As I got in and turned on the Liverpool vs Manchester United game, the first thing I saw was Ashley Young starting on the wing. Instantly I chuckled to myself. Jose Mourinho will never change.
In typical fashion, he deployed his veteran winger on the left hand side of midfield as a more ‘defensive’ winger – a supporting player for fullback Matteo Darmian, who was behind him.
We all know how Mourinho likes to play these big games, and if you think a rip roaring start to the season, where 21 goals had been scored by his side, and only two conceded would suddenly bring a swashbuckling, free flowing change to Mourinho’s big game setups, then you couldn’t be more wrong.
Ironically, Mourinho had done the exact same thing a year earlier, in October 2016. In the game Sky Sports had hyped up as “Red Monday”, Mourinho gave Young his first start of the season, and first since January 2016 to be exact. He selected Young as a more cautious wide player, who would add to the midfield numbers and primarily focus on maintaining defensive discipline against Liverpool’s Sadio Mane.
Young performed extremely well and was praised in the media for his collective, assured performance. He even was voted Man of the Match. At the end of the night, Mourinho left Anfield with the solitary point he came for. Job done.
This was to be the start of a remarkable turnaround for the former Villa man.
Since arriving in 2016, Mourinho has given Ashley Young a new lease of life at Manchester United. When he arrived as a fast, direct, and skilful winger under Sir Alex Ferguson, he was almost the opposite of what he represents to Mourinho now.
All of those diving controversies, and even that bird poo incident seem to the antonym of what Ashley Young represents to Mourinho and United in 2017. But the journey to now has been tough on a man who was almost a forgotten man in the football world.
After Sir Alex left United in 2013, Young went through a turbulent few years. He was unfancied by David Moyes, who tried to sell him in January 2014. In the subsequent summer, Louis Van Gaal tried to turn him into a left wingback, in his ideal back three formation, but this turned out to be rather unsuccessful.
He was fast becoming surplus to requirements at United, and after Louis Van Gaal had departed in May 2016, it seemed as if Young would be on his way too. With offers from MLS, China and lower Premier League clubs on the table, it seemed as if it was over for him at the Theatre of Dreams. Mourinho arrived at United, and his future was veering away from the club he had been at for the past five years.
But contrary to popular belief, this was going to be a blessing for Young, as Mourinho has since revitalised the man.
He has installed into Young a leadership role in his team, and made him one of his most trusted lieutenants. It is believed Mourinho considers him as a exemplary professional to the rest of the squad. Young is spoken very highly of by his manager, who views him as an example for every player at the club.
On the pitch, he can always depend on Young to deliver steady, assured, performances for his side whoever called upon, regardless of the opponent.
Additionally, at 32 he can also bring vast amounts of experience to a United side who contain a lot of talent inexperienced at the highest level. Mourinho believes Young, similarly to the likes of Michael Carrick, can mentor these newer players and help them build an understanding of the club and what it means to play for United.
In 2016/17, Young was Mourinho’s go to soldier for the big games, and used rather sparingly as a specialist player, yet he delivered every time he was summoned.
This year however, he has made the left back spot his own. His defending has come on leaps and bounds in the past year, and it appears as if he is relishing his new defensive role.
Left back has been a position of difficulty for United since Patrice Evra left, with many big money singings such as Luke Shaw and Daley Blind failing to hold down the position. Now however, it seems Mourinho has found the man to marshal the left side of his defence in his former left winger. It is telling how by November he has played two more full games in the league this year, than he did in the entirety of last season.
This month, as United’s relentless start to the campaign has began to show signs of stuttering, Young has stepped up to the plate.
Recently, he put in a man of the match display against Brighton, where he scored the match winner in an unconvincing United performance.
Although he was eventually discredited with the deflected strike, he took the initiative throughout the match to drive his team forward, and also to shore up his defence like a modern fullback should. His confident display was a testament to his recent efforts to fight his way back into the side, and almost a payback for the unwavering faith Mourinho has shown to him.
Only three days later did he score a sensational brace away at Vicarage Road. This victory was a vital one for United, and Mourinho’s trusted lieutenant delivered again when it mattered most. He scored twice in six minutes, with the second one being a stunning free kick that nestled in the top right corner of Heurelho Gomes’ net.
As social media went mad reacting to such a stunning goal, Mourinho barely moved. Because at the end of the day, he knew he could count on one of his most trusted disciples.
Young’s exploits have even linked him with a return to the England setup. He was in the squad for the friendly vs Brazil and came on as a substitute. With all the focus on England’s youth talent being integrated into a team for the next world cup and beyond, it seems as if England may need an experienced player to help guide the new generation. I think I know just the man for the job…