‘Many thanks Giggs for the photo with my daughter. You’re very kind.’
Paying attention to the social media activity of footballers is a dreary pastime, but I’m prepared to make exception here. That tweet wasn’t penned by a Manchester United fan left gushing after a chance meeting with an all-time hero; it was written by Antonio Valencia, United’s current first-choice right-back and Giggs’ former teammate.
You get the impression that Valencia is a man who lives in a permanent state of contentment. Gratitude is a difficult emotion to maintain as we become easily accustomed to our current bank balance or relationship status, yet Valencia exudes it. You can imagine him waking up, looking out of the window at the rain and remarking that it will be a wonderful day for ducks. But, and this is crucial, not in a smarmy, annoying, “Have a nice day!” way. The best kind of contentment is the contentment you keep to yourself.
In March 2016, Manchester United’s official site ran a ‘15 things we’ve learned about Antonio Valencia’ feature. To nobody’s surprise, No. 1 on their list was ‘Valencia loves football’.
“I love this job,” Valencia says. “When I was a boy, I loved it. All I thought about was playing and enjoying it. In the morning, I had to get up and go to school but then, in the afternoon, I would just be thinking about football.” That statement is as true of the man as it was of the boy.
Having fallen slightly out of favour after the arrival of Matteo Darmian and a serious foot injury, Valencia is a key player once again. Alongside David de Gea, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, he is one of four Manchester United players to start every league game for which he has been available. Ibrahimovic may have scored the goals and Paul Pogba taken the headlines, but it is Manchester United’s third longest-serving player who has been their most consistent.
First used as a right-back at a time of injury crisis in September 2011, it was Louis van Gaal who can take the most credit for the transformation in position. Valencia played only 12 games in defence in five seasons under Ferguson, David Moyes and Ryan Giggs, but never played as a winger under Moyes’ permanent replacement.
It is to nobody’s surprise that Valencia has found a keen enthusiast in Jose Mourinho. A winger-turned-full-back may appear to be the antithesis to Mourinho’s famed pragmatism, but it is harder to picture three characteristics that the Portuguese values higher in a player than speed, stamina and determination.
At the middle of that Venn diagram stands Valencia. This was a player Ferguson glowingly described as having “a great tactical brain”, and whose speed former teammate Juan Carlos Burbano evocatively described when he said that “letting him pass you is like a jaguar running past a cactus”. “The boy’s got everything – balance, power, speed – and he’s strong as an ox,” Ferguson said. Apart from that, though…
“I tried to sign Antonio a number of years ago, when I was at Madrid,” Mourinho told MUTV in November. “Even though he was not playing right-back at the time, I thought he could be phenomenal in that position. As it was, United told me ‘no chance”. I am not surprised by his form this season.”
Even so, Valencia’s form this season has been astonishing. His crosses from open play are up from 3.7 per 90 minutes to 5.4, while his chances created statistics have also increased as his tackles per 90 minutes have decreased, Mourinho looking to break the shackles of Van Gaal’s unadventurous strategy. Alongside James Milner, another midfielder-turned-defender and worker bee extraordinaire in a 4-3-3 formation that demands plenty from the full-backs, Valencia has been one of the Premier League’s outstanding defenders this season.
Next month Valencia will click over 200 Premier League appearances. He will turn 32 before the start of next season, but the new contract has already been signed. You will find no reasonable supporter who does not applaud the decision. By the end of 2017/18, it is likely that only four foreign players will have appeared more often in the Premier League for United.
The only group happier to hear the news than Manchester United fans are Valencia’s teammates; it is impossible to envisage a player more popular with his peers. Michael Carrick describes him as “incredible” and Juan Mata as “a beast”, while Ander Herrera went one step further still in August: “I think that, right now, he is the best right-back in the world.”
“I’m grateful for Ander’s kind words but what I try and do is to simply work hard every day in training,” was Valencia’s almost parodic response. He is the lottery winner who makes sure to put out the bins after collecting his winnings. If there is one thing that season ticket holders love more than superstardom, it is normality.
Speaking in 2009 after being signed by Ferguson and for Manchester United, Antonio Valencia admitted his shock that such a great club had come calling, but was sure of the recipe for his success: “I’ll just do my job as I did it at Wigan, with the same trust in my ability. That’s what I do best.” Always has, always does, always will.