perhaps will never live up to the expectations that come with the famous shirt.
 Brendon Netto
 Comment | England
Follow on

The iconic number 7 jersey has always been one that’s treasured at Manchester United. The jersey is, as far as possible, reserved for players of true class, for those who have the ability to lift hearts with frequent moments of brilliance and force the Old Trafford faithful onto their feet in anticipation every time they get on the ball. Antonio Valencia is currently the proud owner of the famous shirt but by evidence of his performances so far this season and indeed his general shortcomings as a player, he hasn’t done it justice.

George Best was perhaps the first player to make the jersey famous. The Belfast-born winger was renowned for his genius and impeccable dribbling ability. More recently, players like Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo have lived up to the hype that came with the prestigious shirt but Valencia has so far failed to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessors.

A worthy number 7?

When Sir Alex Ferguson first snapped him up from Wigan Athletic for 16 million, it seemed like a huge gamble. The Ecuadorian repaid the manager’s faith in him by producing a series of consistently impressive performances in his first season.

His physical attributes gave him the edge over full-backs. In addition to being built like an Ox, he had the pace to burst past defenders and was capable of consistently sending dangerous crosses into the box. His defensive attributes and work-rate made him a mainstay in the starting line-up and he even filled in at right-back on occasion.

Even when he suffered a broken ankle early in his second season at the club, he came back strongly and played a big role in the run-in which ended successfully when United won the league title. Last season in particular, Valencia was vital to United’s cause. With the notable lack of creativity from central midfield, Sir Alex’s side resorted to going around teams rather than straight through them.

He started well at United

When trying to break down a side, they would get the ball out wide and flood bodies into the penalty box before getting crosses in. Valencia played a huge role in this particular ploy. His ability to beat his man and deliver pin-point crosses created plenty of chances for the strikers in the middle and he managed to rack up 16 assists in all competitions, second only to David Silva in the league in fewer appearances.

However, he requested to swap his number 25 jersey for number 7 in the summer and since then he has failed to replicate the kind of form that made him a regular over the past couple of seasons. His performances of late haven’t been befitting of a United number 7 while there are some who would argue that his style of play has never been either.

Season Appearances Goals Assists Minutes/Goal or Assist
2009-10 49 7 13 174.60
2010-11 20 3 5 176.25
2011-12 38 6 16 135.73
2012-13 32 1 6 312.43

Even when he was efficient, he lacked the kind of ingenuity and flair that you’d expect from someone who dons that jersey. He was always irreversibly one-dimensional. His motive time after time when facing a full-back in a one-on-one situation was to shift it to his right, get a yard of space and get his cross in. While that worked effectively initially, defenders seem to have caught on this season.

Full-backs regularly deny him the opportunity to get into a crossing position on his right foot. They blatantly leave space for him to run inside but he’s been reluctant to do so since he doesn’t have much of a left foot. When he has tried to cross with his left, his efforts have been tame at best and easily dealt with. He winds up eventually passing the ball across the pitch back into central midfield or all the way back to his defense. Furthermore, his crossing has been extremely poor this season.

Full-backs are wise to his method

When he’s tried to keep hold of it rather than playing it back, he’s sometimes ended up going in circles or running himself into a corner, either way, he eventually loses possession. The fact is that he just doesn’t have the trickery to weave his way out of those situations and is probably one of the most unimaginative players at United at present.

United strangely find themselves lacking quality wingers at the moment. Ashley Young, like Valencia, is notably one-dimensional as well in his efforts to constantly cut inside from the left wing to get in-swinging crosses into the box. Nani is the only wide man at Old Trafford who has the ability to beat defenders and be creative but his inconsistency is well documented while there are overwhelming reports of his imminent departure in the summer after falling out of favour with Ferguson.

Hope for the future?

The United boss has already taken steps towards improving his team’s quality in the wide areas by signing highly-rated youngster, Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace who is due to link up with his new club in the summer.

Zaha may be inexperienced but there’s no doubting his skill and ability. Whether or not he will prove to be effective is a topic up for debate but at least he has the primary tools of pace and trickery which remain essential for a United winger. Valencia sadly does not retain any of those attributes and while his commitment and work-ethic cannot be questioned, you can expect more from United’s number 7.

Is Valencia a fitting number 7 for United? Leave your comments below or discuss with the writer on Twitter @BrendonNetto.

How do you stay up with football when on the move? With –your best source for mobile coverage of the beautiful game.