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Richard Jolly profile picture Posted by Richard Jolly
Aug 13, 2014

Young's renaissance a foil for youth

Ashley Young produced a two-goal, man-of-the-match performance against Real Madrid in the International Champions Cup.

It was revisionist yet populist. Wingers have played an integral part in Manchester United's history. From Billy Meredith to Ryan Giggs, via George Best, the flair players on the flanks have offered an attacking threat and illuminated their greatest teams. So Louis van Gaal indicated he was ripping up the rulebook when he marked his arrival at Old Trafford by dispensing with wingers.

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If it showed the Dutchman was no traditionalist, it also had obvious appeal. David Moyes' limited tactics were epitomised by the addiction to witless crossing that led United to put the ball into the Fulham box 82 times in January's draw.

Some of his wingers almost rivaled Tom Cleverley and Marouane Fellaini in the unpopularity stakes: Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Nani were all underachievers. Others, such as Juan Mata, Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck, weren't really wingers at all and presumably welcomed the switch to a 3-4-1-2 system that accommodates three central attacking players.

So if Van Gaal's tactical switch seemed to sound the death knell for Young's United career, the sense was few mourned. Even Wilfried Zaha, wayward but marginalised, appeared more deserving to many: He did not belong in the "tried and failed" bracket.

Hired as one of the most productive wingers in the Premier League, Young went 19 months without a goal before scoring at Stoke in December. The days when Martin O'Neill mentioned him in the same breath as Lionel Messi seem ever more distant, even if his persistent diving was reminiscent of Neymar.

Instead, Van Gaal's appointment has brought an unexpected renaissance and reinvention. It would be an exaggeration to brand Young's two-goal performance against Real Madrid Messi-esque -- preseason encounters don't exactly have the same gravitas as Clasico meetings -- but there was still something remarkable about it.

ESPN FC's Stuart Holden and Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard don't share the same view on Manchester United's title chances this season.

Young was the man of the match against the European champions; it is not a sentence many thought they would read. Nevertheless, he was genuinely, irrationally impressive.

Summer friendlies can produce such unusual outcomes -- the Manchester City misfit Scott Sinclair scored against AC Milan -- but the more telling element is that Young has excelled in a new role.

Winger has become wing-back. It seems a product of circumstances, rather than part of any grand design on Van Gaal's part. But as Rafael da Silva, Luke Shaw and Valencia have been struggling with injuries, Young could start the league campaign as the preferred available option in both wing-back positions.

As he has not played a competitive game, some may quibble at the notion it is a transformation in his fortunes, but it has the feel of a revival. Nani, Kagawa and Zaha were bit-part players in preseason. Young grasped the chance to push forward in the queue for places.

And the United squad may belatedly be grasping the reality that the arrival of a new manager offers new opportunities. Only David de Gea, already established in the side, and Januzaj, who may have broken through anyway, enhanced their cases during Moyes' reign.

Twelve months later, Young, Darren Fletcher and Tyler Blackett have ranked among the beneficiaries of Van Gaal's appointment. Unworried by conventional wisdom, unburdened by preconceptions, the quixotic Dutchman has proved willing to experiment.

Young's energy has proved an asset as a wing-back. It is notable that, while Van Gaal has said that Shaw needs to be fitter, the older Englishman reached the byline to cross for Wayne Rooney to win a rather dubious penalty against Valencia on Tuesday; it is a position in which his influence has to stretch across 100 yards.

ESPN FC's Stuart Holden speculates what might have caused Luke Shaw's injury and the impact his absence will have on Manchester United.

His two goals against Real came when deployed on the left, allowing him to cut in and use his preferred right foot. If one recent tactical trend has been for inverted wingers, Young may prove an inverted wing-back, even if the signing of Shaw and the interest in Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind indicate Van Gaal prefers a left-footer on that side.

Whichever flank he has occupied, a man accustomed to operating in the final third and having a full-back behind him has learned quickly, but there have been reminders Young is a novice defender. He was caught on his heels when Raheem Sterling darted inside him, leading Phil Jones to concede a penalty, in United's 3-1 win over Liverpool.

The fixture list may afford him the chance to continue his education in games where, because United ought to flourish, he can be more of a winger than a full-back. Yet logic suggests Young will struggle against high-class opponents at some stage and a four-week period in October and November when United face Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal could bring trial by Eden Hazard, David Silva and Santi Cazorla.

Any wing-back's other worry is that opponents will double up against him -- a probable ploy for Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar when Everton visit Old Trafford -- and greater tests await.

Perhaps, whether because of Valencia, Rafael, Shaw or some signings, Young will not be on the team by then. Maybe he is a stopgap solution, a proof of Van Gaal's pragmatism or a player in a brief bloom who will soon revert to type.

Yet in the short term, anyhow, he appears essential. For all the talk about how United's new manager, who has promoted inexperienced players before, will promote youth, actually, he may favour Young.

Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.

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