Ashley Young is a curious character. Not as innately talented as Ryan Giggs or Cristiano Ronaldo, yet the Englishman has managed to establish himself on the left-flank at Manchester United following a £16 million move from Aston Villa in the summer. Plenty of fans were surprised by the move, questioning Young’s value to the club. But it was Young’s flexibility as much as his raw talent that attracted Sir Alex Ferguson.
Indeed, when the 26-year-old signed on at Old Trafford, Ferguson compared the former Watford player to a former utility man, now departed for Sunderland. “… John O’Shea, for instance, wasn’t in a starting position all the time but, because of his versatility, he made nearly 400 appearances for us in his career here,” claimed the United manager.
Young is similar to the Irishman in that he is an adaptable player who can be deployed in a variety of positions – a real jack of all trades. One must then ask whether the Englishman is a master of anything?
One of the English international’s strengths is his athleticism. Young is fast, blazing past markers on the flanks and quickly roaming across the field as a central attacking midfielder. With the player’s great agility and balance, Young makes a formidable opponent. Judging by his frequent forays into defensive positions, the Englishman also possesses great stamina as well.
Young is also an excellent deliverer of crosses and set pieces, which has been missing from United’s armory for some time. For that alone, Young must be considered an integral part of United’s first team because there is nobody – bar, perhaps, Ryan Giggs – who can offer good free kicks and corners. But Young is no Rory Delap – the winger is not solely in the side to provide good dead ball delivery.
The problem with Young lies in his other assets, which by no means poor, are not exceptional. Consider Young’s passing. While proficient, the midfielder’s passing lacks imagination and creativity. Perhaps Young is simply still acclimatising but too often his passes, especially those of a more adventurous nature, have been weighted and executed poorly. For this reason alone Young should only be considered for the attacking midfield/second striker role as the last resort – especially when Wayne Rooney, Giggs, and even Anderson can play the role.
Another concern is Young’s movement. As an “inverted” winger, Young should look to cut in more, allowing Patrice Evra to overlap. Figure 1, left, demonstrates that Young has remained predominantly on the flank, hitting the byline and getting chalk on his heels one.
Comparing Young’s movement to Luis Nani, Figure 2 below, demonstrates just how glued to the touchline Young really is. As a right footer, Young needs to check back before crossing. While these inswinging crosses can be extremely dangerous they are harder to pull off once the winger approaches the byline. In addition, given that Young can shoot from distance, it is curious why he doesn’t exercise that option more frequently by drifting infield.
Perhaps the reason is Young’s dribbling, which is not at Nani’s level. Young prefers to beat a man with blistering pace and not clever trickery on the floor. Given this predisposition, Young’s obsession with hitting the byline makes sense as he need only beat the full-back with pace. It is not so easy to cut in to the middle where there are midfielders and central defenders to worry about.
If it wasn’t for Ferguson’s other options Young would probably be better deployed as a classic wide man on the right. One disturbing thing about all of this is the fact that Young is ill-suited to modern formations such as 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. In 4-4-2, Young has a bit of space to accelerate before facing the full-back. In 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, as a winger, Young directly faces his marker and no space to gain momentum.
Young’s limitation, in essence, boils down to one issue – predictability. There is no doubting that Young is a good player but, to truly cement his place in United’s first team, he must learn to play with a more flair. Against the very best sides, such as Barcelona, Young will be more easily countered, just as he has been against Chelsea and Liverpool in recent matches. He must rely less on pace and develop his game to yet another level.