When Ashley Young signed from Aston Villa for a transfer fee in the region of £17m* in the summer of 2011, the reaction amongst Manchester United supporters was somewhat mixed. He's been at the club now for about a season-and-a-half and during this time, he still hasn't been entirely convincing. He's clearly talented and a capable squad player, and he's put in some very solid performances in big games (e.g. the 8-2 defeat of Arsenal last season, away to Chelsea this season, and away to Manchester City in the recent derby), but he has the propensity to disappear at times -- whether that be during a game or during a stretch of games. In addition, the reputation he's earned as a diver hasn't helped the perception of him. Despite this context, I still think some of the criticism has been somewhat harsh.
* Even if you hated this signing, be grateful at least that it wasn't £20m for Stewart Downing!
The fact of the matter is, at this moment in time, Young is the clear best option on the left flank. With Nani's future at United unresolved, manager Sir Alex Ferguson is clearly putting his trust in the Englishman for now. In each of the Red Devil's two biggest games this season -- away to both Chelsea and City -- it was Young that was deployed as the left-winger in the gaffer's counterattacking 4-4-1-1 system. And he came through both times.
Let's get the criticisms out of the way: Young's diving can be embarrassing (he's prone to diving, but this label is exaggerated), he most certainly disappears at times, he doesn't beat his full-back to the outside enough to cross from the byline**, his crossing is inconsistent, he's yet to find a cure for cancer, he hasn't come up with a solution to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he probably cuts inside too often onto his stronger foot when he kicks adorable little puppies.
** This personally doesn't bother me as long as he beats his marker often enough. Width is provided by Patrice Evra when he makes overlapping runs.
The England international does, though, have some virtues and here are some of the obvious ones: he's got that tremendous shot when he curls one to the far-post, his in-swinging crosses are delicious on his day, his pace is an asset when United counterattack, and his set-piece delivery is generally good (it was really good at Villa).
Young also has other non-obvious virtues that aren't appreciated enough by some. For example, one is his tremendous understanding with Patrice Evra and the balanced left-sided partnership that they form. The combination play between the two in the attacking third can be penetrative and Young works hard to track back when United are out of possession. In addition, the movement of the Englishman is very intelligent. He does well to find pockets of space between the lines in the zone between the opposition's right-back, right-center-back, and their midfielders. Furthermore, he's a versatile player and it's a bit puzzling that Ferguson didn't try him more in a No.10 role last season when Wayne Rooney was in poor form. Young played this role in the latter stages of his time at Villa and perhaps this was because of his fantastic understanding of space and movement (Michael Cox called him a 'central winger' during his time at Villa). Lastly, he does well to earn fouls in the attacking third (he ranked 4th last season in the Premier League with just over 2 fouls won per game) and this sets up dangerous goal-scoring chances from set-pieces.
Anyway, the purpose of this piece isn't to offer a lengthy analysis on the winger. It's more to bring up the subject of the criticism of Young because I feel that some of the distaste for him by some supporters is, quite frankly, lazy. He can certainly be frustrating at times and he'll likely never be considered a great United winger years from now when we look back on this era. Going forward though, for now, he's the best left-wing option in Ferguson's preferred 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 system. Optimally, Nani will get his contract situation sorted out and he can provide competition again to both Antonio Valencia on the right-wing and to Young on the left. If not though, United will be heavily reliant on the England international for the remainder of this season unless Ferguson makes an uncharacteristic splash January signing on a winger***.Young has his flaws, but he has his virtues too.
*** Hopefully United do have a replacement lined up if Nani is set to depart in January. When considering the dependence on wingers at Old Trafford for chances created, it would irresponsible to go the rest of the season with just Young and Valencia as the only natural winger options.