Ashley Young the 'villain' key to Man United revival vs. Man City
Of all the intriguing twists to emerge from last weekend's Manchester derby, perhaps the most notable was that Manchester United's second-half comeback, from 2-0 down to win 3-2, was spearheaded by Ashley Young.
Several outlets in the UK media reported that it was Young whose rousing words -- reminding his teammates of the pride of the club's badge -- galvanised the United team during the break. But at first glance, he seems an unlikely talisman.
In 2015, when he was in the midst of a diving scandal, Roy Keane referred to him as "an absolute disgrace" and, as recently as February this year, Keane identified Young's deployment at left-back as a tactical problem for the team.
Yet despite this, Young helped to inspire a turnaround almost as dramatic as any Old Trafford has seen in recent memory, sparing his side the psychological torment of being thrashed before Manchester City's coronation as champions.
Perhaps, though, we should not be so surprised. Young was a pivotal figure in one of the most impressive performances of Louis van Gaal's time at United: the 4-2 win over City, in which he both scored and provided the intensity that has won him the respect of many supporters.
He has a taste for this kind of fixture; a reverence for the importance of this rivalry. Like Antonio Valencia, he is also one of Old Trafford's great survivors in recent seasons. Like Valencia, seeing that his days as a winger for the club were limited, he allowed himself to be recast as a full-back, a role he has performed with great diligence and every so often with great distinction.
Unlike Valencia, though, Young has a temperament comparable to that of Ander Herrera -- that is to say, a nasty streak. Accusations of gamesmanship have always followed him, and -- it must be said -- often fairly. Against City, he did little to make himself more loveable, evading one penalty award for a first half handball and another in the second half -- which a better-sighted referee might also have rewarded with a red card -- for an eye-watering challenge on Sergio Aguero that went unpunished in the box.
Young isn't the most obvious choice for the team villain, just as Herrera doesn't seem like he should be the team's key enforcer. Yet both players, having arrived as elegant and delicate ballplayers, have taken to the murkier areas of their craft with relish.
It must be remembered Young came to Old Trafford as an elusive forward who could drift anywhere across the front line to great effect, most devastatingly in that 8-2 win over Arsenal. Now the 32-year-old is a snarling and loyal lieutenant. And, reaching the end of his seventh season at United having played almost 200 games for the club, he can now claim to have veteran status.
Yet, despite how Young drove his team to a famous and unexpected triumph at the weekend, there is still a sense that he is only a transitional solution at left-back - though, this being post-Sir Alex Ferguson United, these transitions seem to be taking unusually long.
On a different day he would have been penalised severely for his transgressions. More broadly, with him in this role United lack the attacking thrust that would make them a consistent threat to City.
It is no coincidence that when City invested heavily in their full-backs, their attack truly came to life, with Kyle Walker and Bernard Mendy allowing City to push the play several yards higher up the field at a single stroke.
Following the derby, Paul Pogba expressed disappointment that United had not performed at this level all year, saying that if they had done so they would have been top of the league. Yet Pogba would know that it is not possible to play at that tempo every week. What they need more of is a structure that places them more often and more dangerously in the opposition's final third -- since they have currently scored 12 fewer than Liverpool in the Premier League, and 27 fewer than City.
One of the more startling statistics was that although United scored three, they had only five attempts on goal. City had 20. Over the course of a season, that weight of chances eventually falls in a club like City's favour.
For United to progress, Young will probably have to take a more minor role at the club over time. For now, though, he has done something crucial -- with his combative, relentlessly competitive nature, he has helped to remind United who they can be at their best.
And if United are still in need of an extra gear, Young can safely say that he has helped them to recover their momentum.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.