The emancipation of Ashley Young
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.