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Why Antonio Valencia or Ander Herrera should be Manchester United's Player of the Year

Manchester United have opened the voting for the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award, and it finally looks as though someone other than David de Gea will scoop the prize. 

De Gea has been named the club's best player for the past three seasons. While it has been thoroughly deserved each time – the Spaniard has developed into the best goalkeeper in the country, if not the world – it also says a lot about United's decline since Sir Alex Ferguson's departure in 2013. 

Ferguson had fantastic goalkeepers during his time at the club, including De Gea, Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar. The latter pair played crucial roles in United winning several league titles, while both also lifted the European Cup, yet it is unlikely that either of them came close to being voted the team's best player by the fans. 

The stars of the show during Ferguson’s reign were, more often than not, the creative and attacking players. While Nemanja Vidic and Gabriel Heinze also won the award, the list of previous winners is dominated by forwards: from Cristiano Ronaldo to Robin van Persie, Mark Hughes to Eric Cantona. 

Yet United’s attacking football has dried up in the seasons since Ferguson retired. De Gea has been United’s saviour, regularly making world-class saves to spare the club from further blushes (if failing to finish in the top three was not embarrassing enough). 

This term, though, United supporters will probably look elsewhere when they vote for their Player of the Year. It is still too early to pick out a forward, however; Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be the club's top scorer but the Swede has missed more big chances than anyone else in the division, so he cannot be compared to the likes of Ronaldo, Van Persie or Ruud van Nistelrooy. 

One of the favourites for the award is a previous winner, Antonio Valencia, who has changed roles since receiving the honour five years ago. In 2011/12, only David Silva had more assists to his name than Valencia, who was rewarded with United's famous No.7 the following campaign. 

The Ecuadorian, now firmly established as a right-back, has played consistently well all season long. A few months ago, Jose Mourinho went as far as claiming that Valencia was the best in the league in his adopted position. The 31-year-old's greatest attributes are his speed and his strength, with opponents often seen to bounce off him (such as Leighton Baines in a clash with Everton) and be left for dead when he surges forward. 

His crossing still needs work, which is strange given that he used to play as a winger, but it is also fair to say that United's forwards have not attacked the ball well enough in the box this season, which goes some way to explaining his low number of assists.  

Another leading contender is a player who operates slightly further up the pitch, albeit not as an attacker: Ander Herrera. Having been criminally overlooked by Louis van Gaal, Mourinho has made the Spaniard a key player in the team, and he has responded brilliantly. Herrera has been named man of the match in United's victories over Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, as well as in draws with Arsenal and Liverpool. He is a big-game player who has plenty of passion for the club.  

With the voting deadline falling before the Europa League final next Wednesday, there will not be an opportunity for a hero against Ajax to stake a late claim. With Ibrahimovic often wasteful in front of goal and Eric Bailly missing too much game time through injury and participation at the Africa Cup of Nations, it looks set to be a straight fight between Valencia and Herrera for the prize. 

England - Premier League Southampton vs Manchester United 17 May, 18:45 GMT 0

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