18 months ago he was lying on the ground. He knew he was in trouble and the pain was excruciating. Bizzarely, he felt seasickness too. Proof, because it’s most certainly needed, that Antonio Valencia isn’t a machine. TonyV, as he’s commonly known, has stealthily established himself as the Premier League’s best winger thanks to some thumping performances. In a world where teenagers playing on other continents (hello, Neymar) are in the footballing conscious, it’s a minor miracle that a Manchester United player has fought his way to the top of the mountain without the spotlight following him every step of the way. TonyV, the best winger in the Premier League — an impressive feat in more ways than one.
Those of you who’ve heard me wax lyrical about TonyV please skip ahead, you’ve seen this bit before.
The problem for the opposition is that he’s entirely predictable. He’s hilariously one-footed for an elite player, for starters. You know what he’s going to do. You know how he’s going to do it. You might even know when he’s going to do it. Good luck stopping him though. His predictability only serves to make the opposition look an even bigger idiot.
In many ways, stopping TonyV is difficult because his movement isn’t only physical. He is a movement. This is a man that Rio Ferdinand once quipped “throws weights around”. Make no mistake, his physique is a huge advantage — as Leighton Baines found out at Old Trafford when his attempted shoulder-barge saw him bounce off of the Ecuadorian — but he doesn’t rely on his physical attributes any more than most wingers. As many a jealous detractor will tell you, his technique isn’t particularly spectacular either. Solid, yes, spectacular, no. To adopt a simplistic model, his strength lies in his mentality.
Let’s return to September 2010. In distress following a fracture which saw his bone protruding, a cloud hung over his career. Modern medical science is breathtakingly brilliant but such injuries are never to be taken lightly. Even if the medical staff were to patch him up and get him playing again, would he stand up to the physical rigours of the game? Would he be in the right place mentally? As strong as he was, Alan Smith had been a wardog and a bad break had changed his career trajectory wholly.
TonyV was back in training on the last day of February 2011. He played his first senior game less than two weeks later. Amazingly, and I mean that in every sense, he returned in-form. Within a month he’d scored a league goal and he had a bountiful supply of assists that he wanted to share. And share he did. The only bad game I remember him having that season was in the Champion’s League Final at Wembley.
Gareth Bale has a similarly hardened mentality. His league career kicked off at an exceptionally young age — he was one of Southampton’s youngest ever players — and he’s gone from strength to strength since. It took him a mere solo season of Champion’s League football to get his name on the tip of every European tongue. By all accounts, his professionalism is unquestionable too. Anecdotal evidence of his approach to the game is unanimously positive.
In the eyes of some, although admittedly not mine, Bale was the winger on the block preceding Valencia’s decision to cut off the lights and set up camp in the middle of the road. A combination of his blistering pace, fantastic technique and sensational manipulation of a football had respected defenders looking like amateurs. It didn’t take long for Bale, moving forward from left back to left winger, to gain high praise. Managers would highlight him as the danger man and double-mark him in an attempt to stem the flow down Spurs’ left hand side. For all his faults, Benoit Assou-Ekotto was a brilliant Robin to Bale’s Batman. Suddenly, it became key for the opposition to lock down that flank.
Then something happened and Bale stalled. Having been given his manager’s blessing, Bale started stepping inside. Initially, it worked. Bale started escaping his two markers and terrorised defences. Assists duly followed. Then something a bit more special — goals. Not only was Bale a threat from the wing, he was now a goal-threat. The sort of player the opposition didn’t want to see lining up a shot was now lining them up. From in between the sticks.
It seems to have happened all a bit too fast for Bale. If you tamper with the clutch you risk stalling the engine and stall it did. Spurs’ formation can’t support two inverted wingers and the continued absence of Aaron Lennon meant that the midfield was already lop-sided. Implosion was on the cards. Frustratingly, it wasn’t just the formation that had changed — Bale had started to believe the hype. Still an unquestionably dedicated professional, the humble young man had become the star of the show. It would appear as though he knew it. To his credit, he was still a consummate professional. Unfortunately, he started to play differently.
The first-time pin-point crossing didn’t seem to be the weapon of choice any more. Instead, cutting inside and shooting became a regular occurrence. Goals, sadly, weren’t. The dangerman on the left wing had become the squanderer in the centre of the park. Currently, that’s where you’ll find him — releasing delicious shots on target. When it pays off, it’s a thing to behold. The problem is it doesn’t cash in often enough — Premier League goalkeepers are no mugs. He’s also been notably unlucky with the woodwork a couple of times.
That’s the main difference between Gareth Bale and Antonio Valencia right now. Both players on top of their games, who could wreak havoc for fun. However, Valencia’s not interested with the glory. The man serves to generate chances for his teammates. Teammates he trusts to finish those chances in ways he deems himself incapable of doing. Bale, maybe even correctly, trusts himself to finish more often than the others in front of him. The end result is that the man in red is seeing his stock rise to levels many would have deemed far beyond his station while the man in white sees talk of a move to Barcelona become ever-increasingly improbable.
Gareth Bale would do well to shift himself back out wide and start delivering sumptuous crosses again. Antonio Valencia would do well to smile every once in a while. At the very least it’ll remind us that he’s not a machine.