Tag Ashley Young

Tag Ashley Young

The emancipation of Ashley Young

August 11, 2015 Tags: Opinion 6 comments
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The first game of the new Premier League season is history, and Manchester United fans everywhere are excited at the thought of Bastian Schweinsteiger roaring through the midfield, while Pedro reprises his attacking role from the Pep Guardiola years at Barcelona, running off the Lionel Messi incarnation-in-red that is Wayne Rooney.

As expected in a first game of a new campaign United’s performance was somewhat laboured and tepid. Supporters and commentators failed to mention that the conditions at Old Trafford were more akin to the Seychelles than Stretford, leading to a tiresome affair where neither team had the energy or fitness to excel.

However, United bagged the points – and that is all that matters – but the debate as to where certain individuals should play has reignited. Rooney occupied the striker’s role, with Memphis Depay at number 10, and both were serviced by two wide players who are certainly not flying Red Devils-style wingers.

The inclusion of Ashley Young continues to be divisive among Reds. The former Aston Villa player has had an epic journey since the start of Louis van Gaal’s tenure, finding his way from outcast to on-the-pitch lieutenant in the space of 12 months.

There is little doubt the future for Young is a limited one; he will never be a world-class entity in his own right. However, he has earned Van Gaal’s trust by doing one simple thing: doing as he is told.

This may sound like the least aspirational element in terms of a footballer’s contribution to a team, but it is arguably the most important. Van Gaal entered United during a time of turmoil and meltdown, as the ashes of David Moyes’ failed experiment burned like the stench from a farmer’s field. Out went fan favourites like Danny Welbeck, who—despite running his socks off on a weekly basis—was not the new manager’s “cup of tea,” when he had Radamel Falcao in his back pocket. But unlike Welbeck, Young survived the restructuring process in Van Gaal’s opening gambit, by doing what it takes to survive.

There is a common myth that Young is a bad player. This is a tag shared by Michael Carrick and Jonny Evans. The latter, of course, has done himself absolutely no favours over the past year. Young enjoyed a very credible 1:5 goal ratio during his 250 games at Watford and Villa, winning the PFA Young Player of the Year in 2008-09, and appearing in the PFA’s Team of the Year on two occasions. Add to this Young’s three Premier League Player of the Month awards, and you have the DNA of a very good footballer.

However, it is true to say Young has underwhelmed in a United shirt. Young’s goal ratio has drifted out to 1:9, and he is not the attacking force he once was. For many fans, Young is more famous for falling over in the penalty area than skill and wonderment, and this is undoubtedly his own fault.

But where Nani and Shinji Kagawa focused on using their flair, Young made himself indispensable to Van Gaal when the ship was rocking, and the Dutchman was trying to find ways to stop the vessel from sinking.

United fans are waiting for the arrival of Pedro—who seems destined to roll up at Old Trafford in the next few weeks—and are desperate to see Memphis play in the position from which he dominated at PSV Eindhoven last season.

But the manager will treat his new investment from the Netherlands with kid gloves, and the deployment behind Rooney is an entirely deliberate one. The new number seven does not offer the same defensive coverage as Young and, with the expectation that Luke Shaw will bomb forward at every opportunity, United need a midfielder who will cover the raiding left-back.

Observing Memphis off the ball against Tottenham Hotspur, it is clear he is not tactically ready to fulfil this specific requirement, and he appeared somewhat disinterested in any defensive duties, which is crucial under Van Gaal’s philosophy.

Pedro is a busy player, and certainly has the attributes and experience to press and defend in the wider positions. He will be Young’s main threat in the coming weeks. Juan Mata is a man transformed on the right flank, and despite not being a winger or possessing pace, the Spaniard’s overall work rate is markedly better than in his Chelsea days.

Many would rather Young is dropped all together, with Van Gaal finding a new system that incorporates Ander Herrera, and not witness the pragmatism of the current regime. Herrera is a difficult card to play in the game as things stand. He is a wonderful talent, but a coach doesn’t spend big on Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin if he is happy with his central midfield.

Herrera will have to battle for a role at number 10 from the bench, and be used as an auxiliary central midfielder when needed; the next few months will be tricky for the Spaniard to accumulate minutes. He does not have the game to play in the roles occupied by Young or Mata, and he is going to drop down the pecking order if Pedro arrives in the north-west

So for now, United fans are going to have to put up with Young’s presence in the first XI, but they should not ignore that fact he is there on merit. Statistically, he does not provide the assists that Angel Di Maria did for United, but the manager trusts him to execute a role which lets others play.If Young busts a gut, it means Memphis doesn’t have to, and he can still drop wide left to pick up the ball and attack.

If Pedro is successfully signed, Reds may get their wish for Young to quickly return to the bench, but Mata’s place in the team is arguably under more threat.

Young is one of the jigsaw pieces in the full picture of Di Maria’s failure at United, blocking the Argentinian’s route back into the starting line-up last year. Despite his unpopularity with many supporters, he might just also stop Depay playing on the left.

After all, Van Gaal’s formation against Spurs – 4-2-3-1 – is closer to Sir Alex Ferguson’s version of 4-4-1-1 than it is to the Dutchman’s preferred 4-3-3. But it is likely the latter formation will be fully taken up once the manager feels he has the correct personnel to execute it.

Young deserves credit for his application over the past year, in the same way Marouane Fellaini also does. But while the heart of United beats through the chest of Van Gaal, there will always be a place for a player such as Ashley Young. He has rightfully been freed from the chains of public opinion, and a great season could rewrite how the history books look back at his career.

Data Rant: Ashley Young

December 30, 2014 Tags: , Data 4 comments
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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.

Figure-1

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.

Figure-2

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?

Figure-3

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

Van Gaal’s ‘modern’ wing-backs

September 6, 2014 Tags: , , , Opinion 4 comments
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Deploying a ‘wrong-footed’ winger is no longer a radical concept – in fact it is now fully mainstream. Wingers cut inside, vacate space for full-backs to run into, enabling attacking teams to get more bodies into the middle whilst retaining some width. Even lowly Sunderland regularly use inverted wingers these days. More interesting, perhaps, is a corollary now being tested at Old Trafford. Just a little deeper.

Ashley Young has deputised for the injured Luke Shaw at left wing-back this season; perhaps it is a simple stop-gap measure, and a natural one at that, considering Young’s typical role as a left winger. Yet, there is also some evidence that Louis van Gaal is entirely comfortable deploying the ‘wrong-footed’ Young at wing-backs. That it is, in fact, part of his grand design.

Consider United’s match against Swansea City for a moment, when Adnan Januzaj, a left-footed player, replaced Jesse Lingard at right wing-back. Van Gaal held plenty of alternatives to the Belgian; he could have brought Michael Keane into the centre and shifted Phil Jones to the right, or swapped Young and Januzaj’s flanks. Meanwhile, Nani, a genuine right-winger, was left on the bench.

Deploying a left footer at right wing-back seemingly makes little sense. After all, in Van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2 system, wing-backs are the sole providers of width and must be ready to cross; having to cut back eats up precious time, slowing down attacking play.

Yet, Van Gaal also asks his midfield two to offer some auxiliary width to make up for the lack of wingers in the system. Should a central midfielder vacate the centre to take the ball down the touchline, midfield could look very bare. In this scenario United’s wing-backs are a natural alternative to provide cover and fill the gap.

Wing-backs in 3-4-1-2 formation, for example, are often free to receive the ball and able to cut inside allowing central midfielders space to run into the channels. In this case being wrong-footed helps the wing-back cut in.

During early season matches Darren Fletcher has played a loose holding role, with the Scot’s partner is deployed box-to-box. Notice that Ander Herrera partnered the wrong footed Januzaj on the right in the Swansea game and Tom Cleverley was the left central midfielder near Young against Sunderland. Deliberate rather than coincidental, perhaps.

Reports that Rafael da Silva has been deemed a surplus are puzzling given that there is a dearth of right full-backs/wing-backs at Old Trafford. The lack of recruitment in this area points to the reports being fallacious. Yet, Van Gaal has a track record of retraining players in a new position. United’s back five come December could – as one example – very well include, Januzaj, and Jones, together with Marcus Rojo and Jonny Evans.

Of course, it is easy to read too much into early season developments; the trap of confusing emergency measures with innovation is obvious.

Still, the idea of an inverted wing-back cutting into the middle makes much sense. With Juan Mata deployed at number 10, and Wayne Rooney partnering Robin Van Persie up-front, a central midfielder rushing into the box only adds to the traffic, occupying the forwards’ “zone” as the Dutchman one put it. By contrast, diagonal runs from central midfield to the flank take a marker away and create space for the front three.

The security provided by an additional centre-back in Van Gaal’s system allows a central defender to act as full-back if required. Tyler Blackett, in particular, has been doing so already. Inverted wing-backs, therefore, allow the front three space, backed by a two man midfield, with a fully functional flank as well.

Otherwise there is little to suggest that 3-4-1-2 will be a long-term solution. Herrera is mobile, but lacks the defensive nous to partner Angel di Maria, while Fletcher no longer has the legs. It is hard to see how United will successfully make the transition from defence to attack when the opposition is simply willing to camp behind the ball.

At international level Van Gaal used 3-4-1-2 an emergency measure forced by Kevin Strootman’s untimely injury. At Old Trafford it is to accommodate Mata, Rooney and Van Persie in the same team. Shaw’s return, together will Rafael, will offer some genuine width and ease the transition, but it is still hard to foresee how United will break down teams happy to park the bus.

United’s lack of wingers mean that lone wing-backs can easily be defended by doubling up. Tempo will be taken out as forwards drop deep to move the ball upfield and United’s opponents will have ample time to organise into a solid unit. Shaw and da Silva are better crossers than Young or Antonio Valencia, but Premier League sides are adept at defending balls delivered into the box. Just ask David Moyes.

It is also worth noting that while a draw might well be a ‘half win’ in the World Cup, given the penalty shoot-outs on offer, too many are fatal to top teams’ hopes in the Premier League. The fact that one of Mata or Rooney will have to be deployed wide in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 adds weight to the theory that an inverted wing-back is a genuine tactical innovation by Van Gaal. Though correct-footed, we may see Rafael or Shaw cutting in at will.

Van Gaal certainly has a resumé for tactical revolution. Sir Alex Ferguson, by contrast, was always more of a fast follower than proper innovator. The Dutchman has a Fergusonian ruthless streak though and might very well shoehorn Rooney or Mata into 4-3-3. The thought lingers, however, that United cannot counter-attack its way into the top four. Nor will that extra central defender create or score enough to guarantee Champions League football next season.

Young’s corrosive shame eating at United’s centre

November 7, 2013 Tags: Opinion 14 comments
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In the furor that surrounds Ashley Young’s dive against Real Sociedad on Tuesday night there must also come a mea culpa. The confession that Manchester United has benefited from cheating; that other United players have also and will also cheat; an acknowledgement that in different circumstances the outrage might be felt for very different reasons. United might, probably will, lose a game this season as the result of similar dubious tactics and equally malicious intent.

It is the game that we play.

It doesn’t have to be though. Young was under no obligation to “fold in half” as La Real coach Jagoba Araste so eloquently put it on Tuesday night. Nor did David Moyes have to so publicly back his player either; not after admonishing the former Aston Villa winger for similar theatrics earlier this season. And certainly not after spending much of the last decade as a strong voice in the campaign against diving.

Yet, Young goes on. Cheating, seemingly at will, and defying his managers with every turn and fall. It is, after all, far from Young’s first offence – the 28-year-old has been warned not solely by David Moyes, but Sir Alex Ferguson too. And in that Young’s tumble at Anoeta during United’s scoreless draw with Sociedad was barely believable, yet all too familiar in the collective memory.

Pundits lined up to add their voice to the general invective over Young’s antics. But none more so that United supporters, whose general sense of  disenchantment rang loud. Young is not only an embarrassment, and a fraud, but – and here is the rub – mediocre with it.

Herein lies another group confession. After all, Adnan Januzaj was cautioned for simulation earlier this season, while Wayne Rooney and Nani have been known, on more than one occasion, to eat grass with the best of them. Few have found the spotlight quite as intense as United’s Stevenage-born winger. Not from the home crowd at least.

“Pathetic,” said former United midfielder Ray Wilkins. “This is as bad for me as all these over-the-top tackles we’re getting at the moment because that is a conning of the referee.”

“He’s conned the referee there,” added Roy Keane. “If you are a Manchester United player and you see a player getting tugged back you want him to go down, but Ashley Young has obviously gone down too much over the last few months.”

Yet, there is something about Young’s manner that grates more than others. It is the shamelessness of it all; the total failure to acknowledge his conceit. The charlatan whose audacity extends to a bare-faced refusal to speak out. An impostor in the famous scarlet shirt.

In that Moyes is culpable too. Words really do come so very cheap, not least if Young is selected to face Arsenal this weekend in the most crucial match of the Scot’s short time at Old Trafford.

United’s top man was certainly in no mood to lay blame on Tuesday following the Reds’ bore draw in Spain. It does not augur well.

“I’ve seen it and the boy certainly tugs him in the box,” said the new United coach. “The referee is two yards away from it and decides to give it. The referee is there and he gave it.”

In that Moyes brought forth a charge of duplicity – disingenuous outrage against diving in one corner, a blind eye in the other. After all, Moyes once advocated for retrospective punishment and even fined hil Neville for hitting the ground too easily. Not this time – it serves not the man on whose shoulder’s the club’s on-the-pitch ethic resides.

“I’m of the view that retrospective viewing of diving should be more important than some of the technology they are talking about bringing in,” said the Scot last season.

“I think it would make the referee’s job an awful lot easier if that was there. If you do it and you get banned for it, it wouldn’t take long before you cut it out. I think it could be easily done.”

So too, it must be said, might an internal review of his player’s actions. Young does not have to face Arsenal next Sunday, nor Cardiff City two weeks hence. Nor, for that matter, Bayer Leverkusen in Germany towards the end of the month. There are many supporters not keen on the Englishman’s return at all such is the monotonous regularity with which Young has brought derison to Old Trafford’s doors.

It is not as though Moyes is short of options either with Januzaj, Nani, Antonio Valencia, and Danny Welbeck available. Nor has Young conspicuously delivered during more than two years at the club. He probably never will.

Although one wonders whether punishment might ever get through – that Young is too callous, or too shortsighted, for the message to fully resonate. Certainly if Ferguson’s rebuke served no lesson, then what might?

“Going to ground too willingly was not something I tolerated,” remarks Sir Alex in his recent autobiography.

“Ashley ran into trouble against QPR in the 2011-12 season, when Shaun Derry was sent off and our player was accused of diving. I left him out for the next game, and told him that the last thing he needed as a Manchester United player was a reputation for going down easily. Ashley did it two weeks in a row but we stopped it.”

Seemingly not.

Young also serves as a reminder to those supporters whose stance includes a matter-of-fact assessment. It is, they say, just part of the game. Penalties are won, and lost, depending on a player’s momentary decision to stand or fall.

They are, but this is surely a zero sum game. Young’s gain could so easily be United’s fall. Inconspicuous, or decisive, there is little merit in defending the indefensible. It will only come back – kismet’s inevitable last stand.

Moyes has a key decision to make on Young’s future

October 14, 2013 Tags: Opinion 28 comments
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Despite being ultimately responsible for Manchester United’s fortunes David Moyes has been protected by fans to date; the argument being that the new manager has been proffered too little time to impose his own philosophy on the club. Fair enough, although there have been victims during the Scot’s early period at the club, including Ashley Young who is now considered the main culprit of United’s poor start. It has brought into question the winger’s future at the club.

The staggering rise of Adnan Januzaj has certainly not helped the former Aston Villa player’s position, although there are few, if any, United players who are playing to their potential.

Last season’s 20th league trophy epitomised Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford – a decent squad went on to better more glamorous sides with little else but determination. In that three senior wingers – Antonio Valencia, Nani and Young – were collectively underwhelming, but England international was the best of the bunch.

Young boasted better shot accuracy and had more attempts at scoring than Nani and Valencia. The English winger created more chances per game as well. He also performed solidly in games against big sides when the Ecuadorian failed to impress and the Portuguese was not in the side at all. The fact that Young, who failed to score in 19 Premier League games, recorded better statistics than other senior wingers speaks to the genius of the retired United manager.

Young’s début season offered promise. Injuries limited the former Watford player to just 19 Premier League games, but he scored six goals and notched up seven assists. Prior to United’s 6-1 defeat to Manchester City, the Reds often deployed a swashbuckling 4-6-0 system where the front four of Young, Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Nani roamed at will, with Anderson and Tom Cleverley supporting the front players with almost reckless runs into attacking midfield positions.

This season Moyes’ team is playing with more structure. Robin Van Persie and Rooney are deployed as a traditional strike partnership and the central midfield duo does not consistently support the forwards.

Dribbling has never been one of Young’s great strengths – last season the English forward attempted one take-on per game, while Valencia tried 2.9 times per fixture. United’s opposition successfully marshals Young down the left flank and forces the right footed forward away from areas where he can use his stronger foot.

However, Ferguson often used Young in big matches, where in counterattacking situations, there is more space for Young’s pace and his right foot to shine.

The England international suffered twice as many fouls as Nani or Valencia last season – one data points that suggests opponents found Young far more threatening than the latter two. Crucially Rooney’s presence in the middle took some attention away from the former Aston Villa winger.

In part Young’s future depends on how Moyes handles Rooney, with the Scouser making it abundantly clear he has no interest in playing in midfield. The English striker’s recent admission that he is “enjoying” playing up front is a clear threat to the new United manager – a demand to which Moyes has acquiesced. With there being no chance of the Scot dropping Rooney to play Shinji Kagawa, Young is unlikely to receive the more central attacking midfield support he needs to be effective.

With little hope for a more permanent role, Young’s transfer should be considered, although at 28 the former Villa player would need to be sold sooner than later. The trouble is with Young acquired for more than £17 million, with wages reportedly topping £130,000 per week, there are few that can afford the England international. Let alone a long line of club’s seeking his ‘talents’.

Still, if Arsenal can find room for the limited, if speedy, Theo Walcott then there is little reason why United can’t utilise a player of Young’s ilk. After all, Young is a highly versatile player who can play across attacking midfield. Perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson’s comparison of Young and John O’Shea is prophetic after all.

Meanwhile, there is little role for Young elsewhere in the team, especially since Kagawa can’t get a game at number 10, the other position at which the England man has been used.

It leads to a conclusion – if Young remains at Old Trafford the right flank beckons. Young is a more direct than Valencia and the Englishman’s tendency to quickly cross could aid United in maintaining a high tempo, especially in counter-attacking situations. The former Wigan Athletic player’s tendency to get close to the box is becoming problematic to Moyes’ preferred game.

The fact that Young needs to cut in is a great hindrance on the left. On the opposite flank, though, the fact that Young can operate centrally is a burden to bear for the opposition. The Englishman has contributed defensively just as much as the Ecuadorian and a run on the right should be considered. Nani is more technically sound, and a greater attacking threat, but a more defensively responsible player is needed for certain occasions.

The burgeoning Januzaj will, of course, limit Young’s opportunities, and in any case, the current system will not bring out the best from the former Aston Villa player. But Moyes is likely to appreciate having a such versatile player in the squad and an experimental deployment on the right is tempting with Nani and Valencia struggling to convince.

Questions of right and left

April 2, 2013 Tags: , , Opinion 52 comments

It has not been a good week for right-wingers; not least new Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio, who has taken significant media heat for his less than conventional political views. Little wonder, given that the Italian once labelled fascist dictator Benito Mussolini a  “very principled, ethical individual” who was “deeply misunderstood”. Those who died at the dictator’s hand may disagree.

But that’s a digression. Over at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson also has a problem with his right-wing. And his left. The one-time socialist, whose team has struggled in wide areas all campaign.

The season-long patchy form and fitness of Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young poses plenty of questions as the season draws to a close.

Manchester United’s FA Cup defeat to Chelsea on Monday night emphasised the problem once again, with those of a more charitable nature describing Nani’s performance as ‘rusty’. Fair enough, the Portuguese has spent the past fortnight on the sidelines.

Indeed, injury and questionable form has restricted former Sporting player to just 14 starts in all competitions this season. Hardly the progression expected of the 25-year-old after Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in summer 2009.

Such has been the winger’s fall that Nani’s is a career on hold; at least until a summer transfer to whomever bids the highest materialises. That Ferguson was prepared to sanction the winger’s departure in the winter window, to Zenit St Petersburg  of all places, should leave the player in little doubt that his future lies away from Old Trafford.

United will take far less than the £25 million Zenit reportedly bid in the winter simply to see Nani leave after a frustrating six year period in Manchester.  With him will go a huge talent, too often unfulfilled.

There is a similar story, of injury and poor form, to be told about Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young this year. While Valencia’s confidence seems unswervingly shot, Young has featured far too little this season due to persistent spells on the sidelines.

Valencia, such a powerhouse during United’s unsuccessful title challenge last season, has dropped off the boil so acutely that questions about the player’s true fitness will surely be asked during the summer. Rumours that the Ecuadorian regularly plays through a mystery injury appear more prescient with each tentative performance.

There is surely far more to come from a player who contributed 15 assists last season.

Meanwhile, Young has rarely garnered positive reviews from the Stretford End masses, and can do little to change the widespread belief that his is a talent born of mediocrity. Especially if he is rarely fit enough to play – the former Aston Villa man has started just 17 games in all competitions this season. Few of them with any genuine impact, cynics might add.

Tough though the assessment, Young was hardly destined to be more than squad filler at Old Trafford, although Ferguson’s shortage in wide areas has certainly focussed the manager’s thoughts on the limited Englishman.

None of this is news, of course, although Nani’s fall from grace is all the more disappointing following a productive campaign in 2011/12. While the player’s performances have always been inconsistent, the 62-cap international contributed 12 goals and 13 assists to United’s cause as the Reds fell just short of claiming a 20th league title.

Those numbers are hard to ignore, and hugely expensive to replicate.

No wonder the manager has deployed a plethora of stars to the wings this year – many out of position. While Valencia and Nani have shared right-wing duties, Young, Ryan Giggs, Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa have each played on the left. It is not a stretch to say that few have shone.

Ferguson’s difficulty is both in finding the right blend of players for the new season, given that exciting youngster Wilfried Zaha joins from Crystal Palace on 1 July, and how to extract more from those that remain at Old Trafford. After all Zaha is completely untested at the highest level, leaving Nani’s departure to effectively weaken United’s squad.

It should come as no surprise if the Scot bolsters his wide options with another signing, although Robin van Persie’s large acquisition fee and heftier wages may restrict Ferguson’s wiggle room during the summer window.

Getting the balance right – personnel and tactics – is a lesson Ferguson may take from the season, despite United’s huge Premier League lead.

The Scot, fired up by City’s last-gasp title winning foray last May, has constructed a team that will surely reclaim domestic hegemony with something to spare. But there has also been a compromise between defensive solidity and attacking prowess; balance, and squeezing his best players into an idiosyncratic tactical construct.

Indeed, it is two new signings that have seemingly disrupted United’s wingers as much as any injury.

Kagawa, so brilliant at ’10’ behind Robert Levendowski for Borussia Dortmund, started the campaign for United in a similar position. He will almost certainly finish the campaign having been deployed wide more often than through the middle.

Meanwhile, Robin van Persie’s form and quality ensures that Ferguson’s default formation includes both the Dutchman and Rooney, even if the former Evertonian is deployed in a shadow role.

Yet, even this simple tactical compromise – deploying two strikers and not three central midfielders – caused severe knock-on effects during the early part of the campaign, where United struggled to retain clean sheets or defensive composure. That would come as the season wore on and the Scot increasingly sought to compromise width by tucking one or more winger infield.

van Persie may have won United the Premier League, but his acquisition constrained Rooney, Nani, Valencia, Kagawa, and to a lesser extent, Young.

All of which says nothing of the choices that Ferguson needs to make in central midfield, where perhaps only Michael Carrick will emerge from the season with reputation fully enhanced.

Tom Cleverley has progressed, but must surely add goals and creativity to his neat and energetic approach, if he is to fully embody Paul Scholes’ central midfield berth. Anderson, and for different reasons, Darren Fletcher, may not be seen in a United shirt beyond the summer. Scholes will certainly retire.

An acquisition – of the rampant physical central midfield type – will do Ferguson’s hopes of adding a third European triumph before retirement a significant boost.

Yet, it is on the wings where Ferguson’s deepest concern will surely lie  this summer after a  season or poor reliability and much reduced productivity. Injury has of course played a part, but it has always been a risky approach to leave one’s hopes and dreams to the music of chance.

The strategist in Mussolini might agree. Having been caught unaware of the coming media storm, Di Canio certainly will.

Reds suffer through familiar tournament fall-out

June 27, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 33 comments

It’s no so much that the English nation likes a scapegoat – although quite clearly it does – but that there’s  fundamental requirement to ignore the deep seated problems in the national game. In the 46 years since England won it’s only international tournament blame has been apportioned liberally after repeated, and frequently embarrassing tournament defeats. This is a cycle long-established, lasting roughly two years; wash, rinse, repeat. Euro 2012 has offered a fall-out so typically English that it ranks right up there with the finest national traditions. Like failing to pass the ball with any sense of authority, or repeatedly using the word ‘bulldog’ before bowing out to a technically superior opponent.

England’s national reaction is, of course, one that ignores every fundamental technical, tactical and mental failure inherent in the English game. How could it not, lest the authorities that govern these matters actually resolve to fix the inherent problems in coaching and culture that have contributed to repeated failure.

Indeed, the vitriol dished out to Manchester United pair Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young after England’s latest failure is no great surprise; there was always a certain sense of inevitability that the media, and by extension the public, would seek out individuals and ignore the root cause. Little surprise that two players from England’s most successful club should fall victim to the mob either.

While United’s striker Danny Welbeck emerged from the tournament with some credit, and Phil Jones is immune having spent three wasted weeks on the bench, it is Rooney and Young that have been singled out after penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy on Sunday night. Young for a series of lacklustre performances, and Rooney for being, well, Rooney.

Neither player’s performances genuinely stands out amid a tournament replete with English mediocrity, but, then, scapegoats rarely do. David Beckham, Paul Ince, and Rooney himself, each understands from personal experience the depth of national hate that is so often be meted out to the men in Red.

Young’s disappointing tournament was surprising in that the former Aston Villa winger had performed so well for the international team over the past year. Six goals in the player’s previous 10 internationals proffered a player in form, mature and ready to make a genuine mark on an international tournament. Yet, in four games at Euro 2012 Young was unable to deliver the goals, assists, or vibrant performances that had previously flowed so freely.

The criticism is in part supported by Young’s stats over the tournament, but then none of a poor English cohort will be proud of their attacking achievements. The United winger completed 76 of 92 passes over the tournament, at 82 per cent accuracy. Young made four shots, although none was on target, created two chances, and provided no assists.

There is mitigation, though. After all, at no stage was Young genuinely deployed in the attacking role he is accustomed to at United, nor with the freedom afforded under former England coach Fabio Capello, even in the opening match against France when the United man was nominally deployed ‘in the hole’.

Restricted by a system that placed emphasis on defensive shape over possession and attacking fluidity, too often Young found himself running from deep into increasingly lonely dark alleys. That less than 40 per cent of Young’s infrequent touches at the tournament came in the attacking third tells its own story. The 26-year-old was by no means culpable alone for failure in a highly dysfunctional English midfield.

Yet, for the all criticism Young has earned, egged on by sabre-rattling BBC pundit Mark Lawrenson, it is Rooney who has garnered most headlines following Sunday’s loss. After all, the hype built pre-tournament by manager Roy Hodgson had reached it’s most fervent pitch by the time of Rooney’s introduction for England’s match against Ukraine last week. The nation expected Rooney to deliver the Pelé-esque performances promised by the team’s manager.

After scoring against Ukraine, Rooney was unable to influence England’s match against Italy – a fixture in which the Azzurri enjoyed more than 65 per cent possession; 75 per cent in extra time. It was, of course, always unrealistic to expect Rooney, without a game in more than five weeks, to drag England up from the gutter of defensive entrenchment. But, then, realism and English expectations have rarely been natural bedfellows.

Some, though, were very quick to lay the blame on England’s leading striker, including former manager Fabio Capello who claimed, with no hint of irony, that Rooney only performs for United.

“After seeing the latest (England) game, I think Rooney only understands Scottish,” Capello said.

“He only plays well in Manchester where Sir Alex Ferguson speaks Scottish. Look, when I spoke they did understand me. But every now and again, when I tried to explain tactics, things didn’t work out. You know what? Maybe it’s because Rooney doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t understand English.”

While Capello’s words smack of bitterness – the Italian having fallen on his sword in defence of John Terry – even the now incumbant Hodgson threw Rooney to the wolves, offering up a headline-writers dream in the process.

“I think we put a lot of expectations on Wayne,” Hodgson admitted post defeat to Italy.

“When he missed the first two games, we were all believing that what we needed to do was to get to the third game and Wayne Rooney will win us the championships. That maybe was too much to ask of him. Wayne certainly tried very hard, but he didn’t have his best game. I think he would admit that.”

In truth England’s failure is a collective; of tactical rigidity, technical limitations, and obsessive focus on ‘spirit’, ‘fight’ and ‘work rate’. Across four matches England enjoyed just 40 per cent possession, according to UEFA’s official statistics. Only Ireland and Greece claimed less. Other stats nerds, including OPTA, have the figure even lower. No wonder, when England’s players found a team-mate with just 67 per cent of passes made – the 13th lowest in the tournament.

By contrast, there is little surprise that England places top of the ‘tackles made’ table, but achieved the fourth lowest shots on target per game out of the 16 teams at the tournament. This was an England side which sought only to not lose, anything else being a bonus. It was a system built for defensive “heroes” at the expense of attacking talent.

“We were being too conservative,” observed now former England defender Rio Ferdinand.

“It sends a message to the opponents that you are more interested in defending and playing on the counterattack than making them scared of you. The only time we really kept the ball properly was when Danny Welbeck dropped short to collect it and linked the play. But, usually, he was having to stay up and wasn’t allowed to drop too much because we had set out a certain way with a 4-4-2 which didn’t offer a great deal of flexibility.

“It’s OK saying we were very good defensively and hard to beat but if you set out to be defensive then that’s your first priority. It makes it very hard for the attacking players in the team. The most damming statistic of them all was that one which showed our best passing combination was between Joe Hart and Andy Carroll.”

Not that the critics will concur. It was, after all, Young’s fault. Or maybe Rooney’s. Or maybe a bit of both. But what’s defeat if you have that bulldog spirit? The spirit of yet another English failure.

Welbz and Young: England’s lone rangers

June 10, 2012 Tags: , , , International 32 comments

With Euro 2012 well under way attention has turned, momentarily Rant suspects, from the tittle-tattle of transfer market gossip to the world’s second biggest football tournament™, which is taking place in Poland and Ukraine over the next three weeks. In between bouts of organised racism, fans from 16 countries hope to witness some high quality football. Before Spain or Germany inevitably walk off with the trophy, of course.

There’s plenty of Manchester United-related interest in this one, with seven current players and six ex-Reds taking part – Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck for England, Patrice Evra with France, Anders Lindegaard with Denmark, and Nani with Portugal.

Many United supporters will also point to Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick’s bizarre exclusion from the England set-up. The former of whom had Roy Hodgson fluffing his lines in a BBC interview on Saturday, with the England coach now claiming that Ferdinand is “too good” to sit on the bench. There’s Rant thinking Rio might have been “too black” to be in the same squad as John Terry. But then, Rant is the cynical type.

England, meanwhile, enter an international tournament with the lowest expectations since Bobby Robson’s side lost all three group matches at Euro 1988 in Germany – to Holland, the Soviet Union and Ray Houghton’s Ireland. There’s unlikely to be much shock should England return home early once more after three difficult fixtures in the next 10 days.

And the start couldn’t be much tougher for Hodgson’s men, with a vibrant France the first opponents on Monday afternoon. The sight of the aforementioned Terry, reportedly carrying groin and hamstring injuries, trying to keep Karim Benzema, Franck Ribéry, Olivier Giroud, Hatem Ben Arfa and Samir Nasri at bay will surely bring a rueful smile to Ferdinand’s face. After all, while Terry is built like a tank, he also turns like one, to bastardise an infamous piece of mid-1990s commentary.

But there is hope for Hodgson’s men, with England set to follow Chelsea’s lead by ‘parking the bus’ against the French in Donetsk. It isn’t going to be pretty, but anti-football can be effective on occasion. The question is how does England strike the balance between allowing the few creative players to flourish, and carrying out Hodgson’s plan A – to make the Three Lions difficult to beat.

Indeed, United’s Welbeck and Young will likely be the focus of England’s attack for Hodgson’s side on Monday, with Liverpool’s Andy Carroll on the bench. Hodgson may be all for anti-football this summer, just not that anti-football it seems. The United duo should offer plenty of food for thought to France’s somewhat pedestrian central defensive partnership of Phillip Mexes and Adil Rami.

But all that pace and dynamism is wasted if England can’t get the ball into Young and Welbeck’s feet. Early reports suggest the technically limited Stewart Downing and James Milner are to be prefered to the more attacking, but defensively suspect, Arsenal duo of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott in wide areas. While Steven Gerard will play the central midfield position, at which he has never shown any tactical discipline, along side Scott Parker – a wholehearted but limited midfielder.

France’s inevitable midfield superiority will be hard on both Young and Welbeck, with the later in particular likely to spend long periods without the ball. It’s a challenge Young appears to have taken on with gusto. After all, the United winger has scored six in his last 10 internationals to become the national team’s leading man in Wayne Rooney’s absence. Young is once again set to take on Rooney’s ‘number 10’ role for the national team, with Welbeck leading the line.

“When you play for Manchester United, the pressure’s on every week,” Young told reporters on Sunday.

“Everyone wants to beat Manchester United, so when it comes to playing with pressure, it’s no problem. I enjoy having a challenge. I remember the manager, Sir Alex, saying to me when I first joined United that it would be a big challenge for me. I’ve played a whole season now and I’m full of confidence. I’m looking forward to Monday.

“I’m a versatile player. I have been throughout my career: up front, either wing or off a main striker. I want to be creative, to get on the ball, to play. That’s exactly what I’m looking to do on Monday. I played this role for a whole season at Aston Villa and I’ve played it [for England] in the last few games. I’ve been getting on the scoresheet, getting assists. It’s up to me to use my brain, be clever, find the pockets of space and get on the ball. I think I can do that.”

True, Young has excelled in the position for England in recent games, offering a direct, intelligent, and pacey style that will compliment Welbeck’s movement into the channels. Welbeck’s inclusion will also encourage England to play the ball on the ground at least. Carroll’s would surely do the exact opposite.

But this is England; this is international competitive, and waste possession is what every England side has done at recent tournaments. At least the ones England actually qualified for. It points to a lonely late-afternoon for United’s dynamic forward duo.

Meanwhile, former United defender and France coach Laurent Blanc is wary of Welbeck’s threat, while mindful of England’s likely negative mindset.

“They’ll drop back, have a bank of four with some quick players in there, and try and hit us on the break,” said Blanc.

“We need to be careful with that and make sure we’re not caught off guard. If there’s space in behind our back four, they’ll counter-attack. If they play Welbeck, we’ll have to leave him as little space as possible to exploit.

“But we’ll play our own style. If we sat back and waited for the English to come at us, it’d be 0-0 and we might end up only threatening to score a goal from a set-piece. No, there’ll be two very different philosophies on show and I hope the side that plays more football will win the game.”

Few, least of all England’s players, will bet on Hodgson’s side playing more football on Monday. But if the Three Lions are to get anything from the match, then United’s lonely forward duo surely hold the key.

Poll: Is Ashley Young an embarrassment to United?

April 15, 2012 Tags: , Polls 91 comments

Ashley Young, part-time winger, full-time diver – at least if the last two weekend’s matches are anything to go by. In each game, first against Queens Park Rangers and then former club Aston Villa, Young has ‘gone down easy’ to win Manchester United a crucial penalty. The seventh and eighth penalties Young has won this season.

Last weekend, against QPR, Young hit the deck after the mere brush of Sean Derry’s outstretched hand. True, the QPR midfielder made contact and, as such, a foul was committed, but was it enough to bring the £18 million signing down? Then on Sunday, against former club Villa, Young tumbled once again – this time over Ciaran Clark’s outstretched leg. There was less debate about the merits, or otherwise, of the foul, but Young’s theatrics won him few friends.

Yet, as many have opined on Twitter and other social networks, Young’s behaviour is not the ‘United way’, where diving has never been accepted. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson took the unprecedented step of admonishing his player in public after the Villa game when questioned if Young was now gaining a reputation for diving.

“Yes. In the last week or two, yeah. I’ve never seen that in him, it’s not a habitual thing in him,” claimed Ferguson.

“He was brought down, he just made the most of it. I think he played for the penalty. If the player decides to put his foot in and doesn’t stay on his feet and read the situation, he has fallen into the situation. But he’s definitely taken him. It was a dramatic fall. He overdid the fall, but it’s a penalty, there’s no doubt about that and I don’t think they can have any complaint because he has taken him.”

Yet, the real question is whether you, the United fan, can accept Young’s behaviour? After all, the winger has earned United goals over the past week at the same time as drawing a rash of negative headlines.

Is Ashley Young an embarrassment to United?

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Reds look to returning injured, with pivotal games on the horizon

January 20, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 32 comments

Manchester United heads south this weekend at the start of a testing stretch for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. The Scot’s side visits Arsenal on Sunday, with a month of potentially decisive fixtures ahead. But Ferguson must again do without without a phalanx of key players at the Emirates as injury continues to bite into the Scot”s resources.

Yet, with Tom Cleverley back in light training, Ashley Young slowly on the mend and a handful of other players ready to feature against the Londoners, Ferguson can at least see some light at the end of a long injury tunnel. It will be a huge boon to United’s chances of taking a 20th domestic league title in May.

Cleverley moves from the gym to running outdoors this week, with the 22-year-old now out of the cast that has protected an injured ankle since the midfielder hobbled off against Everton in October. The youngster departed just 58 minutes into his return from a similar injury suffered against Bolton Wanders on 10 September.

With Cleverley went the vibrant and now seemingly long forgotten flowing football of the late summer. Yet, progress in Cleverley’s rehabilitation means that the England midfielder can realistically look to play some part in United’s Europa League double-header with Ajax in mid February. The midfielder’s return has been a very long time coming, as Ferguson’s side has stuttered through matches with a patched up engine room over the past three months.

Indeed, Michael Carrick aside, there has been little consistency in United’s midfield for months. With Anderson and Darren Fletcher also injured, Ferguson has deployed half-a-dozen players in central midfield this season – Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones, Ryan Giggs, Darron Gibson, Park Ji Sung, and even Rafael da Silva. All too often with little effect as the Reds slipped behind Manchester City in the title race, and out of Europe in the group stages.

In the meantime, Ferguson’s men will face Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, twice, before Cleverley is ready to start for United again. It is genuinely scary stuff, leaving Ferguson with a big call at the weekend: whether to retain formerly retired veteran Paul Scholes alongside Carrick, risk Anderson’s fitness, or go with Giggs’ experience against the Gooners.

Meanwhile, Ferguson’s midfield options will increase further when former Aston Villa winger Ashley Young returns to the side in early February. The 26-year-old, also recovering from an ankle injury, should be ready for selection for United’s Premier League match against Liverpool at Old Trafford.

“It’s going well. I’ve been in the gym most days but it’s getting there and hopefully I’ll be back soon,” said Young during a Betfair webcast on Thursday.

“I’m enjoying it. From the minute I stepped into the building, I was welcomed with open arms by everybody in the squad. All the staff have been brilliant. There’s competition for places all around the team so you’ve always got to be on your toes.

“It’s going to be a tough game [on Sunday], but I’m sure we’ll go down there full of confidence and looking to get three points – as we do in any game. There’s a lot of points to play for and everyone wants to be top of the table but there’s plenty of games left and we’ve got to concentrate on ourselves and look to go down there and win.”

In Young’s absence Antonio Valencia has flourished on the right-wing. Gone are the tentative displays of early season. Back is the dynamic, decisive, attacking Ecuadorian who so impressed fans during his debut season at Old Trafford. Young’s own form has been mixed, much like Ferguson’s side.

Following two defeats over Christmas, United can hardly lose any more points now, especially with City at home to Tottenham Hotspur this weekend. That City may well be six points ahead by the time United kick off at the Emirates will only heap pressure on the Reds to grind out a result, at a ground where Arsenal blow distinctly hot and cold. Arsene Wenger’s men have lost two in a row on the road, but still retain, in Robin van Persie, the league’s in-form goalscorer.

It won’t get any easier for Ferguson’s men over the next month though. United travel to Liverpool for what is likely to be an intense, potentially draining, FA cup tie in just over a week. Matches against Chelsea, Liverpool – again – and Ajax follow.

It is a pity, then, that neither Cleverley, nor Young, will be fully match sharp for a series that will surely decide United’s fate in two domestic and one European competition. In a season of more slings and arrows than Ferguson will care to remember, the Scot can but hope that the duo’s return marks the end of the most serious injury crisis at Old Trafford in the past decade.

It is gratifying at least that Ferguson should be able to call on defenders Rio Ferdinand, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones at Arsenal.

A midfielder or two? Perchance to dream, as somebody might once have said.

Reds’ tricky series

22 Jan – Premier League – Arsenal A
28 Jan – FA Cup – Liverpool A
31 Jan – Premier League – Stoke City H
05 Feb – Premier League – Chelsea A
11 Feb – Premier League – Liverpool H
16 Feb – Europa League – Ajax A
23 Feb – Europa League – Ajax H