The Louis van Gaal era, though still only in its early days, continues to surprise. The Netherlands' manager has apparently lost interest in two of the club's primary targets (William Carvalho of Sporting Lisbon and Bayern Munich's Toni Kroos), stalled on the acquisition of Southampton's Luke Shaw and now, in a smaller but no less bemusing twist, he has apparently sanctioned a new, three-year contract for Antonio Valencia.
Of the trio of Manchester United wingers -- including Nani and Ashley Young -- who have endured a sustained slump in form, Valencia is the one with the most goodwill from supporters. Although technically less gifted than the other two, he is far more hard working, and his overlapping with Rafael along the right flank has been, at its peak, one of the most effective features of his team's attacking play. What's more, he was one of the chief reasons for Wayne Rooney's best goal scoring return in a single season and was voted the club's Player of the Year in the 2011-12 season for his steady supply of assists as the England forward helped himself to 34 goals.
But that was two years ago. Since then Valencia seems to have regressed. His chief flaw has been the inaccuracy of his crossing, with far too many balls failing to beat the first man. Allied to that, his lack of trickery has been exposed. Defenders who are aware of his excellent acceleration merely stand off him and invite him to beat them from a standing position or drive the ball across goal. In doing so, they highlight the lack of confidence in his play.
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His plummet in self-esteem is best exemplified by the fact that he handed back the iconic number 7 shirt once worn by David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and George Best because he thought it too much of a burden. What does van Gaal see in the Ecuador international? At first sight, he seems far from the type of winger van Gaal usually prefers, a world away from someone such as Marc Overmars. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the formation that van Gaal has employed to such impressive effect so far at the World Cup. The 5-3-2 formation would have Valencia acting as a wing-back, as backup for Rafael, and stretching play by pushing the opposing full-back onto his heels and allowing space for the three central playmakers to thrive.
It does not seem van Gaal would envision him as a starter, unless -- as his predecessor David Moyes appeared to do -- he has significant doubts about Rafael's qualities. That all said, three years does seem like a contract of excessive length and a surprising reward for a player who has delivered two extremely disappointing seasons. Valencia has never been a player who has seemed complacent -- if anything, he has perhaps been too anxious in his play, which led him to force matters on the pitch -- but it still looks like an odd way to motivate a player.
Surely, there must have been a better use of the club's resources than to continue to invest in a player who might already have produced his best form for the club. That said, prior to this World Cup, no one could have foreseen how brutally the Dutch would deconstruct Spain's tactics, given that Van Gaal was leading a squad that is extremely young and mostly based within the Netherlands, where the domestic league is widely viewed as mediocre. It might well be, then, that van Gaal has envisaged a brilliant tactical use for Valencia of which we are not yet aware.
One place Valencia is particularly dangerous is in a 4-3-3 formation to the right of a central striker, where he can run off his shoulder into the narrow inside-right channel. For a forward such as Robin van Persie, who is not particularly quick, Valencia can be the same kind of foil that Theo Walcott was at Arsenal -- pushing back the central defenders several yards and creating space for van Persie in the number 10 position.
That said, his retention should still raise eyebrows. Given that van Gaal's arrival has been mooted to herald some sort of tactical revolution at Old Trafford, it's interesting to see that he has kept precisely the type of player many thought he would cull. Still, at this early stage of his Old Trafford career, we can already say this of van Gaal: His moves so far at Manchester United have been just as intriguing, in their own way, as the job he is currently doing with Netherlands.