Opinion: Time’s up for stalled Reds?

Manchester United

As the Manchester United squad begin their return to pre-season training, Jose Mourinho will have an early opportunity to assess his squad and decide who will make the cut this season. As he recently made clear, Mourinho prefers to operate a streamlined squad of 24 first team players, rather than the bloated groups associated with Louis van Gaal and David Moyes. This means a brutal cull could be on the horizon at Carrington which will have many players glancing over their shoulders. Chief among these are three players whose United careers seem to have stalled over the past few seasons.

Ashley Young

Ashley Young had been a talismanic presence for Aston Villa during a run that saw them finish sixth in the Premier League three seasons in a row. Cutting in from the left, his pace and finishing made him Aston Villa’s biggest threat. It was no surprise to see him earn a move to one of the “Big Four” of the era. Yet after a promising start, including scoring twice in the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal in August 2011, Young struggled to replicate this form in Manchester. He cut a frustrating figure over the next few years and quickly became a scapegoat of the decline under David Moyes. His signing is perhaps symptomatic of the short-termism that characterised the latter Ferguson era. Where players like Young and Robin van Persie arrived seemingly for the sole purpose of wrestling the title from the blue half of Manchester for another year.

As a result, Ashley Young has coasted through five years as a United player helped by managerial upheaval and reduced expectation. In his defence, his adaptability and professionalism have worked in his favour. He took to the unfamiliar role of wing-back better than most during the early days of Van Gaal’s doomed philosophy. He managed to produce some late career flourishes too. Including a man of the match performance in 4-2 victory over Manchester City in April 2015. Despite this, it is hard to see him surviving under Mourinho due to his advancing age and fading influence. The manager has already confirmed his preference for specialist players in each position. With much better options at full-back and in attack, it looks like time could be up for Ashley Young.

Phil Jones

Phil Jones is fast becoming the forgotten man at Manchester United. Identified by many clubs as a young player of huge promise, he was widely sought after when United made him one of their first signings in the summer of 2011. Unfortunately, things have not gone well for Jones since and he has been unable to lay claim to a permanent place in the starting XI under three successive managers. Hindered by an ever-lengthening injury record, he has been unable to take part in a staggering 84 league games for Manchester United. Jones looked like a star of the future when commanding the back four at Blackburn Rovers. Yet he failed to transfer this influence to a higher level throughout 104 appearances for the Red Devils.

At the age 24, Jones can no longer rely on the tag of “Youthful prospect” to shield him from criticism.  While these days central defenders can shine into their mid-thirties, Jones has yet to show any signs of approaching his prime. It seems unlikely now that he will make a mark at the highest level and the new manager’s preference for specialist players will present another obstacle. Jones will still harbour hopes of an extended run in the England team but to achieve this, he may have to take a step down to a Premier League club less burdened by scrutiny and expectation.

Antonio Valencia

It shouldn’t have worked but it did.  In the power vacuum created by the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, most people expected United to spend big on a world-class replacement. Instead, they signed the Ecuadorian from strugglers Wigan Athletic.  While eyebrows were raised at first, most would now agree that Valencia’s first few seasons in a United shirt were a success. The winger helped himself to nine assists in his first season. Highly effective 2011/12 and 2012/13 seasons in which he accrued 14 goals and seven assists respectively followed. Though unable to replace the finishing prowess of Ronaldo, he became integral in helping United move on from his influence.

He developed an excellent partnership with Wayne Rooney, leading to the striker’s highest league goal tally in 2010. This lethal combination eventually brought the title back to Old Trafford at a time when rivals were growing in strength. Yet Valencia has struggled under new management. His contribution to the United attack has faded so badly that he is now more likely to be deployed at right-back. While he has shown adaptability and sometimes performed well in a defensive role, he is too often caught out of position.  His work rate and commitment are never in doubt but he has come to represent a stop-gap in the right back position, rather than a genuine defensive option.

Valencia, like Young, seems to have been in limbo since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. With both Moyes and Van Gaal wary of losing his experience but unwilling to trust him in his best position. With younger, more promising options in both the full-back and wing positions, Valencia may struggle to get into the starting line up under Mourinho. Yet he can be proud of his Manchester United career. While it was expecting too much of him to banish the ghost of Ronaldo completely, Valencia managed to shift the focus and provide a basis to build a new, more functional, United.

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