This season, like last, the Manchester United Player of the Year award isn't going to be a close-run thing: David de Gea in first, and a yawning chasm of daylight in second. Ashley Young in third, maybe, just to confuse future historians.
But when it comes to seasons of frustration, there are Players of the Year and then there are players of the year. The latter don't get a prize, for they have not done well and do not deserve nice things. Instead, they are those who have managed, through an unfortunate blend of context, circumstance and cackfootedness, to encapsulate a poor season in their own wretched selves.
So, at Manchester United last season, while it was De Gea who got the plaudits and David Moyes who got the sack, it was Marouane Fellaini who stood out as the figurehead. Off the field, as a signing, he was emblematic of a panicked, out-of-his-depth executive vice-chairman and a panicked, out-of-his-depth manager. On the field, his most notable contributions were elbowing Pablo Zabaleta in the face, thereby handily expressing United's inadequacies at home, and chasing the ball out of play against Bayern Munich, neatly doing the same in Europe.
Under different circumstances the big-haired Belgian would, perhaps, be in contention for the same prize this season. While his football and his contributions have improved — and while he's spent at least as much time annoying the opposition as his own fans — watching millions upon millions of pounds and euros of talent play 'hit the big man' has been either dispiriting or amusing, depending on your point of view. But not this season. This season, the award goes elsewhere.
Poor Antonio Valencia. Some footballers are an absolute pleasure to criticize. With others, with Valencia, it just feels cruel. This is because most of the good stuff — the stuff any fan has a right to expect — is there. He works as hard as he can, he is eternally willing, he doesn't complain about being played out of position, he gets on with the job. (Even his alleged sex scandal was endearingly incompetent.) But nevertheless, his misadventures at right back — which reached a nadir last night against Arsenal, as he slipped the ball gently through to Danny Welbeck for Arsenal's winner — have defined this season.
In part, this is down to his execution of the role. He hasn't been quite the same player since he tried, and failed, to take on the heavy No. 7 shirt, his time in defense has been characterized by inadequacy in both directions. Going forward he's remarkably timid, perhaps the slowest quick footballer in the world. Given that his game has never been the most rounded it's vaguely depressing to see him forever checking his runs, looking up, and rolling the ball inside. And at the back? Well, let's just say that while last night's second goal was certainly an aberration, the fact that Arsenal found so much joy down their left certainly wasn't. Meek in attack, disorganized and nervous in defense: as Valencia goes, so goes the team.
Simply playing badly doesn't make him emblematic, however; he's got plenty of company on that score. What truly elevates Valencia is the fact that his presence in the back four neatly encapsulates everything that Louis van Gaal is trying to do, and all the knock-on effects that . After all, Manchester United have a right back, one who won a title as the first choice in his position. He was on the bench last night, he's played just 10 times this season, and he hasn't started a game since January.
Rafael can, at times, seem to be held in slightly excessive esteem by United fans, the natural consequence of an endearing blend of skill, naturally attacking instincts, and hyperactive (occasional over-)commitment. But not even Valencia's mother could argue the Ecuadorian's a better option going forward, while even the Brazilian's harshest critic would be hard pressed to argue with any conviction that Valencia amounts to a definitely better option defensively. Both are fundamentally vulnerable, but the difference lies in the type of vulnerability. Rafael is a risk because he can get caught upfield and has an unfortunate habit of making rash decisions in the process of recovery. Valencia is a risk because he simply isn't a particularly good full back.
Barring the possibility that Rafael has done something personally offensive to Van Gaal — and let's not rule that out completely — the continued preference for Valencia speaks — well, screams — of fear. In essence, it's a decision that the best option is that which offers predictable inadequacy rather than unpredictable promise. Control over chaos. Valencia might not be better than Rafael, but he's more predictable. He does, in essence, what he's told. Not well, perhaps, and not in a fashion that's entirely helpful to Angel di Maria, marooned in front of him. (Though, by way of returning the favor, Di Maria hasn't been helping the other way.) But that's not the point.
If there's been one constant in United's messy season, it's that Louis van Gaal does not trust his defense. Almost everything stems from that. Almost everything threads back to it. The exile of Rafael, the possession obsession, the endless sideways passing, the 3-5-2, the mucking about of Ander Herrera, the introduction of Michael Carrick at half-time last night ... it all comes back to the weakness of that defensive unit. If you wanted to be cruel, you could even argue that Marouane Fellaini plays because Chris Smalling needs something to aim at, and he's no good at feet.
Whether he's right to do so is up for debate, though given some of the decision making that Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans have conjured between them, it's hard to blame him too much. The problem is that United's decent (in the abstract) defensive record has been achieved at the expense of any kind of verve (not to mention fun), and so while the results have been coming (until last night) the performances have been profoundly sketchy. To say the least.
And that's why Valencia is truly United's player of the year, through only partial fault of his own. A compromising compromise, a symbol of a team too scared to go forward yet still too shaky to sit back. The onfield avatar of a manager caught between his twitching ass and his limited options. United have 10 games to claim the only achievement left open to them, a return to the Champions League, and a monstrous fixture list that begins on Sunday against Tottenham. Expect Valencia to start at right back again. Expect that not to go particularly well.