It can be easy to take someone like Antonio Valencia for granted, especially in a team as talented as Manchester United’s.
Right-backs aren’t exactly the stars of the show and Valencia, although certainly capable of individual brilliance, is better famed for the consistency he provides. But the statistics are incredibly telling and United’s win-rate this season drops by 16% when the Ecuador international isn’t in the starting XI; during his absence through injury over the winter period, United lost to Bristol City before suffering draws to Leicester, Southampton and Burnley – three teams the Red Devils really should be beating.
But the 32-year-old had an instantaneous impact upon his return to action last night, which very much set the tone for the evening as United found themselves hosting a managerless Stoke City side marooned in the relegation zone and suffering from a succession of injury problems in defence.
Reminiscent of his days as United’s industrious right winger, the South American stepped inside Josh Tymon to net a beautiful curling finish past Jack Butland – it took just nine minutes for Valencia to put his side in the driving seat.
It was a moment of quality exploiting the naivety of an 18-year-old defender, but it was also a clear example of the ruthlessness and professionalism United needed to secure a routine win at home and avoid the complacency seen from during Valencia’s absence. And the 92-cap international’s influence didn’t stop there either – a highly competent defensive display saw him finish up with most tackles and joint-most interceptions to his name of any Red Devils player while completing 94% of his passes.
While United would always expect to achieve a solid result against Stoke at home, Valencia’s impact is a reminder of his importance within the squad – not only as one of the most consistent right-backs in the Premier League who can provide those moments of magic while keeping it solid at the back, but also as a leader who can set the tone for those around him.