Louis van Gaal has transformed Ashley Young from stuttering winger to a functioning wing-back this season. The 29-year-old has not set the world alight in the new role, but his presence has served a useful purpose amid an ongoing injury crisis at Old Trafford, with new signing Luke Shaw absent for most of the campaign.
If nothing else, Young has always been diligent and success in the wing-back position is in part dictated by athleticism; a hard-working winger makes for a good substitute in the role. Another industrious winger, Antonio Valencia, has also been used as a make-shift wing-back this season.
Young has taken to the new role with some gusto. There is no denying, however, that his performance has been judged leniently given the player’s previous mediocrity. The Manchester United defence is yet to display any consistent solidity this season. It is easy to mask incompetence in a sea of ineptitude. At United, simply doing the job is never enough.
Using Squawka’s index score, which totals a player’s (or team’s) contributions over each game, we investigate the relationship between Young’s performance and United’s overall performance.
In Figure 1, above, the correlation is strong enough to suggest that Young is making a solid contribution to United’s cause. After all, the Englishman is trusted to marshal the left flank on his own in Van Gaal’s narrow 3-4-1-2 system. Another possible interpretation is that the team is carrying Young; nine other Reds on the field playing well enough to take the heat off the 29-year-old.
A make-shift defender naturally lacks inherent defensive qualities and in United’s three-man defence, the left-most centre-back must be dominant enough to allow Young to concentrate on attacking. If the theory is right, Young’s Squawka ratings will be highly correlated with his centre-back partner’s.
In Figure 2, above, we discover this is not the case. That is, Young’s good run has not been due to Tyler Blackett or Jonny Evans mopping up after the Englishman. If anything, Young has been exemplary in defence – his numbers, particularly interceptions, dwarf those of a proper left-back in Luke Shaw.
What, then, about Young’s midfield partner?
In Figure 3, above, the trend is stronger than that between Young and his central defensive partner’s performances. This makes sense – it is the left-sided central midfielder, not the central defender, who is in the immediate vicinity of a left wing-back. Note – United’s game vs. Newcastle was excluded due to distorting effect of Wayne Rooney’s goals on his score in that game.
Indeed, Young is heavily dependent on central midfield. If Young is allowing the midfield to prosper then there is no reason why his partner central defender has not prospered too.
Curiously, Young’s first two games this season were very poor. Young recorded his third lowest Squawka score against Arsenal. These three games share a commonality in that the left central midfielder was a dedicated holding midfielder. In all other games, his central midfield partner – Angel di Maria, Juan Mata or Rooney – was the more attacking of the central midfield duo.
Young’s poor performance in his first two matches at left wing-back may have been caused by acclimatisation to the new role, but United was up and running by the game at the Emirates. So what about the third game of the season against Burnley in which he had the third best game so far?
It may be harsh, although not unfair, to describe Young as a mediocre talent. There is two seasons worth of evidence. The former Aston Villa man may have the pace and athleticism, but lacks the technique to navigate the attacking third without relying on speed. As a wing-back, Young has an extra 15 yards to accelerate into. The Englishman has enjoyed plenty of space to gather momentum this season.
Young may have a head start as wing-back, but he isn’t the kind of player to beat a man on his own. Playing next to a holding midfielder, the onus is entirely on the former England international to make ground. With a central midfielder such as Di Maria running with the ball and pushing forward, Young faces an easier task.
United’s recent game against Tottenham Hotspur is indicative. Young enjoyed his second worst game of the season according to Squawka. Jonny Evans, and later Shaw, had underwhelming games too, but Rooney struggled badly, misplacing 25 per cent of his passes. Young has not somehow reinvented himself as a wing-back, rather Van Gaal’s introduction of a proper box-to-box midfielder – more specifically deploying one near Young – has played to Young’s strengths.
There is little doubt that Shaw will walk into the team ahead of Young, fitness permitting, in the games ahead. Young’s deployment should be seen as Van Gaal’s attempt at making the best of what he has rather than a true renaissance – recall that Marcos Rojo has always been picked ahead of Young on the left. This analysis suggests that Young requires a highly specific system to function. The suspicion is that Young does not have the talent to warrant such treatment.
All data from Squawka
Assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict