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Luckily at United, a winning and successful club, fans’ favourites tend to far outweigh the scapegoats. One player who’s flirted with the latter though is Ashley Young, so much so that many seem to feel he is expendable. However, like it or not, Young has a role to play in this squad.
Maybe it’s the Football Manager craze (guilty!) or the clamour to appear knowledgeable online but there seems to have been an increase in the number of names assigned to playing roles, particularly in the central areas: trequartista, regista, enganche, mediano etc. Sure, these terms may have existed for a long time but their entrance into mainstream football terminology is a relatively recent phenomenon. Aside from annoy some people they have highlighted just how many different types of players play in the same areas – a very obvious observation but it creates conversation.
The two obvious areas for having a variety of styles are in the middle and up front. At United, one of the areas to have most diversity is in the wings, and we’re better for it. As a generalisation, the use of players in wide areas has changed a lot over the last 10 years. It’s become more common to have players who aren’t out-and-out wingers, rather, players who spend more time in-field before cutting out or players who have emphasis placed on supporting a striker. The idea of freedom and fluidity, maybe made increasingly popular by Spain and Barcelona of late has crept into the systems of numerous teams, including our own U21 side.
It’s difficult to pigeonhole how United use wingers today but over the last twenty years it’s fair to say that players who hug the touchline have been favoured. That probably changed around the time Ronaldo grew from a man into a beast and ultimately any semblance of team shape was lost as a team was built for him to flourish in. Since he departed, United have returned to a system that places emphasis on wide men and this is where variety comes in.
Different situations and different opponents requires tinkering with the team. United are fortunate that having five (including Giggs) wingers offers variation. For example when playing away from home against a rival it may be wiser to place emphasis on team shape and discipline over risk-taking and hence Nani and/or Zaha may not be considered as starters.
There are obvious similarities between Nani and Zaha – tricksters who’ll beat men for fun whilst having a varied end product. They’ll frustrate but they’re unquestionably the most fun to watch. Giggs is seldom seen out wide these days but his best performances last season still came there (not that his performances in the middle are much to compete with). Valencia is the ultimate one trick pony in that when he has his mojo, he’s hard to stop – direct runner with a consistently reliable final ball.
Then there’s Young, the player chosen by Ferguson last season to start games (when fit) against Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Man City twice – accounting for just under 30% of his league starts that campaign, impressive. When you think about it, it’s quite obvious why Fergie used to like him and select him in those games. Young may not have any party-tricks but he offers shape and a direct style. When he plays, whether on the right or the left, he sticks to the task he’s been given and protects his full back as well as any other United winger. He is a team player, not unlike Park was in many ways. Yes, there is a selfish streak to him and yes like every other winger his decision making isn’t always as good as it should be but there’s end product there. It is of little surprise that when he plays, the side, as a unit, tend to perform better.
Understandably his theatrics rub fans up the wrong way and many think he’s ‘just not a Manchester United player’ (although I do think that’s one of those cheap put-downs that doesn’t really mean anything other than ‘I don’t like him’ – but those kind of fans will see the title of this, won’t read it and just simply comment saying he should be sold) but as a collective, we tend to look a much better team when he’s in it because of the impact he has on allowing everyone else to get on with their roles. It’s a hard pill to swallow for those who expect more from a player, particularly when he’s up against some endearing characters and more unpredictable colleagues for a starting berth.
There is of course the ‘squad factor’. Young was a player signed for the squad, for use in some games and not every game. Successful sides need players like that but because they’re generally not the best in the team, they appear to be worse than they really are. The same is applicable to many United players over the last few years.
The final seed I’ll try to sow is that players who do simple things are more often the recipients of criticism rather than praise. It took until last season for people to appreciate what Carrick does and although I don’t think fans will have the same epiphany with Young, he offers a good source of balls into dangerous areas from out wide and is always keen to get a shot away when he has the chance. Those who look for flaws in his game will always find them but if you come at it from a neutral point of view, there’s as much there that’s useful as there is that’s not.
In a World Cup year, Young, like most English players in and around the national side, will be keen to excel and have a strong season – something that can only favour United. Fans are very quick to want players out of a club without considering the repercussions of what that means for the side – again the influence of computer games where chopping and changing a squad is all too easy (guilty, again). If unlike last season he’s able to stay fit he’ll have his uses for United, particularly when those with short fuses moan about how erratic Nani is and even more so when shape and allowing those in-field to be more creative (Kagawa in particular) become important factors in certain scenarios.