One of the key men in Manchester United’s resurgence of late is Ashley Young. Since moving to Manchester, the former Aston Villa winger has had a rough time but under new manager, Louis van Gaal, the 29 year-old seems to have rediscovered the form that prompted the move to Old Trafford. Rahul Natrajan gives an account of Young’s United comeback.
If someone had told me at the start of the season that Angel Di Maria would be kept out of Manchester United’s starting line up by none other than Ashley Young, I would have laughed in their face. Champions League winner and Man of the Match in the final, British transfer record holder, Angel Di Maria, struggling to displace Ashley Young, a player whom the majority of United fans would’ve been ecstatic to see leave the club in the summer transfer window. But this seemingly absurd claim is very much the reality, as Di Maria has had to be content with a substitute’s role from the bench as Ashley Young has been an integral part of Manchester United’s dramatic revival in form.
Sir Alex Ferguson revealed in his autobiography that he had bought Ashley Young from Aston Villa in 2011 to replace club legend Ryan Giggs. While Young certainly impressed during his time at Villa, being nominated to the PFA Premier League Team of the Year twice as well as winning the Young Player of the Year for the 2008/09 season, many were underwhelmed by this transfer. Furthermore, the price of nearly 20 million pounds seemed exorbitant for a player in the last year of his contract, and it seemed as if Manchester United had once again paid over the odds because of the “English premium”. Young undoubtedly enjoyed a bright start to his United career, prowling down the left just as a certain Welshman did for the Red Devils for over two decades. The highlight of his first season, in which he scored 8 goals, was the 8-2 thrashing of Arsenal, where the Watford academy graduate scored two brilliant goals. Those goals epitomized Young at his best: a right-footed Robben, an inverted winger cutting onto his favored foot before curling long-range efforts into the top corner. But as his Manchester United career progressed, these comparisons certainly could be deemed laughable. The truth dawned on every United fan: Ashley Young was no Arjen Robben.
In Ferguson’s last season, Young went goalless and was constantly derided. The doubts about his quality which many held prior to his signing were vindicated as Young was revealed to be a one-trick pony. Unfortunately, unlike Robben, he wasn’t very good at that one trick either. As criticism of his performances increased, the Englishman was caught up in another controversy: the dark arts of simulation, or in other words, diving. Young’s reputation took a massive hit and an exit seemed to be inevitable. Whereas David Moyes was seemingly willing to give every player in the squad a chance to prove themselves, the “Iron Tulip” Louis van Gaal came in with the reputation of making ruthless decisions. After the disastrous performance in the 2013/14 season, a revitalization of Manchester United’s squad was necessary, and deadwood was likely to be culled. Surely, thought United fans around the world, Ashley Young would be near the top of that list. The change that seemed would finally signal the long awaited end for Young was Can Gaal’s proclamation that United would switch to a 3-5-2; a formation that had no place for traditional wingers.
With a lack of true options at wing-back, however, Young was given a stay of execution. And the Englishman took the opportunity with aplomb: Young was one of the stars of United’s successful pre-season tour of the United States, capping a fine tournament with a brace against Real Madrid. With concerns surrounding Luke Shaw’s fitness, Young cemented a starting berth at left wing-back. Injuries cut short his first spell in the starting XI, but a tenacious performance away at the Emirates after Shaw succumbed to injury saw Young return to the first team. His return coincided with an upturn in results for Van Gaal’s team, even though the actual performances themselves were dull. Regardless of how the team was playing, Young consistently shone. The 3-5-2 called for all-action performances from the wing-backs, and Young rose to the task; offensively, the Englishman was always an outlet, bombing down the left and whipping in dangerous crosses. Despite his lack of defensive experience, Young’s determination and work ethic made up for his inadequacies and transformed Young into an invaluable part of the Dutchman’s system.
In a team filled with expensive stars, Young was trusted because he followed orders, a quality Louis van Gaal highly values. The former Netherlands national team manager has been criticized for a number of high profile conflicts with former players, but these isolated incidents have overshadowed Van Gaal’s remarkable man-management skills. Key to United’s recent success has been the resurgence of players like Marouane Fellaini, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Chris Smalling, and of course, Ashley Young. These players, at points in their Manchester United’s careers, had found themselves out of favor. Now, these five are an integral part of United’s late season form. For Young specifically, Van Gaal worked his magic in pre-season. Young was told that he was regarded as one of the senior players in the squad, and was expected to take on tremendous responsibility in a team that was now without senior figures such as Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, and Rio Ferdinand. Young responded well to the faith and trust placed in him by the new manager; a far cry from David Moyes, who had openly criticized the winger for diving.
Much like Fellaini, Young has always been a confidence player; one of the most frustrating aspects of his play in past seasons had been his reluctance to take on defenders. The winger would continually get into attacking positions, cut onto his right, but instead of delivering the ball into the box, he would turn back and lay off the ball to another player. The Ashley Young we see today has been unafraid of taking on his man; and now, whether through skill, pace, or sheer determination, he often succeeds. With the recent shift to the 4-3-3, Young has been incredible at left wing; he has scored two crucial goals and delivered two trademark assists in recent games. Furthermore, the triangle he has formed on the left with Blind or Shaw and Fellaini has given United a numerical advantage down the flanks and in the attacking third. This combination play has been one of the biggest reasons for Young’s continued inclusion over Di Maria; while the Argentine is undoubtedly a world-class player, the former Real Madrid man is a soloist, but Van Gaal’s philosophy has always preached teamwork. And in Young, the Dutchman has someone who might not be as talented as the mercurial 59.7 million pound man, but instead, he has a player who is willing to be a piece in his complicated philosophy puzzle.
With rumors emerging of a new three year deal that will take Young into his thirties at United, it is clear the Englishman has secured his future at the club he seemed certain to leave. Of course, his place in the starting XI isn’t secure in the long term: every United fan yearns to see Di Maria successfully integrated into Van Gaal’s team, and furthermore, there has been reported interest in Dutch starlet Memphis Depay, another left winger. Both players are exciting, dynamic; both are certainly closer to what United fans would imagine the rightful heir to Giggs throne to be. Having said that, Young has displayed something in his performances that will endear him to the Old Trafford faithful for the rest of his time in Manchester: passion. I was lucky enough to be at Old Trafford for the Manchester Derby, sitting in the corner above the goal where Young bundled in a scrappy equalizer. As the stadium erupted, Young wheeled away to the fans, clutching the United badge. In a time where football is dominated by money-grabbing mercenaries, it is refreshing and energizing to see a player who understands what it means to play for this famous club. With a return to Champions League football looming, the resurgence of Ashley Young has been one of the stories of the season for Manchester United.
Written by Rahul Natrajan