You could have got good money on a United player being the scapegoat for England’s inevitable departure from the European Championships, and so it was that Ashley Young ended up as the whipping boy in the media and on forums across the country.
I would love to defend him, but the truth is that he did not acquit himself well, largely anonymous during the run of play and missing his penalty in the shootout with Italy.
Although he didn’t have a bad first season with United, with a respectable return of goals and assists, it’s fair to say he has not yet won over all the fans, nor earned the unqualified trust of his manager.
There were lovely moments – the pair of bending beauties against Arsenal, for example – followed by periods of frustration rather longer than you would want from a player of his price tag.
Part of what made him a confounding figure as the season wore on was his predictability. In his league debut, he made the winner at West Brom when he jinked outside his man and crossed with his left foot, forcing an own goal. It’s hard to remember him going wide and using his left foot again. He increasingly preferred to cut inside his man and cross, often ineffectually, or shoot into a forest of legs – hardly the stuff of fantasy wingers.
It’s impossible to know what goes on inside a player’s head, but he wouldn’t be human if the diving allegations, front page news for several weeks in the middle of the season, didn’t affect him in some way. He’s slightly built and carries the ball, so he does get fouled a lot. But even large swaths of United fans felt he was overly theatrical at times, and while he did win a few penalties, there’s always the concern that the scrutiny this brings will have a negative effect on the player or indeed the team.
It’s hard to know how or if the criticism from the European Championships will affect Ashley. It was hardly the vicious onslaught David Beckham suffered in 1998, nor was it as sustained as the abuse rained down on Wayne Rooney after his sending-off at the 2006 World Cup. The fact that expectations were tempered to begin with certainly helps. Nobody thinks Ashley Young cost England the Euros. They just think he didn’t play very well. Will he use that as motivation, or let it erode his confidence?
To make the best of his chances in the new season, let’s hope he considers three things:
The pattern of cutting-in-and-crossing has to change. Last season, fullbacks began showing him inside, knowing he wanted to go there, making it easy for centre backs to step into his path. This increasingly ended with a charged-down shot or an over-hit cross, a result of running himself right into trouble. He’s got a nice change of pace and the occasional stepover in his locker; if he would use it to go outside his man a few times every game, he would force defenders to play him more honestly, meaning that when he does cut inside, he’ll have that little bit more space to line up a shot. As it is now, there’s always a crowd waiting for him there.
This, again, is attributable to his pattern of carrying and crossing, but it would be nice to see him make better use of the players around him, getting involved in build-up play farther from goal. For one thing, it would perhaps give United the chance to play a bit more centrally and with possession, instead of relying on the numbing, cumulative weight of cross after cross. Also, wide players combining with those around them help stretch the defense, making it a little harder for them to sit deep and congest play. It’s fine when he races down the wing at speed, but when he’s dribbling slowly and the fullback is backing off, it gives time for all the other defenders to fall into place along the top of the box – a particular problem against lower-half sides at home.
3. Stay on your feet!
This is a divisive topic, naturally. Some fans don’t mind the occasional dive if United get penalties out of it, while others don’t like it under any circumstance. Sometimes you have to go to ground to get a foul, but I for one would like to see him cut out the acrobatic body-twisting on the way down. He’s already got a reputation, and he may have that reputation for life even if he cuts out the theatrics entirely, but I still like to think there is a United way of doing things, and excessive diving is not that way.
With new faces coming in and injured players like Tom Cleverley returning, there are few guaranteed positions in the team. Ashley Young is probably not one of them and will have to maximise both his talent and his chances to fulfill the promise of his best moments, not to mention his price tag. Let’s hope he puts a disappointing European Championships campaign behind him quickly and sets about making a name for himself as a Red.