Around this time last year I spoke to many Liverpool fans who were seriously disappointed that Ashley Young had joined Manchester United instead of the Merseyside outfit. I wonder if they feel quite as strongly now.
The winger, signed from Aston Villa, is one of those players who draws vastly varying opinions depending on who you speak to. Highly valued of late at international level, Young played every minute of England’s campaign at EURO 2012, despite some highly questionable performances along the way.
He has been a peripheral presence in his first season at Manchester United. Yes, injuries have obstructed his forward momentum, at critical times. But a niggling notion remains among some that Young simply doesn’t have enough technique or guile to make a real difference at the very top. Some would say that the few belters he did score for Manchester United last season glossed over an average year from an average player.
I could sit on the fence here, but you don’t really want that. I’m not convinced by him. He’s obviously a really good pro who looks after himself superbly and has a great engine. But he seems more athlete than artist. More workman than wizard.
Of course every team needs a good balance between string pullers and water carriers. But most Manchester United fans expect to see their wingers doing more of the former than the latter. As a winger, Young rarely beats his man anymore and too frequently turns back towards his defence when supplied with the ball. Anyone can pass a football 5 yards back to Patrice Evra. But that’s not enough at Old Trafford – home to some of the most fearsome wingmen in the history of the game.
Young is tidy as long as he’s not being put under pressure but, as EURO 2012 demonstrated perfectly, he can look out of his depth when tasked with making an impression, never mind changing a tight game. Manchester United fans have become accustomed to wingers who get the ball, turn and try to shred the opposition like a chainsaw through slow boiled cabbage. Kanchelskis, Sharpe, Giggs, Beckham, Ronaldo, Nani, Valencia, even Park did this time and again. They had the ability and the confidence in their ability to make the strikers’ jobs easy.
We think that Young has it all to do if he is to avoid becoming a sparingly used squad man, coming into the team to do a job at home against lower table teams, in order to give the first eleven players a weekend off. United fans won’t mind Young giving the ball away at times as long as he plays progressive, attacking, exciting football instead of playing it safe in fear of losing possession and ending up with a face full of al fresco egg.
When Rafael, Smalling and Jones return to relieve Valencia of his defensive duties, Nani and the Ecuadorian will offer a very strong case for the wing berths. Valencia wasn’t given the number 7 shirt to sit on the bench with. And if Nani is ever to fulfil his brilliant potential and gain consistency and maturity it has to be this season. So this could well be a critical season in Young’s Manchester United career. If he doesn’t start to show more elan, more belief, more adventure and more attacking intent, he might soon be considered as as little more than an understudy at the club.