We’ve grown accustomed to seeing Manchester United line up in a 4-4-2 formation this season.
It has brought us some of our most exciting and entertaining football so yesterday when Sir Alex decided to go with a 4-3-3, there were a few eye brows raised.
Whilst it allowed Phil Jones to make an appearance against his old club Blackburn in midfield alongside Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, it rendered our attack decisively blunt down the left hand side as Rooney was shunted out there in the forward 3.
On the right hand side we had no such problems though as Antonio Valencia, with Rafael in a supporting role, dominated Martin Olsson and eventually saw his hard work pay off getting a goal and creating another.
Our right flank has been notably better than our left this season. Of course you can look back to games like Arsenal at the Emirates where Evra and Nani conspired to make Johan Djourou re-evaluate a career in football, but mostly it is from the right that we have enjoyed the most of our success.
And Antonio Valencia has played a massive part in this.
Whilst he didn’t enjoy the best start to his season, once he found his feet, he became unstoppable. Liverpool’s Jose Enrique is one of the finer left backs in the league but was made to look like a play thing, as was Thomas Vermaelen in his cameo in that position in January.
There are only so many times you can call Valencia a real ‘chalk on your boots’ winger before it gets repetitive but it is the perfect description for him. You know that he will take his man on, likely beat him and get the ball in the box (perhaps it was the shock of Valencia shooting rather than crossing the ball that caught Robinson unaware!) but it is a question of what are you going to do about it?
He is a very decent shout for our player of the season with a return of 15 assists and 6 goals and he doesn’t look like slowing down either so those numbers are likely to increase.
Just as important as Valencia’s contribution, is the work Rafael does to allow this. It has long been thought that the Brazilian would take over from Gary Neville as our first choice right back but he has had to make do with sharing the role with both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones this season with injuries amongst 0ther things playing their part.
But when he is in the team, especially beside Valencia, you can see why many hope that the rumours link us with Crystal Palace’s Nathaniel Clyne are just that, rumours. Defensively his game has come along leaps and bounds, his positioning has improved and despite his stature you rarely see him lose a header (he even beat the mighty Andy Carroll to a header this season) because he knows where to be and when to challenge when a high ball comes in.
But it is going forward that you really see his benefits. Always ready to lend a hand to Valencia, his decoy runs open up space for the Ecuadorian whilst his actual runs means that Valencia always has an option. His crossing also isn’t bad and he isn’t afraid to have a go himself.
With Valencia and Rafael in good form, and working in tandem down the right flank they add another dimension to United’s game. They are a joy to watch and must be a joy to play with.