Manchester United captain Antonio Valencia, José Mourinho’s first choice right back, was benched by the Special One after several poor performances from the United defense as a whole. He suffered a calf strain injury in the pre-season tour, which may be contributing to his uncharacteristically slow play, but there is no denying that Valencia has lost a step. The United captain hardly resembles the pacey and incisive winger/wing-back who tortured Premier League defenders for years, and now he appears to have been replaced by another veteran winger from the late Sir Alex Ferguson years, Ashley Young.
Ashley Young has faced adversity time and again at Manchester United. Brought in initially to help fill the offensive void left by the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and the aging legs of Ryan Giggs, Young was forced to fight for his place in the squad after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Inconsistent on both the left and right wing, he bulked up and fought to keep his place in the team. Injuries at the position saw him converted to a left back under Louis Van Gaal, and the trend continued under José Mourinho. He’s no Patrice Evra, but Young has been consistent, and often important, in providing stability at left-back.
Young played well enough over the last couple of years to earn a recall to the England squad for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, where his performances in the Three Lions’ run to the semi-final earned him Team of the Tournament honors. When he returned to United, however, a finally healthy and consistent Luke Shaw took over starting left back duties. Young again became a role player, until Antonio Valencia’s form and fitness took a dramatic dive.
Young has stepped up yet again filling in at right back. He’s managed to continue supplying service after regaining possession and on set pieces, but he’s also had some memorable defensive performances. His speed and physicality paired with his continually improving defensive intelligence have shone through the last few weeks as he’s helped shut down some of the world’s best, including Cristiano Ronaldo and Eden Hazard. His senior status in the team has also seen him wear the captain’s armband much more frequently in Valencia’s absence.
Though Young and Valencia are both 33, it is Young who has gotten better with age, though to be fair he has also avoided injuries to the severity that Valencia has suffered in his career. Both players have done well to adapt to their defensive duties as they’ve aged, but Young’s ascension as a leader and reliable player at multiple positions makes him vital to United as they look to stop the leaks at the back and get their season back on course. With Diogo Dalot and on-loan Timothy Fosu-Mensah waiting for their chance as United’s next right back, Young’s time as United’s first choice right back may not last long, but he’s more than proven himself for the time being.