Louis van Gaal’s reign didn’t come with too many unqualified successes, though moving Antonio Valencia to full-back after a couple of disappointing seasons on the wing was certainly one of them. The Ecuadorian has emerged as one of the very best defenders in the league, and under José Mourinho appears to have recovered some of the confidence he’s been missing for the last few years.
Valencia’s transformation has been peculiarly complete: one would probably expect a winger-turned-defender to resemble Dani Alves rather than Paolo Maldini -- at least in style if not substance. But, with the help of gigantic legs and intelligent positioning, it’s without the ball that Valencia has proven most valuable this season. It’s hard to think of many better defensive full-backs on the planet at the moment.
He made only eight Premier League starts in last season's injury-plagued campaign, as his United career seemed to be winding down. However, he's been one of the mainstays of Mourinho's lineup, and only in two of the previous seven seasons he's spent at Old Trafford has he made more than the 27 starts he’s been handed this term. He’d surely have appeared even more regularly, had it not been for the month he spent on the sidelines with a broken arm.
The bad news is that he’s now 31, and probably isn’t going to be a long-term option. But given his current shape, he should be good for at least another season or two, and should be playing a valuable role again next season. If Axel Tuanzebe’s future is out on the right side of defence, it’s difficult to imagine a better mentor than Valencia himself.
José Mourinho approval rating: Overcome by emotion and weeping in the stadium car park.