Ashley Young isn’t so much a football player as a punchline. Have you heard the one about Tom Daley? Or the one about the dying swan? Well, you’ve surely heard the kick. That Young is a diver.
No Premier League player has such a toxic stigma attached to them. Young has become such a figure of hate at United that even his own fans have taken to booing and jeering him.
Sir Alex Ferguson once likened Young to Ryan Giggs, but the England international has largely failed to live up to his billing at Man Utd. And with Louis van Gaal’s arrival, most presumed Young’s exit would soon follow.
But Young has played a prominent role on United’s pre-season tour of the United States, though not as a winger; as a full-back. So, could the appointment of Van Gaal give Young something of a reprieve at Old Trafford? Is there a role for the 29-year-old with United?
Against Real Madrid in Detroit on Saturday—in front of a record 109,000 fans—United turned in their most complete performance under Van Gaal thus far. The European champions were distinctly second best as Darren Fletcher and Wayne Rooney controlled the contest—the 3-1 scoreline was a warranted one.
But it was the display of Young that caught the eye most. Played as a left wing-back against the likes of Gareth Bale and Isco Alarcon, he shone, applying the finishing touch to United’s opening goal—a 20-pass move through the Real back line.
Young was tireless in his energy up and down the left wing, providing an attacking outlet whilst also tracking back to fulfill his defensive responsibilities.
His crossing has been a consistent asset for United on tour, whether it be from the left or the right, where he played for most of Monday’s win over Liverpool. Remember, this is a player who played a significant role in the game of 81 largely aimless crosses against Fulham last February.
Wing-back has been an unfamiliar role for Young, but not a completely unsuited one.
“Ashley Young is a winger, but he is another type who can play wing-back and he did very well against Roma,” Van Gaal explained ahead of the game against Inter Milan. “He can play left and right side, but we shall see.”
United have been left somewhat shorthanded at left-back following the sale of both Alexander Buttner and Patrice Evra. The £27 million signing of 18-year-old Luke Shaw from Southampton appeared to have sorted out the position for the long term, but the short term isn’t so clear.
Van Gaal has already angled a barb at his only left-back, Shaw, who he claimed is short of fitness. “He needs to be fit and is not very fit and fit enough to do what I want,” the former Barca and Bayern Munich boss insisted. “He needs to train individually until he is fit.”
In the Dutchman’s 3-5-2 system fitness is essential, especially for the full-backs. It might be the case that Shaw isn’t ready yet for the United first-team.
“It’s been good to play in different positions,” Young said before the win over Real. “I can play in both wing-back positions and if the manager calls on me to do something I’ve got every confidence in myself.”
As a winger by trade, Young’s biggest strength has always been found in attack. And that’s where his biggest weakness might be as a wing-back.
When the real stuff starts as of Saturday, August 16, Young’s lack of defensive background might be found out. Pre-season means little in the context of the competitive season. Plus, United are still missing a number of key players as they take extended leave after the World Cup.
Yet if performances against Inter Milan, Roma, Real Madrid and Liverpool are anything to go by, Young could benefit most from the arrival of Van Gaal at Old Trafford.
Man Utd head home this week as winners of the grandly named International Champions Cup, but Young might well turn out to be the real winner of the club’s pre-season tour.