Ashley Young reborn at United with a sense of confidence and belief
Brace yourselves: This article is in praise of Ashley Young.
In every squad, there are inevitably players who find themselves on the fringes, sometimes surprisingly so. It might make many people double-take now, but Young was once among the leading assist providers in the Premier League and one of the elite wingers in the division. Able to beat his marker with either quick feet or acceleration, capable of superb delivery into the box either on the run or from dead-ball situations, his skills made him a threat both on the counterattack and against deep lying defences.
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The footballer whom Sir Alex Ferguson bought for 16 million pounds in June 2011 turn ranked as one of the club's most sensible acquisitions: an England international with the ability to play anywhere across the forward line, with the technical gifts and tactical intelligence to contribute greatly to another era of success at Old Trafford.
Well, of course, it hasn't quite worked out like that. Young was outstanding in a few games in his debut season, most notably the 8-2 home victory over Arsenal, and even when not at his best he still managed to conjure spectacular match-changing moments. Yet this was as promising as it would get. The next season, United would claim the Premier League title almost in spite of the form of Young and his fellow wingers. Between him, Nani and Antonio Valencia, they only managed to score a handful of goals in 80-odd games. He followed up this sustained passage of abject form with a similarly muted showing at the 2012 European Championships. Thereafter, he fell from grace to the extent that his appearance on the team sheet was often greeted with concern.
Fast forward a year and Young is a left-back who saved Manchester United two points with a terrific goal-line clearance against Stoke City. Reacting swiftest of all to aid goalkeeper David de Gea, he forced the ball clear and preserved Manchester United's 2-1 advantage, thus keeping them in fourth place in the Premier League with a game against third-placed Southampton next up. Young, once a player whose floundering form cost his team valuable momentum, had suddenly become one who had helped to maintain their charge towards the Champions League places. For him, there may be some small sense of redemption in all this.
A particularly painful thing about Young's struggles at Old Trafford is that he is one of the division's more likeable players. From turning up to watch his old club Watford's youth games to arranging box seats for a terminally ill Manchester United fan, he has shown the type of social responsibility that is too little expected of the modern footballer. That may be an unfair perception of players in general, but at least Young has done much to challenge those notions.
His lack of arrogance is the type of thing that makes supporters wish him well, with his struggles seen as exasperating rather than anything else. When Louis van Gaal arrived at Old Trafford, though, he must have been expecting that he would be quickly shipped somewhere else. His redeployment as a left wing-back in preseason was a surprise to many, and though his excellent form then did not carry over into some of the season's early games, he has latterly justified Van Gaal's faith.
Standing in for the injured Luke Shaw, he was part of United's resilient rear guard against Arsenal and then dealt very competently with both Hull and Stoke. His team conceded only two goals in that period, claiming three wins. That is a defensive CV of which most full-backs in the Premier League would be proud. On the other flank is Valencia, who has been similarly reinvented after his form suffered a similar collapse. Neither of these players has a long-term future as a starter at Old Trafford, but their recent diligence in roles that they may not initially have relished reflects as well on them as it does on Van Gaal.
Young, for his part, even looked briefly like his Villa self against Stoke, cutting in dangerously once or twice from the touchline and perhaps bewildering his opposite man who wondered why this left-back was running at him like a winger.
If there is one thing connecting him, Marouane Fellaini and Wayne Rooney at present, it is the freedom with which they are playing their football. (For example, there was a back-heeled pass by Fellaini against Chelsea that had an audacity of which many supporters thought him incapable.)
It is also noteworthy that both Young and Fellaini have recently been sufficiently emboldened to be vocal about their team's chances of finishing in the top three. This is very possibly a bravery borne out of their renewed self-confidence. They might now see themselves not as the inhibitors of Manchester United's bright new future but as those who might help to enable it.
Perhaps this fearlessness in self-expression is the "philosophy" that Van Gaal was talking about. If so, much more of it is welcome.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.