In a Manchester United side featuring Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial et al, few expected Ashley Young to be the difference maker against a talented Watford side. This is just the latest surprise turn in the oft-forgotten man’s late-career revival, writes Grant Jendo.
Wednesday night’s clash at Vicarage Road was billed as the battle of new versus old in the realm of Portuguese tacticians plying their trades in the Premier League, as Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United visited Marco Silva’s impressive Watford side.
Despite the away side’s supposed propensity for safety-first football, the game itself was a highly anticipated affair. It was thought that United’s formidable attack and resolute defence would have to play their part in equal measure to keep the exciting Hornets in check, and they did just that, as they found themselves 2-0 up inside the first 25 minutes.
While it was perhaps a surprise to see United start the game so well – when they have managed to pile on the goals this season, they have typically done so later in games – it was even more surprising to see Ashley Young’s name on the scoresheet not once, but twice, thanks to pair of beautiful goals.
The first came from an early-taken effort after some good work from Jesse Lingard, and while it’s tempting to wonder whether a goalkeeper younger than Heurelho Gomes might have gotten down low to his right a little quicker, the speed and accuracy of the shot should not go unappreciated.
The second came after Abdoulaye Doucoure yanked down Paul Pogba 25 yards from goal. Young, still high on the fumes of his near-post fizzer, took charge of the set-piece and whipped the ball up and over the wall from a central position, straight into Gomes’s top-right corner. The look on Mourinho’s face said it all: Not bad for a ‘left-back’. Not bad for Ashley Young.
Of course, all the post-match talk was about the man who opened the scoring. While many have seen Mourinho’s usage of the 32-year-old at left back as nothing but a slap in the face for Luke Shaw, the fact that Young has played so well there is a testament to his professionalism and adaptability. In other words, he is the the perfect Mourinho player.
According to WhoScored?, the game on Wednesday night was the ninth time this season that Young had played as either a fullback or a wingback on either side of the pitch, and the second time he had been named as their man of the match. While his average rating across all twelve appearances this season is an impressive 7.55, his average rating when playing in the aforementioned ‘defensive’ positions is a remarkable 8.01.
Such form and obvious utility potential explains Gareth Southgate’s decision to recall the wide man into the England fold for the recent (thrilling!) nil-nils against Germany and Brazil — his first caps since a rather more drab goalless draw in Ukraine at the end of 2013.
In his own words, Young would “prefer” to play higher up the pitch in the positions he made a name for himself from in his earlier spells at Watford, Aston Villa, and indeed his early days at Manchester United, but his willingness to adapt and survive has proved nothing but an asset, both for himself and the teams he plays for. That same never-say-die attitude at least partially explains how he has remained at the club through his prime years after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson — David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and especially Jose Mourinho have all found uses for the Stevenage native, long after many in the stands and in the media had written him off as a serial diver that did little to justify his place at Old Trafford.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) 28 November 2017
Whether he keeps up his form enough to truly become a mainstay in the United team remains to be seen – the rumour-based hive mind has already added two and two together, and have decided that Luke Shaw and Danny Rose should switch places in January – but such consistency is surely vital if he expects to be on the Three Lions’ plane to Russia, especially if his competition comes from Rose and the impressive Ryan Bertrand.
“I don’t just want a place in the squad, I want to be in the team,” Young has said of England. Like his managers, it would be wise to take him seriously.