During the run in of the 2013-14 season, Manchester United were in turmoil. David Moyes was on the verge of being sacked after just ten months of a disastrous regime, and many of United’s ageing and underperforming squad were facing a lot of strong, and largely warranted, criticism.
One year later, under Louis van Gaal, United have said goodbye to the inconsistencies of the Moyes regime and have started to look like a good team again. They sit third in the Premier League, four points ahead of Champions and local rivals Manchester City, and eight ahead of fifth placed Liverpool, leaving them in a strong position to qualify for the Champions League after an absence of just one season.
Whilst £150 million of transfer fees last summer would suggest that van Gaal had merely bought his way back to the top 4, that is far from the case. Expensive signings such as Angel di Maria, Luke Shaw and loanee Radamel Falcao have struggled to nail down starting positions, spending most of their time on the bench as the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Chris Smalling, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have pushed them back towards the top.
These players were four of those who were commonly scapegoated for poor performances under Moyes, all of whom were easy targets thanks to reasonably large transfer fees that were struggling to be repaid with some average and inconsistent showings throughout the season. Ashley Young was the perfect example of this. Bought for £20 million in 2011, Young has suffered plenty of minor injuries during his time at Old Trafford that culminated in three seasons of limited action, with 64 Premier League appearances, which resulted in just 8 goals, 6 of which came in his first season at Old Trafford. This lack of regular action and goals, plus the departure of Alex Ferguson left Young with a crisis of confidence, out of favour at United, and looking increasingly likely to be shipped out with barely a whimper.
However, Louis van Gaal’s appointment has reinvigorated Young and made him look like a player of the quality that persuaded Manchester United to pay such a hefty fee for. Young got his chance under van Gaal during United’s injury crisis, filling in at left wing-back during Manchester United’s impressive run in the autumn. Young’s pace and trickery, plus excellent crossing ability was finally making United look like a dangerous team on the attack again.
After helping United to five straight wins and their best run of the early season, Young then picked up an injury in early January that kept him out of the starting line-up for six weeks. United’s form took a hit in this period as they fell to defeats to Southampton and Swansea, leaving their top four position in doubt.
However, Young’s return to the line-up, this time in a more attacking role as Louis van Gaal opted to play Young ahead of record signing Angel di Maria has proved a masterstroke, with United going on a six match winning run, defeating Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City in that time, with Young proving to be the star man in the derby.
Young’s importance to the Red Devil’s is supported heavily by the statistics, which show that in the 19 games young has started, Manchester United have gained 42 points, compared to just 23 in the 13 games where Young didn’t feature from the off. This means that van Gaal’s side have gained 2.2 points per game with Young and just under 1.8 without him. Young has clearly developed from outsider to indispensable for United.
So with Young in such good form, should he be back in the England line-up? The former Aston Villa-winger was a regular following the 2010 World Cup and started every game for the three lions in Poland and Ukraine, missing a penalty in the quarter-final defeat to Italy. Since then though, Young has featured just five times for Roy Hodgson, with his last appearance nearly two years ago as a sub against Ukraine in an injury-hit England team in Kiev.
He has a good pedigree for England; 30 caps have produced 7 goals, a very good record for a winger at England level. Furthermore, in 2011/12, Young scored in four straight international appearances, a fine feat that very few have achieved on the international stage. Young, that penalty miss against Italy aside, always played well for England and seemed to relish playing for his country. Should his good form continue, he is in line for an England recall.
Young faces strong competition, though, to get back into the squad. England have a number of good, young wingers such as Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain coming through, as well as one of Hodgson’s favourites Andros Townsend who are all fighting for that left-wing position. In addition, at 29, many believe that Young has already had his time at international level, and England should be looking to go to France in 2016 with a youthful team who can grow together for the future. It is unlikely that Young would feature for England any further than the 2018 world cup, counting against Young for an England recall.
However, whilst many wish for a youthful England side to develop in the future, Ashley Young is the here and now. His form has pushed an average looking Manchester United side into third place in the Premier League and shows no sign of stopping. He has performed well for England in the past and still has plenty to give in an England shirt, if only for a short period of time. Many may consider recalling Young a step back to the failed regime of Fabio Capello, but it would be more indicative of a change, where players, no matter what their age, are picked for England because they are playing better than anyone else in their position. Young has proved he is a fantastic player, and an asset to one of the best sides in the country. England would be foolish not to have him.