Some players need a club that matches their playing ethos to reach the pinnacle of their footballing powers, but more, they need a club that matches their ambition and ego before they really flourish. A recent example of this being Eric, who although was very good at Leeds, took his individual performance level to somewhere seldom superseded by any United player before or since. Not just in some cases singlehandedly winning games, but managing to lift the level of the players around him. The same can of course be said of Roy Keane. Other players can move to clubs on the back of a burgeoning reputation and despite showing glimpses of what they are capable of somehow the fit isn’t quite right. Diego Forlan and Jordi Cruyff, probably being good examples of this. Of course there are lots of other outcomes in between and beyond these. Some players just flop (Taibi). Some players don’t tactically fit the preferred formations of their new employers (Veron) etc etc. The reason though I used the first two examples is because I see this as the two potential outcomes likely to befall our most surprising summer acquisition Ashley Young (I’m not suggesting he’s going to be the next Eric or Roy, just that he may finally achieve the heights he’s been reportedly threatening to since he signed for Villa).
I prefaced Ashley Young with ‘surprising summer acquisition’ because I’m fairly certain that most United fans would have prized a tenacious midfielder (replacing the perpetually bed-ridden Hargreaves) or a creative attacking midfielder (replacing the irreplaceable Scholesy), a box-to-box midfielder (replacing Keane 6 years late), or maybe even a trequartista to allow more flexibility in attack as the priorities, after a goalkeeper, when SAF promised at least 3 new faces would be gracing the team photo come August. I’m not suggesting Ashley Young isn’t a very good footballer, no, but at first glance he’s not ‘the signing’ some of us were anticipating.
We are all aware that Ashley Young has the ability to play in a variety of positions and we assume that that is one of the attractions in obtaining his services. But the ability to play in a variety of positions in itself hardly sets him apart from his peers. In fact it’s fast becoming a given that a player at the highest level should be able to adapt tactically to a certain degree. Players who specialise (and specialise well) are now becoming the rarer commodity. Remember the twins played wide midfield against Arsenal in arguably one of our best performances of last season. All of our attacking players, bar possibly Chicha and Berba, are capable of and have intermittently alternated positions for United. Yes, SAF likes this changeability from players, so the more the better, right? But, can’t you have too many? I’d argue that the more interchangeable players you have doesn’t actually equate to a stronger team. We won the Premiership last season on the back of a strong squad, but we lost the Champions league because we didn’t have the quality in our first eleven. Yes, there’s more ‘healthy competition’ for places which is important, but without the player coming in being of superior quality the hierarchy amongst the players remains the same. No feathers ruffled. No ‘upping of games’. So the questions I initially posed myself are these…
Is Ashley Young better than any of the players in direct competition for his position(s) Rooney, Park, Valencia, Nani? The simple answer, without arguing individual plusses and minuses, in to the small hours, is no.
Has he been cited as a direct replacement for Giggsy? One of the most talented players in premiership history? Categorically, no.
Is he a long term replacement for any of the other aforementioned players? Well he’s older than them all, aside from Park and they’re probably the least likely to be considered vying for the same position.
I’d also argue that he doesn’t automatically stick out as ‘something a bit different’ to what we already have at the club. As a matter of fact, Ashley Young and Nani I think some football fans, myself included, will agree are on a similar level. I’m not saying they are similar players, however they do have a remarkably similar output as ‘wide midfielders’. Both are capable of scoring spectacular goals, in amongst a few woeful scuffs and hoofs into row Z. Both are capable of man-of-the-match performances from time to time. Both spend at least 1% of most games ‘fishing’ (Dangling out appendages in the hope a flailing limb will brush against them, awarding them a free kick or pen) Both fancy themselves at free kicks, with varying levels of success. Both have a very healthy confidence in their own ability. Both are hugely likeable whilst maintaining an irritating petulance. Both have an issue with consistency. Both are capable of creating a piece of individual match winning ‘magic’ (I like them both). Most tellingly as I list these is the thing that sticks out most… both still have a lot to prove. So the competition, for the left midfield berth, between these two, could bring out the best in both of them. That could be in part the thinking behind his arrival.
Anyway, you’ve probably gleaned from the preamble to this point a feeling of negativity towards his signing. Well, I’m going to surprise you and say that what I believe is that SAF has seen something particularly special in Ashley Young, that he strongly feels will blossom at United. Something we’ve seen in select Match of the Day highlights but not consistantly enough, that SAF feels can be succesfully mined from within the player. He’s obviously not going to become an Eric or a Roy, but if his performance level went from 1 in 4 (strong games) to nearer 1 in 2 then we could soon have a very, very good player on our hands, one who can surpass Nani and Park. He is without doubt endowed with the tools, he just has to mature in to a player who understands better how to use them. I have the gut feeling he’s going to turn out to be a good signing. I weighted the question about him being a ‘replacement for Giggsy’ with the word ‘direct’ to intentionally suggest that you can’t ‘just replace’ players like Giggsy. I actually think he has been bought, with the hope through his much needed development to, at least in part, soften the blow of Giggsy’s retirement. Here’s hoping.
Martin O’Neill may be one consultation away from the looney bin but he once described Ashley Young as ‘world class’. History teaches us that it’s often the ‘mad’ ones that get it right.