Robson, Bruce, Cantona, Keane, Neville, Vidić, Carrick… Valencia.
Manchester United captains. Dominant men; successful leaders, alpha males; men who demonstrate strength of character, intensity and belief. Some are born leaders whereas others grow into the role. Bryan Robson was the man born to lead. So was Roy Keane. Eric Cantona inspired those around him. Gary Neville grew into the role but bled red for United. Steve Bruce and Michael Carrick led by example. Antonio Valencia followed that trend.
No man from Ecuador had ever played for Manchester United, let alone captained the club before Antonio Valencia. If anything, South Americans have a mixed track record at United. There was a surprise when Antonio Valencia was chosen to be captain of Manchester United by José Mourinho but perhaps there should not have been. The man from Lago Agrio should not be underestimated. He has been an outlier his entire life.
Antonio Valencia was probably never meant to be Manchester United captain, but he was probably never meant to leave his poverty stricken area in the Amazon either. Few do. He once said “It would have been impossible to believe [I would become a footballer] because at that age I never thought I would travel further than the corner of my own street.”
In a documentary that aired on MUTV this year, a childhood coach of Valencia’s commented that “poor boys come from [Lago Agrio] with the idea that football is going to save them.” It rarely does. Somehow for Valencia it did. The young Antonio grew up next to the local soccer field and was transfixed with the game from a young age. At 15, Valencia borrowed the money for a 160 mile bus journey to soccer trials at El Nacional. It’s a familiar South American story. Everton’s Richarlison recently told a similar story of a 500 mile journey to his own trials. These young boys risk everything, without money for food or even a return journey. Luckily for Antonio Valencia, his risk was worth the hardship.
Valencia’s fitness coach at El Nacional was an army drill sergeant who instructed a work ethic in the teenage Valencia that would stand him his entire career. It has been a central part of his success. Valencia would later remember the toughness of his footballing apprenticeship. “You had to have discipline or you would fail, but that helped me in England.” Valencia is a player often lauded for his athleticism over his technical ability and this trait, not to be underestimated, was born out of his early training at El Nacional.
In 2006, while representing the Ecuadorian national team at the World Cup in Germany, Valencia was spotted by Wigan manager Paul Jewell, who set about signing the young Ecuadorian. His journey from the Amazon to the Premier League was complete. Valencia would soon find himself moving to Manchester United in the shadow of the recently departed Cristiano Ronaldo. Like his many struggles before, nobody expected Valencia to succeed in Ronaldo’s shadow, but his alternative skillset paid dividends in Manchester.
His debut season for United coalesced with Wayne Rooney’s best season for the club. In the absence of Ronaldo, Rooney scored a career-best 34 goals and this was in no small part due to Valencia’s excellent service. Valencia contributed seven goals himself and provided thirteen assists in that first year. It might sound like crass, lazy stereotyping, but Valencia’s athleticism and work ethic was to be a key component of his success at United. Alex Ferguson soon saw Valencia as an heir to Ji Sung Park in the mould of warriors who excelled in commitment to the cause.
If there was to be a criticism of Valencia, it was that he was often too direct. While he possessed great pace and good close control, he lacked a trick and his crosses were often driven into the first man. Valencia competed with the likes of Nani; and while Nani had flare and goals in abundance, Valencia was a wide player in the traditional sense, running to the end line and crossing the ball.
Disaster struck in September 2010 when Valencia broke and dislocated his ankle in a game against Glasgow Rangers. Valencia was out for six months, but true to form, he returned to the side in the New Year to play a part in the title winning campaign. His chemistry with Rooney had evaporated by this stage, and Valencia never really replicated his attacking prowess of that debut season. His commitment, determination and drive were ever present but Valencia’s inability to consistently get the ball into the box – along with the lack of a skilled header of the ball in the team – meant that 2009/10 was Valencia’s most potent season.
It was around this time that Sir Alex Ferguson started to toy with using the Ecuadorian as an attacking right back. Gary Neville had retired while Rafael’s and Phil Jones’ injury issues granted an unlikely opportunity to Valencia. It is a testament to the commitment of Valencia that he made this positional change work. Ryan Giggs evolved into a central midfielder as he became older but examples of players who have successfully changed position are few and far between. Under Louis Van Gaal, the Ecuadorian would make the right back position his own.
It was perhaps born out of necessity. The arrivals of Memphis Depay and Angel Di Maria under Van Gaal increased competition in advanced roles but Valencia showed his determination by applying himself so diligently at right back. He showed a selfless lack of ego, and would learn the defensive traits needed of a defender.
Valencia is now in his tenth season as a Manchester United player and has risen to the esteemed role of captain. While Valencia will probably not be remembered in the same breath as Robson or Keane, he will be remembered as one of those important players who contributed to league winning seasons and the fans will continue to sing his name. It is unlikely that Valencia’s role as captain, or even that as a Manchester United starter will last much further into the future.
That characteristic work ethic and tireless service which has contributed to Valencia’s success at the top level are now starting to finally catch up with the one-time winger. Now in his tenth season at the club, Valencia is now struggling to contribute in much the same manner as previously. It is hardly a crisis, but his next role might be that of a squad player, contributing from the bench and backing up Manchester United’s first team. There is no doubt that Valencia will attack this next role, like every other, with vigour.
As Antonio Valencia reaches the end of his outstanding career, he will take solace in the fact that the man who once thought he would “never travel further than the corner of [his] own street” is now his country’s best ever player and their single most famous export.