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Is Ashley Young’s Recent Renaissance Another False Dawn?

In Sir Alex Ferguson’s most recent autobiography, there were a lot of bombshells. From declaring that David Beckham’s “lust for celebrity” destroyed their relationship to mocking Arsene Wenger’s trophy drought. But one quote that always stood out to me was that Ashley Young was the player “signed to replace Ryan Giggs.” It is ludicrous to think that anyone could replace the Welshman and even more so to think of Young as the man to do so. But, the Englishman had put in some remarkable performances for Aston Villa and earned his 16million euro move to Old Trafford in 2011. During his first season at the club, Young contributed six goals and seven assists in 24 appearances for Ferguson’s side. A decent return highlighted by his incredible brace in an 8-2 victory over Arsenal. Unfortunately, this would prove to be Young’s high-point.

The following season, Young would struggle with injuries and inconsistent form. Ferguson’s retirement meant the introduction of a new manager and a potential new lease on life. However, things went from bad to worse for the next Ryan Giggs. By January of the 2013/14 season, rumors were flying that David Moyes was planning on selling both he and Anderson in the January window. Fortunately for him, his high wage demands put off a permanent move, but his time appeared to be up.

Then, enters Louis van Gaal into the picture. The Dutchman’s desire to play a three at the back system presented Young with the chance to reinvent himself. While many were skeptical that Young would have the work rate or tactical nouse to play as a wingback, it worked to perfection during the preseason. Especially in United’s 3-1 victory over Real Madrid where Young scored two goals. A difficult start to the season saw Van Gaal abandon three at the back and rotate between a 4-3-3 and a 4-5-1. With new signing Angel Di Maria struggling to adapt to his surroundings, the defensive manager saw value in Young’s willingness to track back.

During the 2014-2015 season, Young had four goals and six assists in 28 appearances. The former English international was especially effective during an 8-game stretch where United earned 20 points and looked real title challengers.

Over the next few season’s the influx of new talented players limited Young’s chances. However, there always seems to be a moment in each season where he pops up and proves his worth.

Flash forward to today and we are once again seeing an Ashley Young renaissance. Playing as both a wingback and as a fullback on both sides of the pitch, Young has been an important cogue in the busy month of September. Starting five of United’s seven matches and contributing 2 assists. With numerous options to play as a left fullback, nobody has asserted themselves. Allowing Young to, once again, demonstrate his worth.

While Young’s track record casts doubts over how long he can keep this level up, there are signs pointing to more sustainable success. Primarily, the way that Mourinho is using Young and the need for a player with his ability.

Against a poor Crystal Palace side, Young demonstrated his quality and ability to break down defensive opponents by playing a role in three of United’s four goals.

The first goal came after Young played a well-weighted through ball to Marcus Rashford in behind the defense. When Rashford circled back looking for options, Palace were slow to double team him with the threat of Young sitting slightly deeper. Knowing that if they leave him, he could put in a dangerous cross. This allowed Rashford to isolate his defender, beat him for pace and set up Juan Mata for the opening strike. While both Daley Blind and Luke Shaw are talented players, neither possess the consistent crossing threat of Young. His mere presence caused Palace to pause and were punished as a result.

On United’s second goal, those fears of Young’s left foot were validated. With Manchester United playing fairly-narrow and Rashford cutting inside, the ball made its way out to the left. With bodies in the box, Young was isolated on Andros Townsend. Having been a former winger, he still has the skills to shimmy and shake a defender and get space to cross. Because he is overlapping, it generally means the defenders who are one v one against him are attackers defending deep. This gives him a huge advantage and doesn’t require the same level of pace to beat more defensive fullbacks. Cutting in on his favored left foot, Young put in a fantastic cross which was finished off by Marouane Fellaini.

The third goal against Palace came after Young was once again isolated on the wing. After beating Townsend again, he nutmegged another player before being taken down. The subsequent freekick was taken by Rashford and headed home by Fellaini. Once again, Young’s time as a winger and his dangerous crossing provide United a much-needed cutting edge from out wide. An element they often lacked last season when teams would defend deep and demand crosses to be perfect to beat them. A serious injury sidelined Young for much of last season, however, recent matches have shown what United have been missing.

With United fighting on multiple fronts and the need to break down difficult sides, there is no reason that Young’s return to form shouldn’t continue. While he is unlikely to start against top level competition, a more defensively minded player would be preferred, his role in the side will be important going forward.

Young’s legacy at United is complicated. He came at a time of transition, change, and upheaval. However, his ability to continually reemerge and contribute to the side should not be taken for granted. If his recent return to form is yet another flash in the pan, United fans should enjoy it while they have the chance. Remember, you don’t know what you got until it’s gone.

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