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The attractive versatility of Ashley Young

12 April 2011

Ashley Young is often labelled a winger or second striker; he is far more than this (Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

Ashley Young’s decision not to sign a contract till the summer has proved to be a masterstroke for the England international. With only 15 months remaining on his current deal, he’s made himself a realistic option for England’s top clubs, namely Manchester United.

There are still those, however, who aren’t quite sure of what Ashley Young’s best role is. With pace as his most obvious strength, many feel he is best suited as a winger. Others will point to his performances this season as evidence of a player most comfortable behind a striker.

Let’s start with a look at Ashley Young the winger, and a line from Jamie Redknapp’s most recent column in the Mail. Redknapp, like most of us, has been impressed with many of Young’s displays this season:

Ashley Young looks better every time I see him. He has electric pace and dribbles with his head up; he looks a future Manchester United player to me, and an ideal replacement for Ryan Giggs. Aston Villa will have to cash in on the England winger in the summer rather than let him go on a free next season.

Ashley Young probably doesn’t match up to a young Ryan Giggs at his best, but a noteworthy comparison can be made between the two players, based on a game that Young played against Bolton at home last season:

Two similar chalkboards, though it must be noted that this was Ashley Young playing against Gary Megson’s Bolton, a side with numerous problems. On the day, however, Young demonstrated an ability to ‘hug’ the left touchline and deliver crosses into the box, without needing to drift inside onto his stronger foot.

Based on this limited evidence, Ashley Young could do a job for Manchester United; he has the pace and willingness to cross to trouble most teams.

But this was an Ashley Young of 18 months ago; he has since developed from the player Jamie Redknapp believes him to be.

The return to fitness of the left footed Stewart Downing in December 2009 gave Martin O’Neill a different option as the right-footed James Milner moved to central midfield. O’Neill gave his two wingers more freedom to switch flanks and roam across the midfield as the season progressed.

Here we see Young playing a different role altogether from the one against Bolton. Far from the traditional winger, he’s venturing across the width of the field, swapping with Stewart Downing, whilst still looking to deliver crosses.

ESPN Soccernet’s average positions highlight this point. Ashley Young is number 7, whilst Stewart Downing’s number 6 is obscured by Milner (8) and Young; on average the two players were ‘central’, but this was a result of the freedom to play on either wing.

The departure of O’Neill and eventual arrival of Gerard Houllier meant Young moved even further away from the traditional winger he was believed to excel as, although there was a little confusion to begin with as this article in September from the Guardian shows:

Gérard Houllier appears to have changed his mind about Ashley Young’s best position after watching the England international excel in a more advanced role behind the main striker in the second half against Blackburn Rovers in midweek, prompting the Aston Villa manager to suggest he could become one of the top players in Europe in that role.

Houllier said before that Carling Cup tie that, if Young “wants to keep his position [with England] and be extremely effective, maybe he has to play [at Villa] as a winger”. He started in that position on Wednesday but after the team toiled in the first half Houllier moved Young inside and was immediately rewarded when he set up Emile Heskey’s equaliser before scoring twice himself. “I like the way he played behind Emile,” Houllier said.

Asked whether he agreed with his predecessor, Martin O’Neill, that Young could hold his own with the best left-wings in Europe, Houllier replied: “As a left-winger? No. He can play on the wing. Whether he can be one of the best in the world in that position … I think he can be one of the best in another position.”

And so began Young’s journey towards being an advanced central midfielder.

But it’s not simply been a case of playing the role of a Steven Gerrard to a Fernando Torres; Young has performed different jobs in this new position. Firstly, he’s successfully played as an advanced playmaker, operating in central areas largely between the halfway line and the edge of the penalty box:

Against Blackburn, Ashley Young provided two goals and an assist, whilst he also impressed against Chelsea with a goal from a penalty. Against Chelsea in particular we see plenty of attempts to play the ball into wider areas, important against a side with no wingers or wide midfielders to protect the wing backs.

Young has also shown an ability to play as a ‘central winger’, a position described here by Zonal Marking:

We are seeing players who have spent their formative years as wingers being played in the central playmaking role this season. Examples include Ashley Young at Aston Villa, Aaron Hunt at Werder Bremen, Adem Ljajic at Fiorentina, Jesper Gronkjaer at Copenhagen and Mathieu Valbuena at Marseille.

The result is that these players interpret the playmaker position differently. Rather than staying central and trying to find space in between the lines, they drift to the flanks and pick the ball up there.

As well as the example in the linked article, there are other examples of Young fulfilling this role this season:

Unlike in the matches against Chelsea and Blackburn, Young looked to find space in wide areas, making him difficult to mark and plan against. This is a world away from the left winger comparable to Ryan Giggs during last season, and also different from the flank-swapping midfielder under O’Neill. Again, Young’s average position (number 7) against West Brom makes curious viewing:

Despite spending virtually no time on the ball in the advanced central area of the field, Young’s average position is almost in the middle of the opponent’s half. Again, this is down to his keenness to find space in wide areas, something which he has certainly benefitted from.

How does all this fit into a wider context? If a club were to buy Ashley Young this summer, what can they expect from him? Young himself has made his opinion clear, having played centrally for England too this year:

As a kid, I was a striker. I always played as a striker, even at Watford, and then I went out wide as soon as I went to Aston Villa, but I changed position and now I’m playing off the main striker.

I’ve really enjoying playing in the middle. If the manager wants to play me there or out wide, I’ll do a job anywhere.

But I think playing through the middle gives you a chance to score more goals. You’re playing just behind that main striker and you can get yourself in the box more and have more shots.

I did that in Denmark and I got the rewards, scoring my goal. I would be delighted to play there.

Young’s provided nine assists this season and has won more fouls than anyone else in the division (82); clearly he is a difficult opponent and asset to any team. There are those who will claim he is overrated, but name me an England international who isn’t.

Young is much more than just a winger. It’s odd that Jamie Redknapp should think him to be more like Ryan Giggs the more he sees of him, when in fact he has been playing less of a wide role over the past 18 months.

Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and possibly even Manchester City could all do with a player like Ashley Young. United’s transfer policy rules out a move from Sneijder, but at 26 this summer and available at a cut-price Young would represent a solid medium-term investment. We’ve seen he could quite easily fulfil Nani or Antonio Valencia’s roles, or play behind a striker. United will be keen to add to their squad depth after their second-string sides notably struggled in cup competitions this season.

Chelsea will be looking for someone to provide better service for Fernando Torres, and the same applies to City for Tevez and Liverpool for Carroll. Of all the clubs, Liverpool are most likely to use him in a wide role, given their glut of central midfielders. Considering what Young has expressed, this may deter him from Merseyside.

Regardless of where Young ends up – even if he stays at Aston Villa – it’s worth acknowledging his evolution as a footballer. It has helped make him a worthwhile target for clubs playing European football.

He’s not a world-class footballer by any means, but he is certainly adaptable and versatile. As most clubs look to cut spending, he becomes a valuable footballer to have in your squad.

What do you think of Ashley Young? Where is his best position? Will he still be at Villa next season? Please comment below!

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