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Ashley Young: From average winger to United’s most reliable utility player

Young’s days as an inconsistent right winger are long gone. These days, he might just be the best left-back at the club.

Manchester United v FC Basel - UEFA Champions League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Last Tuesday evening, as Paul Pogba limped to the bench after only 19 minutes, José Mourinho tossed the captain’s armband to Ashley Young. Social media predictably reacted with shock and derision at the manager’s move. Whether Young deserved the temporary captaincy or not, supporters should get used to seeing him out on the pitch. Back from a four-month injury layoff, it looks like he’s about to get the next crack at making the Manchester United left-back position his own.

The very idea of Ashley Young as a defender would have seemed insane back in 2011. Then a dangerous playmaker freshly signed from Aston Villa for £16 million, he was brought to Manchester to score goals and create chances. Unfortunately, his United career never quite got off the mark. It hasn’t been all disappointment — he scored a brace in the famous 8-2 drubbing of Arsenal — but neither has he proven the attacking threat that Sir Alex Ferguson bought him to be.

To his credit, Young kept his head up and worked hard to transform himself into a versatile, defensively-sound option. Mourinho might prefer positional specialists, but will always find a place in the squad for a player willing to fill in at a moment’s notice and give 100% for the team. While his appearances have dropped under the new regime, he nonetheless often gets the nod in important matches. And, almost without fail, Mourinho singles Young out for praise afterwards.

Neither Daley Blind nor Matteo Darmian has staked a strong claim to the left-back spot in Luke Shaw’s absence. Of course, the best case scenario would be for Shaw to get out of Mourinho’s doghouse, put his injury woes behind him, and nail down the job for the next decade. But, until that happens, why not Ashley Young?

In his midweek return from a severe hamstring injury, Young played all 90 minutes while filling in for Antonio Valencia at right-back. Honestly, he has rarely looked better in a red shirt — chipping in with a nifty assist on Marouane Fellaini’s opener and limiting the FC Basel attack to a quiet night.

While that performance came on Young’s preferred right side, he has plenty of experience at left-back under both Mourinho and Louis Van Gaal. United relies on its fullbacks to provide width down the flanks and that’s a Young specialty, no matter what side he plays. On the left, he can still hug the touchline and deliver crosses onto the head of Big Rom in the box.

His effort against Basel was justly rewarded on Sunday with a place in the starting eleven versus Everton. At left-back, Young remained composed and played his part in yet another clean sheet. Truthfully, much of Everton’s impetus came from the right and central positions, but there are much worse fates than a quiet day at the office for any defender. The Toffees mustered few chances on goal and rarely looked like scoring.

One way or the other, Young figures to play a larger role in the coming months. Manchester United kicks off its defense of the Carabao Cup on Wednesday and Champions League group stage matches promise to keep the schedule full for the foreseeable future. Whether spelling Valencia on the right or settling in as the club’s latest left-back, Young will get his chance.

In a perfect world, Ashley Young would not be starting for a Premier League challenger with designs on the title. But this remains an imperfect team with injuries and lackluster play leaving the left side of United’s defense unsettled. He probably won’t wear the captain’s armband again or be the first name on the team sheet, but Young has both a big role to play this season and the chance to write a new ending to his Manchester United career.