Football

How Jose Mourinho Helped Rebuild The Confidence Of Antonio Valencia

How Jose Mourinho Helped Rebuild The Confidence Of Antonio Valencia

Had Zlatan Ibrahimovic not settled in right away and scored 26 goals in all competitions with over two months left of the season, it's hard to imagine anyone else being more deserving of Man Utd's player of the year award than Antonio Valencia.

The Ecuadorian has won the award before, after his sensational 11/12 season where he bounced back from a broken leg and looked like a new player, but in the years that followed he never quite hit the same heights.

It reached a stage under David Moyes where Valencia personified the lack of creativity that the team were badly suffering from. He was so predictable in his play, as he would get to the touchline and blast a low cross into the box hoping for a deflection or lightning-quick reaction from a teammate, which more often than not never came.

An injury crisis and some odd recruitment saw Valencia asked to cover at right-back, and his early performances were far from convincing. Positionally he looked out of his depth, and while his outstanding physical attributes meant that he could do a job against less experienced opponents, he was being found out by most wingers he came up against.

There signs of improvement under Louis Van Gaal for Valencia, but after playing just 14 games last season if you had said back in August that we'd be in March talking about him as comfortably one of the club's three best players this season, you'd be scoffed at, and justifiably so.

But Valencia has been excellent. Not just in his attacking play which, especially considering the limitations of the likes of Matteo Darmian and Marcos Rojo when deployed over at left-back, are a vital part of the way Man Utd play and have improved no end with someone like Ibrahimovic to aim at, but in his defensive play as well.

The best example of that was his point-saving tackle at Anfield earlier in the season.

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There's a case for him to be included in the discussion for team of the year, and that in itself is a sign of just how much he has improved.

His attacking play is more varied, more direct, and just better in general, his defending has come on leaps and bounds, but it's clear that the biggest change in Valencia has been in the confidence with which he plays.

It's night and day in comparison to the last few years, and it's largely down to how Jose Mourinho has handled him.

Speaking to ESPN last week, Valencia pinpointed one conversation with his new boss, who he refers to as 'El Mister' before the season had started that had a big impact on how he viewed himself.

I feel that el mister really believes in me.

I've played in many games and I have been free of serious injuries. I spoke with mister soon after he arrived. He told me that when he was at Real Madrid he wanted to sign me but United had said no. That conversation gave me a lot of confidence and I have been happy to play right-back rather than further forward, where I've played for most of my career. I feel very comfortable, but in a team like United you have to attack anyway from right-back. When you play in this position you have an opportunity to find space and make the best of that space.

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It might not seem like much, but it goes to show how different players offer different emotional responses when talking to their managers. Alex Ferguson is held as the gold standard when it comes to man management, but it's clear that Jose Mourinho is doing all that he can to repair the damage done to the egos at the club since the great manager left.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a key signing in this regard, as has Paul Pogba, despite his performances flattering to deceive for the most part. These two men have an infectious self-belief and confidence that is rubbing off on those around them, and while the results and league position is not yet at a level where everyone is happy, the standard of play and the manner that Man Utd now look to achieve their results has been a big improvement.

As for Valencia, before the season had started the right-back position was one in urgent need of addressing. Matteo Darmian failed to win the trust of the fans in his debut season, and names like Fabinho from Monaco and Nelson Semedo of Benfica were being talked up as a transfer because surely Valencia couldn't be the solution.

But he has been. Ask a Manchester United fan today which positions need to be addressed, and right back is far down the list, behind a defensive midfielder, a left-back, and even another striker. That's a testament to Valencia's performances, and while Mourinho's 'them against us' siege mentality can be tiring at times, it's clear that he knows how to get the best out of his players.

One area where Valencia hasn't improved, however, is in his grasp of the English language. Despite arriving to play for Wigan in 2006, he can't speak a lick of English.

SEE ALSO: 'What He's Done In His Life Is Just Exceptional': Kevin Kilbane On The Remarkable Antonio Valencia

Mikey Traynor

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