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As Jose Mourinho attempts to reformat his Manchester United side.

He’s got a bit to think about in the fullback positions.

Antonio Valencia continues to stake his claim as Manchester United's right-backWhile the left is pretty straightforward, with the return of Luke Shaw looking likely to excite the fans, the picture on the right side of defence is a little less clear. There are a handful of players to consider, such as Matteo Darmian and the currently injured Timothy Fosu-Mensah, but if pre-season is anything to go by, the man who is truly putting his hand up is Antonio Valencia.

Although initially bought by United to operate as a flying winger, the Ecuadorian has more recently been deployed at right-back. This obviously wasn’t part of the plan at first, but despite an indifferent career with the Red Devils, something not held by his spotty fitness record, Valencia finished last season reasonably well in defence. He recorded three assists during the final six Premier League fixtures of the campaign, two of which, against Aston Villa and eventual champions Leicester, were crosses.

The other was a cushioned header against Bournemouth on the final day of the season, where he neatly controlled a long ball to tee-up youngster Marcus Rashford. Valencia then went on to produce a strong performance in Manchester United’s FA Cup final triumph against Crystal Palace, and after yet another injury-interrupted season, it was good to see him finish on a high.

As it turns out, the momentum that he generated has carried through to his pre-season preparations for 2016/17. This was especially prevalent in United’s recent 5-2 friendly win over Turkish outfit Galatasaray, where he whipped in an impressive three assists from right-back. The fact that he achieved this in little over an hour made it even more astounding, and as a player who, at his best, relies on a combination of athleticism, trickery and crossing ability, this felt like a strong reminder of some of his most prominent attributes.

But Valencia’s success wasn’t just down to his own individual performance. He was also helped by a United system that prioritised the creation of space along the wings. Under Mourinho, the right-winger deployed ahead of Valencia, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, regularly cruised through the centre of the pitch. The Armenian recruit did this in a couple of ways, the first of which involved dropping in to link up with his teammates. For evidence of this trait, you only needed to watch the first four minutes of United’s clash against Galatasaray.

At the end of that brief stretch, striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic picked up possession in the centre circle, and Mkhitaryan soon joined him in that position. The former quickly found the latter before Anthony Martial switched the play to the right-hand side. That’s where Valencia took hold of the ball, and due to Mkhitaryan’s drift infield, he now had a vacant lot into which he could overlap. He took advantage of that, too, sprinting up field sharply and assessing his options. He then saw Ibrahimovic arriving in the centre of the area, and delivered a lofted cross that allowed the big Swede to acrobatically volley in the opener.

The second way in which Mkhitaryan made his way into the middle was more dynamic, as he often tried to surge towards the back four with off-the-ball runs. This could be seen regularly throughout the first 45 minutes, and even though Mourinho would remove Mkhitaryan at half-time, Ashley Young continued this kind of movement after the interval.

Forty-nine minutes in, for instance, Young ran infield, directly at the opposition back line, while United circulated possession. The Englishman’s direct opponent responded by covering that movement, which left Valencia up against Galatasaray winger Bruma out near the touchline. Valencia carried the ball forward, played a short pass to Rashford and darted in behind the isolated Bruma. Rashford then played a pass back into his teammate’s path, and even though it tested the ageing legs of the Ecuadorian, he wrapped his foot around the ball just as it approached the byline. Rooney soon latched onto the accurate cutback and volleyed it home, providing United with the first of their four second-half goals in the process.

Valencia added a third assist not long after, this time supplying Marouane Fellaini, and in a lot of ways he hinted that he could thrive in this kind of system. His most sought-after traits are those of the traditional wide man, and as United’s right-wingers (Young and Mkhitaryan) continually floated in off the flank, he was afforded the freedom to power up the line and cross back towards the waiting attackers.

Whether Valencia starts the season at right-back remains to be seen, but right now he is United’s most in-form option. After a strong start to preparations for the upcoming campaign, not to mention a solid conclusion to the previous season, some might even say he’s in pole position. For a soon-to-be 31-year-old entering the final year of his contract, that’s important. Valencia now has the chance not just to cement his spot in the squad but also to elevate his status in Mourinho’s mind, and if he can do that by providing a consistent attacking threat to complement the attackers higher up the pitch, there’s no reason why he can’t succeed.

Who knows, he might even enable United’s right side of defence to rival the excitement created by Shaw on the left.

Originally published at licencetoroam.net

Post written by Will Stratmann, Twitter: @willstratmann
for Licence to Roam, Blog: licencetoroam.net, Twitter: @licencetoroam

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