An old head on Young shoulders
Ashley Young was one of the last traditional English wingers. Much like Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon, Young boasted an abundance of pace and loved to run fearlessly at opposition defences. Back in the mid noughties, when he broke through at Watford, managers were still clinging to formations that relied on fast wide players to whip crosses into a target-man. While inverted wingers and overlapping full-backs gradually became the prevailing mode of providing width, Young was once in his element.
It is easy to forget that Young was once a very exciting young player. When Aston Villa signed the 21-year-old Englishman for a club-record fee back in 2007 he was full of promise. In his first full season at the Birmingham-based club, Young finished second in the Premier League assists charts on 14, just three behind Cesc Fàbregas, and was nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year, which the Spaniard eventually won. He was included in the PFA Team of the Year that season in a midfield alongside Steven Gerrard, Cristiano Ronaldo and Fàbregas.
"It is easy to forget that Young was once a very exciting player. When Aston Villa signed the 21-year-old Englishman for a club-record fee back in 2007 he was full of promise."
The four and a half years Young spent at Aston Villa coincided with the most successful period the club has enjoyed since the turn of the millennium, including winning the Intertoto Cup in 2009 and reaching the League Cup final in 2010. Young was not only a threat as a traditional winger with his pace and dangerous crosses, but he also posed a consistent goal-threat.
In his four full seasons with Villa, Young scored nine goals in each season in all competitions. Arguably more impressive given his later career issues, he made missed just eight games in those four Premier League campaigns. While Young’s goal-involvement statistics did not set the world on fire, he was a consistently reliable member of a squad that plummeted into the bottom quarter of the table as soon as he left along with James Milner and Gareth Barry.
Young arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 2011 for a modest £16.2 million, cheaper than fellow acquisitions Phil Jones and David De Gea. Spending time out of the limelight suited Young, but, as he later admitted, Sir Alex Ferguson warned him to “grow as a player and person or fall by the wayside” at Old Trafford. The winger’s first season at the club gave the impression that Young could grow into the role.
His league début for United came against West Bromwich Albion where he provided an assist for Wayne Rooney. Young then forced a winner when his surging run and cross was deflected into the opposition net. His first goals for the Reds came two weeks later in a memorable 8-2 victory over Arsenal where two curling efforts from outside the box were the cherries on a beautifully crafted cake.
Yet, with Rooney and one of Javier Hernandez or Danny Welbeck leading the line, Young was often rotated in and out of the starting line-up, effectively competing for a spot with Luis Nani and Antonio Valencia. The season started well, but it took a turn for the worst when Manchester City hammered the Reds 6-1. Sir Alex Ferguson’s team was also knocked out of the League Cup in the fifth round by Championship side Crystal Palace and failed to qualify from the group stages of the Champions League thanks to an away defeat at Basel. Then, for the first time in Young’s professional career, he faced a long spell on the side lines due to a Malleolar injury suffered in December 2011.
Young continued to have a positive influence on the team after his comeback the following February and was the man-of-the-match against Tottenham Hotspur, providing two goals and an assist in United’s 3-1 victory. While the Reds made up for an early season collapse with a strong run after Christmas, a similarly seismic breakdown occurred in April where Ferguson’s side dropped a seven point lead, enabling City to clinch a first title in 44 years.
The season felt like a failure, but Young had done enough to show that he was a useful squad player at least, chipping in with six goals and seven assists in 25 league appearances. Fans hoped for further improvement. It never came.
The winger missed the first two months of the 2012/13 season with a knee injury. In fact, from August 2012 to March 2016, Young spent 330 days on the sidelines with six separate injuries. In a stop-start period, he made just 83 appearances for the club, scoring five goals. It was during this underwhelming stage of the winger’s United career that supporters’ goodwill began to break. On Rant, the extortionate average cost of each goal or assist that Young has garnered has becoming something of a running joke.
It did not help that the few brief cameos the player made in this period were marred by accusations of diving. Both Ferguson and David Moyes addressed his habit of going over too easily. Fans could put up with imperfections if Young was performing in other areas, but the lack of end product and the consistent injuries led to increasing frustration with the Hertfordshire-born player.
After Moyes’ disastrous season at the club, Louis van Gaal deployed Young in a previously alien role at wing-back. On the opposite flank, Valencia underwent a similar transition. Like Young, the Ecuadorian enjoyed one very good season in a wide attacking position, but regressed afterwards. Ferguson used Valencia at right-back to give Rafael da Silva a break and Moyes continued the repositioning. By the time Van Gaal arrived at United, Valencia was deemed more of an attack-minded defender and no longer a midfielder.
Young, playing as a right-footed left wing-back, looked unconvincing in the early months of the 2014/15 season, but grew into the role. By the time the Manchester derby came around in April, Young looked comfortable running left flank and cutting inside to provide in-swinging crosses to the far post. He provided two assists and scored the equalising goal against City, earning a man-of-the-match award in a 4-2 victory.
It was in Van Gaal’s first season that the odd but effective Young-Marouane Fellaini partnership first blossomed. Young remained a one-trick attacking pony – cutting on to his right to curl a cross to the back post – but it did not stop him being effective, especially when the Dutchman’s Plan B involved Fellaini. As some have noted with the more talented Arjen Robben, knowing what he is going to do is one thing, stopping it is a different task altogether. Young is readable, but has often found enough space to float those curling balls into the back-stick.
In Van Gaal’s final season, Young’s transformation from winger to defensive utility player was complete, with the former Villa player deputising for the injured Antonio Valencia at right-back for much of November, December and January. Oddly, the Dutchman veered from this plan on occasion, deploying Young as a makeshift striker in United’s 3-0 loss to Tottenham Hotspur and in the FA Cup final against Crystal Palace.
José Mourinho’s arrival should have been a boon for the player, with the Portuguese often using utility-men through his career, but Young earned the least amount of minutes of any season at United despite missing just three matches through injury. With Luke Shaw, Daley Blind, Matteo Darmian and even Marcos Rojo all ahead of him in the pecking order, it took until April for Young to get a run of fixtures in the first team. Mourinho rewarded patience by handing the veteran the captain’s armband for United’s 2-0 home victory over Chelsea.
It was not until this season that Young became fully trusted at left-back. With Blind’s physicality not suited to the face-paced nature of the Premier league and Shaw exiled, Young became the preferred choice. He has repaid Mourinho’s faith with consistent performances on both flanks. The highlight of his season to date was the man-of-the-match performance at Vicarage Road, where Young scored twice. The first was a snapshot volley from the edge of the area that beat Heurelho Gomes at his near post, while the second was a beautifully bending free kick from 30 yards.
Since Watford, Shaw has come back in from the cold, now offering a rotation option alongside Young. The youthful Englishman has put in some promising displays, although at this point Young’s role as a useful utility player is beyond doubt.
Mourinho has made a habit of turning around tarnished reputations. First Fellaini, now Young and Jesse Lingard have proved their worth. Each lacks glamour, but Mourinho is no longer a glamorous manager either. Increasingly the United team is mimicking its manager in the most gritty and unfashionable way.
What Young lacks in technical ability he more than covers with work-rate and an ability to adapt to Mourinho’s gameplan. As one of the few surviving players from the Ferguson era, Young is one of the club’s senior players and Mourinho’s use of the 31-year-old as captain on occasion shows the respect he has earned.
In his youth Young was a bursty but unreliable force. It is only fitting that as he has matured his consistency and graft has become his most laudable asset.