You could outline a number of reasons to help explain Manchester United’s impressive run of form in the last couple of months. The performances of Michael Carrick, the easing of their injury crisis, or the compatibility of their 3-4-3 all bare true in different ways.
But Ashley Young has contributed to that immensely. Not in the sense that he can be solely attributed for that improvement, more he’s made a decent contribution to their collective overall progress.
In recent times he’s been vilified quite cynically. The cheating, diving, under-performing flop who so epitomised the performances of Sir Alex Ferguson’s old guard failing to really be of any value in the new David Moyes era. His tendency to dive accentuated that portrayal greatly making him almost a poster boy for it. In fact, look at the headline of the sport’s section of the Daily Telegraph, per say, from a couple of days ago, and an image of Young accompanies a diving-related headline.
For a £16m acquisition you can understand where aspects of frustration lie. He’s neither supremely skillful nor exceptionally quick, more a jack of all trades; adept at crossing but not an expert, athletic to a point but not indefatigable, intelligent but not a dependable outlet for creativity.
Instead, that universality, as such, allows him to be played in a variety of roles. He’s mainly been a winger for most of his career, but started as England’s no.10 at Euro 2012. His evolution (or perhaps de-volution) to being a wingback with a range of defensive duties has helped him re-emerge slowly.
That change has been a product of Louis Van Gaal’s successful implementing of a 3-4-3. It appears so far that the Dutchman has been able to accommodate everybody by just playing as many attacking players in his team as possible. Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney have both shifted backwards into a defensive three and midfield two, while Antonio Valencia, in line with Young, has also taken up an identical role on the opposite side.
You can’t grant Van Gaal too much credit for this, though. One feels the move was forced as opposed to planned in Luke Shaw’s absence. But still, against Stoke on Thursday, Young was moved to the right in place of Valencia to ease Shaw back into the side, a recognition of his merit in performing that wingback role effectively.
And in tactical terms, what can in no way be understated is the great importance of wingbacks in making a 3-4-3 work. Playing three at the back effectively allows you to play two up front and three in midfield simultaneously, and sacrifices players out wide. Young and Valencia have had to operate those flanks alone, which requires a positional nous and a physical aptitude. If they lose their individual battles out wide against their opposite men, the formation as a whole folds.
Cast an eye over Young’s performance in the first half of United’s 0-0 draw at Tottenham last week to see how he single handledy allowed United to control that game. They really should have been out of sight by half time. In possession, Young always seemed further ahead of Andros Townsend, the Spurs winger sharing that flank with him, baring down on Vlad Chiriches, forcing Townsend away from United’s goal well into his own half. Yet without the ball Young was always back in line with his defensive three, with Townsend having no chance to ignite an attack. By dominating that flank, Rooney, Carrick and Juan Mata could pull the strings in the centre of midfield.
Reports at the moment seem to imply that he’s sustained an injury, which is a shame, because his recent form has been deserving of a greater, more sustained reward. The nature of United’s squad means holding down a spot with Angel Di Maria, Shaw, and potentially Marcos Rojo in that position will be near on impossible- its not unfeasible to think that Young won’t get back in the team now.
But if form is anything to go by, the England-outcast is more deserving than any of them in that left wingback role.