Manchester United delivered Jurgen Klopp his fourth defeat of the season with a 2-1 win at Old Trafford, after Manchester born and bred Marcus Rashford scored two first-half goals, writes Maryam Naz.
Yet despite the Englishman being deemed the match-winner, a player who was arguably as vital to their victory was right back Antonio Valencia.
The Ecuadorian was defensively sound at the other end of the pitch, allowing the likes of Rashford to display their attacking prowess at peak efficiency.
Valencia played his part in the victory by keeping Sadio Mane in check for most of the 90 minutes.
He was called into action nine minutes into the first-half when Mane chased a ball in behind him. Valencia shepherded the pass out of play so that Mane was unable to find himself at the end of Roberto Firmino’s through ball.
The 32-year-old found himself in positions across the back four to keep track of Mane, and stopped him from profiting from the passes and runs of others on a number of occasions.
Yet he was also able to instigate counter-attacks of his own. Prior to Rashford’s first, his driving run nearly put Romelu Lukaku through on goal.
Thanks to Rashford’s two goals on the other side of the halftime break, he was able to relieve himself of attacking duties in the second half and give his undivided focus to the forward movements of Mane, Firmino and co.
Despite exhibiting such a wonderful all-round performance, he was involved in some controversy in the 88th minute when he took out Mane with a tackle deemed as ‘reckless’ and ‘out of control’ by the commentator Gary Neville. Luckily, the referee Craig Pawson did not deem it as a red card offence, sparking protest from Liverpool fans and players alike.
At the end of the 90 minutes, Mourinho’s men were looking at another three points and a clean sheet at home; Valencia’s hard-working ethos and relentless tracking had got them there, and were just as vital as Rashford’s goals.
Having gone unnoticed in a team boasting the likes of Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez, Valencia has been the one player who has been a recurrent feature of Mourinho’s team, and has a great understanding of the ‘Man United way’, being a relic from the Alex Ferguson era.
Not only does he possess experience in big games such as this, but he is also tactically sound, possessing both speed and strength despite his advancing years. His performance in United’s 4-0 win against Everton earlier on in the season epitomised this.
He scored an amazing goal from 20 yards out, and was also able to use his pace to keep the Everton attack confined on the corners of the pitch, displaying his evolution from attacking wide-man to a dependable defensive presence on the right-hand side.
Despite it seeming like a routine victory against Sam Allardyce’s men, he assisted in nullifying the Everton attack down the right-hand side and has now has become famed for his performance in the position.
Valencia’s experience at the right-back experience, paired with Ashley Young on the other wing has brought stability and safety to United back-four, in the aftermath of a few seasons that saw the team struggling to cope with the attacking capabilities of their oppositions.
Yet Mourinho’s faith in him, despite his age and sometimes awry decisions, has paid off, and against Liverpool’s ‘fab front 3’ in Mane, Mohamed Salah and Firmino, he proved that he every right to be playing in his squad, alongside the other developing, and just as talented players.
This will give Mourinho food-for-thought in deciding what to do with him when his contract runs out. Whether he’ll renew his contract or prompt him to retire or move to another club by bringing in a younger right-back, he’ll have a difficult decision on his hands.
But if Valencia continues to play the way he has done in the past few seasons as one of the best in his position, then he will surely lead Mourinho into complying with his demands.
As a player who was desired by Mourinho for many years at Real Madrid, and is now playing under him regularly, this gives us enough evidence to understand that he is a vital figure at United and is precious to Jose himself. And if United are to mount a charge for the title next season, they’ll certainly need him in the squad.