First of all, let’s establish perhaps one of the most astonishing stats of this season so far: Ashley Young has started United’s last seven games in all competitions. Not surprising enough? Well, how about this: he’s done so primarily at left-back or left wing-back. Still not shocked? Here’s one for size: Ashley Young has been called up to the England squad to face Germany and Brazil, after a four year absence.
Most seasoned Manchester United fans would not be extremely surprised at any of the facts mentioned above, but the rebirth of the 32-year old winger as a solid option at left-back has bemused many in the wider footballing world. Ashley Young’s United career had become a bit of an afterthought in recent seasons: he did pick up niggling injuries which made him unavailable for significant periods of time, but even when fit, he was never thought of as essential to the side, or even as a backup option, at least by the fans. Now in his seventh season at Old Trafford, Young has been enjoying his strongest run in the side since probably his debut season, which was also probably his best. He made 33 appearances that season, and scored eight goals, both totals being his highest so far at United. The two-near identical goals he scored into the top corner in the memorable 8-2 demolition of Arsenal that season promised a lot, but United’s newest fullback is now delivering in ways even he probably wouldn’t have imagined back then.
Jose Mourinho loves a player who does a job for him and follows instructions down to the letter. That explains why both Marouane Fellaini and Young have had such a resurgence in their United careers under him, and both have also earned respect, albeit begrudgingly, from the fans for their visible effort on the pitch. United’s left side has been a problem position for a while now, ever since Patrice Evra left the club. Luke Shaw has unfortunately been cursed by injury, but he does not appear to have Mourinho’s trust even when fit, and what looked like being an extremely successful career at United will probably peter out with a whimper this summer. Daley Blind, for all his footballing gifts, is not fast or strong enough to play the role as modern football demands. Matteo Darmian, who is a right-back by trade, is a purely defensive option, who plays when Mourinho’s only strategy is to stop the opposition from scoring. Given the paucity of options, it is perhaps surprising that United didn’t attempt to sign a left-back this summer, especially in the context of their “noisy neighbours” spending close to 140 million on fullbacks. Perhaps Mourinho hoped that Shaw would finally step up this season. However, it has been Young who has stepped into the breach, and admirably so. He’s provided the side with the pace that was sorely lacking on the left, while his crossing ability is a welcome addition, especially with Romelu Lukaku leading the line. More surprisingly, he has been quite competent defensively as well, whether playing at left-back or as a wing-back. Antonio Valencia’s reinvention as a fullback on the opposite flank provides the template for Young, and it’s a measure of Mourinho’s trust in him that he captained United against CSKA Moscow earlier this season, after Paul Pogba went off injured. Gareth Southgate’s decision to add him to the England squad, in a World Cup year, is further proof of his rapid rise in his new position.
Young has come across as a team player: he didn’t moan when he wasn’t selected, and even now when playing in an unfamiliar position, he’s simply put his head down and got on with it. It’s an oft-repeated cliché that most title-winning teams need players like Young; players who may not be the most talented but provide tenacity, graft and passion. United’s recent history provides many examples, from Darren Fletcher and Wes Brown to John O’Shea and Park ji-Sung. All of the aforementioned players are fan favourites, and the former Watford and Villa winger could join this group if he keeps up his current form. Just not in the position or role that he must have envisaged when he signed for United.