One of the most unsettling sights in football is a serious injury. Watching as a player writhes in pain, cries of anguish echoing through pitch. Players, still standing, can only watch on with extreme trepidation in the hope that it is not career-ending. In some cases, a tackle can indeed bring the curtain down pre-maturely on a playing career. At other times, however, it can leave an ineffaceable mark on the player and seriously curtail their progression.
One such footballer to suffer the fate of the latter is Antonio Valencia.
When Manchester United signed the Ecuadorian winger from Wigan Athletic in 2009, he was on the cusp of turning 24 and had the brightest of careers ahead of him. The scent of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Armani aftershave was still strong in the dressing room when Valencia arrived, embedding in Valencia the importance of continuing the legacy of his predecessor on the right side of United’s midfield. Sir Alex Ferguson was a keen admirer of his lightning pace, his attitude and his direct style of play that produced dozens of crosses per game, contributing worthily to Wayne Rooney’s 35-goal tally in Valencia’s first season. Many believed that he would merely pale in comparison to Ronaldo’s unforgettable genius but they were to be proven wrong. He may not have been Ronaldo, but he did not disappoint.
Valencia built on his impressive displays with Wigan to become an indispensable point of United’s attack, notching up 49 appearances in his first season (scoring 7 goals). Valencia ignited Old Trafford when he took off on a blazing run, leaving defenders wobbling wearily in his wake. He seemed a more reliable attacking option than the frustratingly enigmatic Nani, who has never found prolonged consistency at United.
Valencia frequently impressed during his first season at United, being voted Man of the Match during United’s League Cup triumph over Aston Villa- he provided the assist for Wayne Rooney’s winning goal. His inclusion in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year was a demonstration his standing amongst his peers. He was confirmed as the most deadly right-sided midfielder in the one of the greatest leagues in the world.
Riding the crest of a wave into his second season at the club, it looked as though Valencia was going to, along with Wayne Rooney, lead Manchester United’s bid to reclaim the Premier League trophy of Chelsea. Then Rangers came to town in the Champions League. The night that broke Antonio Valencia. It was a seemingly innocuous challenge on his first glance, but going deeper illustrates just how serious a situation it was. Knocking the ball past Kirk Boradfoot, Valencia was bearing down on his favoured position of close to the right by-line when Broadfoot lunged in on the winger. The ball bumbled out for a throw. A clumsy challenge one would initially be led to think.
However, the frenzied reaction of opposition players is a telling sign of when a player is truly hurt. Broadfoot waved frantically for medical attention as soon a she caught sight of Valencia’s left ankle. He was joined by United’s Wes Brown and Javier Hernandez, who both looked decidedly troubled by the injury. The most indicative reaction though of the true extent of Valencia’s pain was summed up by Rangers’ centre-half Sasa Papac, who walked towards the scurrying of players only to look down and immediately turn away, looking to the sky and puffing his cheeks out, fearing the worst for the befallen Valencia.
It didn’t get better, unfortunately. Valencia was carried off the pitch breathing oxygen from a cylinder which probably remains the most harrowing post-injury sight for anyone watching. It becomes a universal fear of the player’s well-being. The injury was later confirmed as constituting a broken bone in Valencia’s lower left leg, a dislocation and fracture to the left ankle and serious ankle ligament damage. He would not play again for six months.
Valencia’s return was, understandably, greatly anticipated. The tendency to attach a higher level of sentimentality to a player once he sustains a serious injury did not allude the Old Trafford faithful. With Valencia restored to the right side of midfield, the consensual feeling was that he would pick up from where he left off pre-Broadfoot. The reality that has ensued, however, has been a sad one. Valencia’s inability to re-capture the form that had led Ferguson to believe he was a replacement for one of the club’s greatest ever players, has left patience amongst the fans wearing wafer-thin with him. He has never been the same deadly weapon since that injury and, for now anyway, it looks unlikely that he will ever be again.
The most vital attribute Valencia possessed was his raw speed. He has always been a terrific athlete with broad-shoulders and thick quads providing him the ideal physique for powerful, direct running but that night against Rangers seems to have placed in him the fear of a repeat incident. He still has speed, blunted slightly maybe, but his willingness to explode past players has severely waned and United fans are treated to isolated glimpses of how he can destroy players now. Take this burst of accelerated ascension to full throttle below as evidence:
It says much to the decline of Antonio Valencia when he and Ashley Young are labelled Manchester United’s “cautious options” on the wings, as was the case when the teams were finalised before their 2-0 loss to Olympiakos mid-week. Adnan Januzaj possesses the potency Valencia once had, now revered as the most exciting angle of United’s rather limp attack. The rise of Januzaj has not helped Valencia, but his trials and tribulations had been an element since before the 19 year-old emergence.
It was only thanks to Ferguson, who guided a not-so-spectacular United to one of their most comfortable league triumphs, that a lid was kept on Valencia’s withering form. Now that David Moyes has come in and steered the Manchester United ship rapidly towards catastrophe, the form of certain players can no longer hid behind the brilliance of a manager, it is out in the open, and intensely scrutinised.
Analysis of Valencia’s movements during a game draw uneasy comparisons to a professional golfer, who struggles to hit a short-length putt with fear of missing it, frequently referred to as “yips.” Valencia, like the pitiful golfer, often confronts a defender with the ball at his feet only to crouch slightly and feint to actually do something. He often freezes and turns back, laying the ball of and squirming away from the heart of the action. It used to be that Valencia’s immediate impulse was to run with great abandon but he longer possess the blistering pace and confidence that drove his great performances.
At 28, he should be in, or at least approaching, his peak years but it is becomingly increasingly evident that he may be destined to spend them somewhere other than Old Trafford. David Moyes has inherited a player whose abilities have been numbed by a freak injury. He appears caught at a footballing crossroads continuing to slip further and further away, irrecoverably, from the player who was widely considered the most effective right-sided midfielder in the Premier League.