Neil W. Blackmon
Our 32 Players to Watch at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil series continues today with a player still regarded as one of, if not the fastest, player in the global game. Before we break down Manchester United and Ecuador winger Antonio Valenica, however, get a refresher on how these pieces work by checking out our piece on French midfield engine Mathieu Valbuena, who came in at #28 in our countdown.
Number 27: Antonio Valencia
Position: Right Wing/Midfielder
Club: Manchester United
American-Based Professional Athlete “Soulmate”: Chris Johnson, RB, New York Jets
Ecuador are as curious a case heading into Brazil this summer as a team nicknamed “La Tri”– seemingly the nickname of about a third of the globe’s footballing teams– can be. Manager Reinaldo Rueda nearly lost his gig after a dreadful 2011 Copa America campaign that saw his side manage only one point (a goalless, mind-numbing draw) and head into the grueling CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying campaign with zero momentum. Thanks to a personnel shift, which included the recall of out-of-favor forward Felipe Caicedo, Ecuador started the qualifying campaign tremendously, rising to second place after a 4-0-2 sequence that included wins over Colombia and Chile, and Rueda’s side rose to the top ten in the world before being pummeled by a German B side in Boca Raton, Florida last spring. That loss, and the death of 27 year old Christian Benitez last summer, sent the side into a tailspin but La Tri showed resolve by beating Uruguay at home last fall to secure qualification without a playoff. Despite the success of the qualifying campaign and the fact that the World Cup will be on their home continent, Ecuador aren’t expected by many to make much noise in Group E, which includes massively talented France, plucky Honduras and surprise seed Switzerland. The June 15th opener with Switzerland in Brasilla is absolutely crucial: should Ecuador earn a point they would have Honduras next and a decent chance at advancing to the knockout stage for only the second time in the history of the federation. At the center of this effort, of course, will be captain Antonio Valencia.
Antonio Valencia has been so good for so long that it’s a bit surprising he’s only 28 years old. After a wildly successful three year stint at Wigan Athletic, he was Sir Alex Ferguson’s first summer signing in 2009. The transfer fee was undisclosed but rumored to be around 16 million pounds. Valencia made an immediate impact, helping United win the League Cup the following spring and capturing player of the match honors in the process. He was named to the PFA Premier League team of the year his first season at Old Trafford. The following season, Valencia earned both the Manchester United Player’s Player of the Year and Supporters Player of the Year honors, and his brilliant campaign earned him an extension at United and the honor of wearing the storied Manchester United #7 shirt, worn by the likes of George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, and Cristiano Ronaldo while at Old Trafford. Entering the 2012-2013 campaign, it was not foolish to include Valencia in discussions about the elite players in the world.
Above all, Valencia is fast:
He’s been clocked at around 22 mph on the pitch. Valencia couples his insane pace with a great deal of physical strength and spectacular skill on the ball. If Franck Ribery is the best player in Group E this summer, then Valencia, in terms of pure talent, is “Best Player B”.
Ecuador is an odd South American country in terms of its soccer history– a little brother among the continent’s carnival of giants, top hats, registas and malandros. Collectively, South America have won nine World Cups, yet Ecuador have only managed a second round. In the language of South American soccer, no phrase is more beloved than the malandro. Brazilians like to believe that many of their Portuguese words defy direct translation, and in this case they are right. A malandro is, for want of a more succinct description, an outlaw and trickster who survives by his wits and savvy, often fooling those richer or more powerful than himself, evading the law. He is a bohemian, a joker and a smartass. Valencia is the odd South American superstar who falls somewhat outside of this classification. Probably the greatest player Ecuador have ever produced, Valencia isn’t a trickster or an artist. He’s technically brilliant in the English sense, not just the South American “football as art” sense. His pace and strength make him unique.
Early in his career at United, Valencia would use all these skills to hug and dominate the flank, but quickly incut (on either foot) and accept the ball without losing pace. He gave United a decisive advantage from width repeatedly (more on this in a bit), and despite not being a particularly sharp poaching threat despite his pace, he scored his fair share of goals and distributed more than his fair share of assists. He’s a plus-passer, and a better defender than he’s often given credit for because his pace allows him liberties getting forward then tracking back few players in the world have. His pace also means he can close space and play as a ball-winner, something Sir Alex Ferguson admired in him and a fundamental reason United trusted him on the field holding leads throughout his tenure at Old Trafford.
That said, Valencia was not the same once he donned the fabled #7 shirt. He struggled mightily after putting the shirt on initially and it got so bad this season under David Moyes that Valencia, long the focal point of United’s forays from width, became a secondary winger, yielding wide attacks to left winger Adnan Januzaj with increasing regularity. Because Valencia doesn’t really provide a goalscoring option at the far post– this had the effect of removing his best assets– pace and on-ball skill– from matches. Valencia did manage to turn things around for a spell around Christmas, and this turn in form directly corresponded with a rise in United’s form, but this only occurred after Valencia had switched numbers and cast aside the personal demons surrounding the #7 shirt. Still, questions have lingered about Valencia’s future at Old Trafford. Is he, at the highest club level, still able to consistently influence games on the flank? Is the decrease in accuracy of his storied pinpoint crossing a “one off” or a trend? More critically for this summer, is he still a player capable of guiding a nation where he’s definitively the best player through a World Cup group stage?
That’s unclear. What is clear is that Valencia will have to be. Reinaldo Rueda runs most of Ecuador’s offense through the right flank and more critically, expects Valencia to provide the lethal teeth to the counterattack, which is the key tactical idea behind Ecuador’s 4-4-2 setup. Christian Noboa sits deep and wins the dogfights in the center, and then uses plus-passing ability to deliver the ball to either Jefferson Montero, a capable player on the left, or Valencia, who will drift inward for Ecuador a bit more than he does for club to try to create havoc in the channels. Meanwhile, when Valencia incuts– Ecuador have capable attacking fullbacks who get up the pitch and stretch defenses. The part about Valencia coming a bit more narrow is critical: Valencia will hope to give Ecuador a decisive edge from width, but he’s asked to do even more, especially without Chucho Benitez, in opening play up centrally as well. It’s a lot to ask, but history tells us Valencia is historically capable.
Valencia’s key characteristics: a heightened role to provide offense for his country, his rare combination of power and pace, the ability to make use of space when he has it and separate himself with world class speed– made finding an American-based professional athlete similar to him relatively simple. Chris Johnson, who recently left the Tennessee Titans and signed with the New York Jets, fits the bill.
Johnson has long been regarded as one of the fastest running backs- and players- in the NFL. He’s used his electric speed in space to rush for 1,000 yards in the NFL six times, including an incredible 2,000 plus yard MVP worthy campaign for the Titans in 2009. For years, Johnson was the offense in Tennessee, a team so otherwise mundane that watching The Rock on TBS for the 27th time (that weekend) seemed more appealing than a Titans game. In one sense, despite being the same age– Johnson is more advanced than Valencia. The questions regarding Valencia’s continued role at Old Trafford have not, as of yet, led to his ouster. In Tennessee, Johnson was coming off his least productive season and like Valencia, had a very large contract- so the Titans parted ways with him to start afresh. The Jets snatched him up quickly, the thinking in New York being last year was a “one off” and Johnson will once again be one of the more explosive players in the NFL.
Just as Valencia hails from a less-historic footballing country on a footballing continent, Johnson came relatively unheralded from football-rich Florida to East Carolina as a collegian, where he had a tremendous collegiate career, rushing for nearly 3,000 yards and 32 touchdowns on his way to becoming the finest football player East Carolina has ever produced. Early in his career with the Titans, the naysayers made similar arguments about Johnson that folks made about Valencia. “You can’t be durable when your that fast,” they suggested.The origin of this notion has always fascinated me– why can’t someone have both world class speed and high-level strength– but fortunately, like Valencia, Johnson has answered that claim with a great deal of durability, carrying the ball 290 times a year for the Titans between 2008 and 2012. Johnson has had a tremendous NFL career as is– whatever the Jets get at a somewhat still young 28 is not only a bonus, but for Johnson, legacy-defining. Canton isn’t littered with running backs who had three or four good or even great seasons. But should Johnson become a very productive player with the Jets, history will smile on him. Valencia, at 28, has to understand that legacy-wise, he too occupies a place in a special historical moment.
The biggest difference between the two players is that with the Jets, Johnson will finally get to share the load– though like Valencia with Januzaj, it’s fair to wonder how the player will deal with not being the “definitive man.” Fortunately– or perhaps unfortunately– Valencia will have no such concerns in Brazil this summer. He’ll be tasked with carrying a somewhat lightly-regarded Ecuador through a group stage at the World Cup. We’ll know a lot more about the talented wingers place in history thereafter.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.