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Manchester United have looked a different team under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer over the last month. Any tactical analysis will show how much they have improved under him, the Norwegian has made a strong claim to become the next permanent manager by winning his first eight games in all competitions. But as he enters a crucial phase of the season with big games lined up, the caretaker boss has a few issues to sort out in his squad still. We will take a closer look at his full-back options and particularly the up and down performances of Ashley Young.
The England international has emerged as a strong voice for the club on and off the pitch. But his performances have been patchy at best. He is not a natural full-back but his attacking output has also been pretty poor. In fact, he does the defensive part of his job mildly better. His frailties as a full-back were on display against Arsenal in the FA Cup on Friday night. A tactical analysis of his performance will host that Manchester United will need better full-back options going forward.
Marginally better at defending
Solskjaer doesn’t have too many options to play at right-back. Antonio Valencia’s game has dropped off significantly and Matteo Darmian is not good enough. Diogo Dalot has shown glimpses of his talent but he is still a work in progress. Therefore, the Manchester United boss has been forced to fall back on Young.
The 33-year-old is a willing performer and is prepared to do a job for his team anywhere on the pitch. He also seems to be a leader inside the dressing room and definitely a better captain than Valencia. But none of these traits actually matter when it comes to actually doing the job as a full-back.
He is a disciplined performer but in a progressive looking team, Young seems like an ill-fitting button on a suit. The defensive numbers of winning two tackles, two interceptions and five clearances against Arsenal seem decent. But it says very little about the actual performance.
Solskjaer gave Romelu Lukaku the freedom to stay up top on the right and the tactic paid off with both the goals against Arsenal. But it meant Young had little in terms of defensive support. The Gunners often overloaded their right flank to put pressure on the full-back. If only Alex Iwobi had a better end product, they could have done a little more damage.
However, Young was not helping his cause by dropping off the Arsenal runners. His tactic invited the likes Iwobi and Aaron Ramsey to make runs inside the penalty box. A similar run by Ramsey after another overload on the right led to the Arsenal goal at the brink of half-time.
The flabbergasting part of the performance was Young didn’t learn from his mistake. Despite receiving support from Ander Herrera to block Arsenal’s right flank, the full-back kept inviting Arsenal runs into the box.
Provided little support in attack
Solskjaer’s set-up against Arsenal on Friday night meant Young had little to do in terms of providing full-back support in attack. But the rare moments when he found himself in good positions, he did little with the ball.
There are a few myths about Young’s crossing prowess due to the rare times he plays in a good one inside the box. Against Arsenal, he completed none of his attempted cross and his accuracy throughout the season has been questionable as well.
In the current Premier League campaign, Young has completed just 1.4 crosses per game. The number is significantly lower if you take into account the number of times he finds himself in crossing positions. Tottenham right-back Kieran Trippier number reads at 2.1 per game in the league. Young’s overall numbers fall down to 1.3 for the campaign, compared to Trippier’s 2.3.
The defender often finds himself in inviting positions just outside the opposition penalty boxes or even inside it. But his final ball lacks the finesse or accuracy to cause sustained damage.
The next summer is going to be a crucial one for Manchester United in a number of different ways. The club will be looking to make a fresh start under a new permanent manager and a Director of Football. The squad also requires some major surgery despite the high of recent performances. A centre-back is expected to be on the club’s transfer wish list. But they must also bring in a new right-back, ready to play as first-choice. It is pretty evident you can’t have Young playing regularly if you have any hopes of winning the league or challenging for European honours.
There is talk of Manchester United offering him a new one-year deal and I don’t see a problem with that. But he must strictly be used as a squad option and not someone who starts week-in-week-out. His versatility can be a huge asset for the squad. However, if Manchester United have loftier ambitions, the club must look beyond the 33-year-old.
I remember Young scoring two screamers against Arsenal in his first season at Manchester United. He is also one of the few league winners in the squad. But at 33, his best years are behind him and he has only played regularly because of poor squad planning at Old Trafford.
He has been a good servant to the club during a period of relative stagnation at Manchester United. But the club need to move forward in a new direction from next season.
And for a lot of us, Young can’t be part of the journey (at least not as a regular starter) if the club are to reach their old heights from a fresh start.