Ashley Young has re-written history this season, his unexpected rebirth as Manchester United’s ad hoc left-back creating a different perspective to view an otherwise underwhelming Old Trafford career from.
Just 14 goals from all competitions during his first five seasons with the Red Devils was a modest return for an attacking player at a club of United’s stature, and in comparison to a level of form for Aston Villa that saw him twice make the Premier League Team of the Season. But a sudden revival in a defensive role at the age of 32 obliges the consideration of how differently Young’s United career could have panned out had the middle section not been dogged by injury problems, managerial upheaval and the negativity generated from accusations of being a serial diver.
Indeed, if this season has proved anything, it’s that Young is a talented, intelligent, diligent and extremely determined player. In nearly 200 appearances for United, there have been few instances in which he could be criticised for a lack of work-rate, but his commitment to the club has been even more prevalent amid a campaign in which he’s reinvented himself in a far less glamorous role to become one of the few mainstays of Jose Mourinho’s starting XI.
More pertinent than that is how surprisingly smooth the transition has been. While offensive-midfielders taking up full-back or wing-back positions has always been a common ploy to get the best out of ageing players, and an increasingly popular one in the Premier League over the last few years due to greater emphasis on attacking play and the wide adoption of three-man defences, it’s still somewhat unusual for one to so willingly embrace the defensive obligations of those roles so quickly, let alone fulfil them so effectively.
Indeed, for appearances at left-back and left wing-back only in the Premier League this season, Young ranks in the top ten for both tackles and interceptions per match, and he’s tellingly been the second-most present member of a United defence that has a conceded the second-fewest goals of any side in the division this term after match day captain Antonio Valencia.
Consequently, the fact he produced easily the best defensive performance of any left-back against Premier League joint-top scorer Mohamed Salah this season in Saturday’s Northwest derby is no fleeting coincidence – it was a clear encapsulation of how surprisingly effective the veteran wide-man has been in defence throughout 2017/18.
And coming on a weekend preceding Gareth Southgate’s squad announcement for upcoming friendlies with Italy and the Netherlands, during which Danny Rose limped off injured, Luke Shaw watched Young’s immaculate containment of Salah from the subs bench, Leighton Baines made his first Premier League start since November and Aaron Cresswell and Ryan Bertrand both played a part in their respective sides conceding three goals apiece, the Manchester United star’s form obliges the question of whether he’s now the standout candidate to line up on the left of England’s defence at the World Cup.
No doubt, Young can still be a little suspect defensively at times. In the Premier League this season, he’s been dribbled past once per match, which is the highest rate of any of his England left-back competitors and almost twice as much as Bertrand, despite Southampton being amid a disastrous season that could result in their relegation.
Competitiveness in the air is a problem as well – only Baines has won fewer aerial duels per match than Young while deployed as a left-back or left wing-back this season, and it was the 32-year-old who lost Wissam Ben Yedder at a corner as Sevilla claimed a shock 2-1 win over Manchester United in the Champions League on Wednesday night.
But in terms of offensive and defensive contributions, the effective combination of which is now what we mostly judge full-backs on, Young strikes an impressive balance and has done so more consistently in the Premier League than any English left-back this season. From the six options we’ve looked at, he’s first for tackles and interceptions per game, but also first for goals and second for assists, created chances per game and dribbles per game.
Perhaps just as importantly considering England’s eternal knack of placing their World Cup hopes in players lacking match sharpness, only Bertrand and Cresswell have made more top flight appearances than Young this season – and the latter has made just one less start as a centre-back than a wide defender during West Ham’s top flight campaign.
Young’s versatility alone – capable of playing at any level of the pitch on either flank – should earn him a spot in Southgate’s World Cup squad at a bare minimum, especially when coupled with the experience of 31 England caps and the fact his dead ball deliveries can rival any regular member of the current Three Lions setup; at the age of 32, he’s still easily one of the best crossers in the Premier League. But the ultimate question is whether, based on form this season, there’s any English left-back who justifiably deserves a place over Young in Southgate’s starting XI.
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