When David Moyes was sacked as Manchester United manager, the general consensus agreed that although the Scot was terribly out of his depth, his cause wasn't helped by a band of woefully inept players who were either ageing, out of form or simply not good enough.
Marouane Fellaini quickly became the poster boy of Moyes's failed tenure: an overpriced and oversized lump who had no business playing for a club of United's stature.
Tom Cleverley, Anderson, Nani and several others also had fingers pointed at them. And then there was Ashley Young, the one-trick pony and unrepentant diver who repeatedly felt the ire of Old Trafford.
Watching Young play for United last season was frustrating; the constant running down blind alleys, not getting his head up enough and subsequent lack of end product.
Louis van Gaal’s appointment meant most United players got a clean slate to start afresh, but surely there was no way players like Young were going to survive the Dutchman’s rebuilding clear-out.
What followed has been nothing short of remarkable, however, and more cynical minds would assume Young’s Old Trafford renaissance is all just elaborate wizardry. From being on the scrapheap, Young has seen himself become a vital cog of a United machine that's roaring back to life.
It’s a turnaround that has surprised many, but the man himself has attributed it all to following simple instructions. “I’ve just listened to what the manager said,” shrugged the former Aston Villa winger. “He wanted to play me and I wanted to go out and repay him.”
Alongside the formerly maligned Fellaini, Young has become the most improved player at the club, and perhaps even Van Gaal’s best and most consistent outfielder this season.
United’s pre-season trip to the United States was Van Gaal’s first chance to assess his squad options and the Dutchman, as expected, played the 3-5-2 system that had served his Netherlands team so well at the World Cup in Brazil. Young was deployed at left-wing back, a position he was totally unfamiliar with, but the 29-year-old excelled in his new role. The Englishman returned four goals – two of them against European champions Real Madrid – and a series of useful deliveries and dribbles during the tour.
Granted, pre-season tours are commercial ventures that merely offer a chance for international supporters to see their heroes in the flesh, but Young’s performances across the pond provided Van Gaal with a welcome alternative. Add in summer signing Luke Shaw’s fitness concerns at the start of the season, and the wideman had his path cleared. All he had to do was take the opportunity, which he has done so with impressive aplomb.
The introduction of 3-5-2 was considered left-field and continental within the British press, and it drew criticism for Van Gaal. The players themselves were ill-suited for the system and United suffered as a result.
In the midst of this, however, Young was impressing, quietly showing aptitude and enthusiasm for his new manager’s methods. Sometimes during the first half of the season, he was the only member of the United squad with at least half an idea of understanding this seemingly alien system.
Subsequently, Young enjoyed a nine-game run in the team in various positions – left-wing-back, right-wing-back and on both flanks further forward – until a hamstring problem at Stoke on January 1 kept him out of the side for a number of weeks.
It's been a season of two halves at United, and the team’s upturn in form has coincided with Van Gaal being able to pick from a largely healthy squad. In seasons gone by, this would have meant Young being frozen out, but instead he has only gone from strength to strength.
Van Gaal’s selection riches have seen him implement the conventional four-man backline and results have improved markedly, with United now on a six-game Premier League winning streak.
Young has been at the forefront of this change in fortune, this time as a more orthodox right winger, which is a glowing testament to his incredible versatility. The 3-0 win over Tottenham saw United finally click into gear with Fellaini and Wayne Rooney playing starring roles, but it was in the previous game at Newcastle that Young proved his worth. For the best part of the match, United were tepid and slow in possession until Young bailed them out with an 89th-minute winner for his first league goal of the season.
The following game – the FA Cup quarter-final loss to Arsenal – proved to be decisive for Young, and by extension, United’s season. Their £59.7 million record signing Angel Di Maria, saddled by off-field issues, had been out of form for an extended period and his torrid spell reached a new low when he got himself sent off.
Juan Mata was brought back in from the cold to start the Spurs game on the right with Young shifted to the other flank. Mata’s display in that win cemented his place in the side, and with Young continuing his rich vein of form, Di Maria had to settle for a place among the substitutes. And that's the way it's stayed.
Ashley loves derby
The crowning moment in Young’s Old Trafford revival came in the 4-2 derby win over Manchester City on Sunday, and showed exactly why Sir Alex Ferguson paid Aston Villa £17 million for his services back in 2011. It was perhaps Young’s brightest performance in a United shirt, even better than his display in 2011's 8-2 win over Arsenal, a game in which he scored two stunning curlers.
Against City he started on the left and formed a formidable tag team with Fellaini as both men wreaked havoc among City’s brittle backline.
Young scurryed around the pitch all quick feet and deceptive invention, making an honest opponent out of Pablo Zabaleta. He capped a brilliant display with the equaliser and recorded assists for Fellaini and Smalling’s goals. “He was fantastic,” beamed Van Gaal. “He was our best player. I am very happy for him.”
It won’t be long now until the calls for his return to the England setup become louder, and surely Roy Hodgson, in attendance at Old Trafford on Sunday, must be thinking of including him in his squad for games against the Republic of Ireland and Slovenia in June.
From being on his way out of Manchester United to effectively condemning Di Maria to the substitutes' bench, it’s been a truly unexpected turnaround. Perhaps those bird droppings were lucky after all.
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