There is so little to dislike about Antonio Valencia. Off the pitch there are few late nights, no entourage of note, and no hint of the now wildly popular biennial tantrum during contract negotiations. The Ecuadorian is a family man, settled in Manchester and enjoying life in England. In training he is dedicated and professional; the “quiet, shy boy,” Sir Alex Ferguson so admired. On it a player who remains a sound professional, earning the reputation as a player who rarely lets his team-mates down.
Yet, the three-year extension to Valencia’s contract announced this week is a curious reward for a player who has endured two traumatic seasons in a row. The player will handsomely profit despite so rarely excelling that his value to the team has dramatically waned – a strange statement from a club that has so loudly proclaimed its aspiration to return to domestic and continental glory.
Indeed, supporters may view United’s move as one so lacking in ambition that there is a genuine fear the club’s summer strategy will once again realise far less than the sum of Ed Woodward’s vacuous spin.
The negativity surrounding Valencia hasn’t always been so. The winger enjoyed a fine début season at Old Trafford – probably his best in red – when the Ecuadorian’s pace, strength and drive earned sound reviews in Cristiano Ronaldo’s wake. Valencia could never be adequate compensation for Ronaldo’s departure, of course, but it was a positive squad addition nonetheless. Moreover, Valencia’s relationship with Wayne Rooney contributed much to the latter’s 34-goal season in 2009/10.
The winger suffered a broken leg against Rangers in the Champions League late in 2010, necessitating more than six months out of the game. Yet, the Nueva Loja-born midfielder enjoyed a fine end to the 2011/12 campaign as United built an eight point Premier League lead. From the depths of a hospital bed, Valencia once again became a central part of Ferguson’s team.
The Ecuadorian held less blame than others as the Scot’s side blew the points to hand Manchester City the title, although Valencia was dropped as the Reds capitulated at Eastlands in late April 2011.
Those glory days, such as they were, constitute a time now long forgotten.
Strange, perhaps, that United should be so effusive in announcing an extension that will keep Valencia at Old Trafford until 2017. The Ecuadorian holds a one-way option to extend the deal a further year, by which time he will be 32 and more than £20 million to the good.
“I’m really pleased Antonio has signed a new contract,” said assistant manager Ryan Giggs. “His contribution to the team since he joined the club in 2009 has been fantastic.”
Two years of poor form belie Giggs’ comments as little more than puff, coming after another season of chronically mediocre performances from a player demonstrating little sign of reaching previous heights.
Valencia’s terrace nickname – “Turn Back Tony” – says much about a man now utterly bereft of confidence. Not only does the 28-year-old remain one-dimensional, but fans are no longer witness to the player’s willingness to take on his opponent. And on the rare occasion Valencia creates space his final ball is routinely misguided.
The player’s degradation is born out in the statistics too, with Valencia scoring just four and assisting a further five goals across 39 Premier and Champions League games last season. There were just 43 successful dribbles, 24 shots and just 28 successful crosses from 147 delivered over the campaign. He produced five goals and 14 assists in 2011/12, with just one and six a year later.
What the new deal says about United’s propensity to invest in wide areas this summer will also concern supporters. After all, United’s lack of quality on the wings has become an aphorism for those frustrated with the club’s transfer strategy.
After all, brilliant though Louis van Gaal may be, Nani is unlikely to become more consistent, nor Ashley Young develop talent beyond his limited purview. In Adnan Januzaj there remains hope in youth, but the 19-year-old’s considerable talent cannot save United alone.
And there is no little irony in the comparison with Nani. The Portuguese winger signed a five-year deal last summer only to start just nine games in all competitions last season. It was, in effect, £5 million in wages wasted on a player likely to move on this summer. Valencia needs to be a regularly starter simply to justify the new deal; a pedestal on which he has done little to rest.
United may well spend this summer, but with Rio Ferdinand and Nemnanja Vidić having slipped the nest – and central midfield suffering from years of chronic under-investment – there is no guarantee that it will be on width. Valencia’s new deal suggests anything but – the club’s hierarchy enacting a considerable gamble for a manager habitually wedded to attacking players of higher quality.
Yet, van Gaal has once again demonstrated his uncanny ability to establish both tactical superiority against almost any opposition and build a winning strategy this summer. Netherlands remains outsiders to win the World Cup in Brazil, but the veteran coach has unveiled a team greater than the sum of its parts. In it van Gaal has done so amid a late tactical switch to a 3-5-2 that maximises Dutch strengths and negates obvious weaknesses.
Few will be surprised if United’s new coach makes similarly bold choices at club level next season – and with it Valencia may find himself in unfamilar territory.
The player, meanwhile, protects a financial future that had begun to look less than sure under a contract that previously ran to 2015. Such has been the Ecuadorian’s long-running poor form that there would have been few top-line suitors had United chosen to sell this summer.
Little wonder the winger is delighted to sign and the platitudes are flowing fast.
“My time at Manchester United has been like a dream come true,” said the 28-year-old. “I am so happy to have signed a new deal and am looking forward to working with Louis van Gaal.”
That will not come until van Gaal’s side is dispatched from the World Cup. After victory over Chile on Monday that is likely to be at least a week later than Valencia’s return. Ecuador probably need to beat France this week to stay in the competition – one in which Valencia has rarely excelled.
Plus ça change, fans of a more cynical bent might add.