As the choice of many Manchester United legends, wearing the number 7 at Manchester United is considered a great honour. George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, and Cristiano Ronaldo are some of the best examples of past number sevens, but since Ronaldoâ€™s departure there have been a couple of odd choices to wear that legendary shirt.
First there was Michael Owen, former Liverpool player and general bench warmer at Manchester United. He spent most of his United career in the dugout or injured, scoring a couple of memorable goals but nothing of real note – a late winner against Man City aside. He now â€œplaysâ€ for Stoke, where it is likely Owenâ€™s career will come to an end.
The man to inherit the number seven from Owen is Ecuadorian Antonio Valencia, who began his United career in 2009/10 wearing the number 25 jersey. Valencia is a true number 7: a pure right winger who rarely leaves his role of hugging the touchline. Scoring 7 goals in his three years at Wigan, he was not overly impressive but showed good signs of being a consistent Premiership performer. When Alex Ferguson snapped him up for Â£16 million, it seemed like a heavy price for a player of reasonable quality who had not made too much of an impact in England. Although a good performer, he was not the obvious choice to replace Ronaldo.
In his first season with United, Antonio Valencia went on to prove Ferguson right by earning 5 goals and 7 assists in 34 Premier League appearances and was largely Manchester Unitedâ€™s most consistent player. When in his second season he suffered a serious injury in the Champions League that kept him out for most of the year, it was a major blow to the team as Valencia had proved to be less tricky but more consistent and defensively sound than Nani on the wing. When he made his return later in the season it was a big boost to the whole team and went straight back to his high pre-injury level. Valencia has become Fergusonâ€™s top choice for the right side of midfield because of his attacking abilities and defensive soundness, but now in his fourth year with Manchester United things are starting to go a bit downhill for the bulky Ecuadorian.
Antonio Valencia is Unitedâ€™s new Park Ji-Sung, a wide player who gives a team options going forward but is very good at tracking back and tackling, giving him the edge over other options for the right flank. However, unlike Park, who has now departed for QPR, Valencia is very one dimensional in his forward runs and with the spotlight growing on Valencia as a Manchester United player, opposition defenses are starting to figure him out. This past summer Valencia had his number changed from 25 to the iconic number 7, which after a few good seasons with Manchester United seemed like a good fit. Rather than being spurred on by his success, he has embarked upon his worst season as a United player, as his effectiveness as an attacker has been largely stunted.
Parkâ€™s qualities were diminishing in his final years in Manchester due to injuries but he was still very versatile and could play anywhere across the midfield four, while Valencia is strictly a right sided player and has only one specific skill set. Staying very tight to the right side, Valencia makes gut-busting runs up and down the sidelines, with his favoured move being pushing the ball towards the end touchline past the opposing left back and swinging a cross in. He is very effective at this but his main ability is now becoming his greatest shortcoming. Although Manchester Unitedâ€™s other wingers Nani and Ashley Young do not offer much defensively, they do possess a bag of tricks that makes them a nightmare to defend against, as they can cross, cut inside and shoot or simply dribble past defenders opening up space. Valencia has pretty good ball control but no left foot and no other creativity to his game other than running to the by-line to cross. Now all defenders have to do to stop Valencia is force him to cut inside and pass the ball back to Rafael, who arguably has many more ideas on the ball.
Manchester Unitedâ€™s weekend 1-0 loss to Norwich is the latest example of Valenciaâ€™s ineffectiveness as an attacking player. Norwich, who do not possess world class defenders, had no problems whatsoever nullifying each of Valenciaâ€™s attempted runs to the end line, and once again when he was forced inside he had no ability to create any scoring chances. Javier Garrido, Norwichâ€™s left back who is known more for his attacking prowess, was made to look a solid defender against Unitedâ€™s dreadfully dull right winger.
For a few weeks now Manchester United have struggled going forward, so Ferguson decides to switch things up by taking off a winger for a striker and playing what on paper almost looks like a 4-2-4 formation. Usually Ferguson would remove Ashley Young and play with Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez, and sometimes even Danny Welbeck across the frontline, with Antonio Valencia taking on a more defensive role.Â This has worked on many occasions this season as Manchester United have become the comeback kings, giving up the first goal in 8 of their 13 victories of the season. However, this time around Chicharito had started the match and, with Wayne Rooney out injured, Fergusonâ€™s only option was to bring on Welbeck – rather than remove the more versatile Young, it was Valencia Ferguson elected to substitute. This does not necessarily mean that Ferguson has lost faith in Valencia, but perhaps shows that he recognises his limited abilities as an attacker.
Last season Alex Ferguson started using Antonio Valencia as a right back when Manchester United were suffering from a massive defensive injury crisis and Valencia was actually quite effective in that position. His large frame, tackling abilities, and defensive soundness proved to be a decent fit, certainly when compared to Michael Carrick’s stint at center back. Valencia is quick and is able to keep his temper in check better than natural full-back Rafael, and should perhaps be trained to play that position full time. It is not that Antonio Valencia is a terrible player, it is just that with his favoured move going forward being his only move, he is not a great midfielder.
If Valencia should play right back and with Nani in the doghouse, who should play on the wing opposite Young? The answer could be Unitedâ€™s versatile striker Danny Welbeck. Although not a great goal scorer, Welbeck does know where the net is and always puts in a solid performance when on the field. He has played on the left wing for Manchester United before, showing a fantastic fighting, tackling spirit to go along with his striking abilities. Alex Ferguson has noted that Welbeck scores more for England where he plays as a central striker and he would like to bring those goals to the club, however with Rooney, Van Persie and Hernandez operating in the middle already, Welbeck could be chosen to fill the role on the flanks. He has similar tenacity and spirit to Valencia, but also possesses an abundant amount of ability to find the net and create for his teammates.
You can read more from Jared on Field of View.