“Players have to adapt nowadays and if you have a good football brain, if you can read the game, you can manage it.” — Ashley Young, April 2015.
That season – the 2014/15 campaign under Louis van Gaal – was the beginning of Young’s journey away from being a conventional winger. While certain peoples’ hairlines recede as they age, for Young and Antonio Valencia it was their starting positions.
Manchester United fans have never been overly comfortable with the duo being their first-choice full-backs for much of the last two seasons. For a club of the Red Devils’ stature, two ageing wingers filling in defensive spots feels like an oversight of squad-building.
However, Young has emerged as one of the best defensive full-backs in the league.
This isn’t a joke. Out of full-backs to have attempted twenty tackles or more, the 33-year-old has the best success rate in the Premier League. He isn’t an incredibly active defender — his 1.41 tackle attempts per 90 minutes is in the lower third for top-flight defenders — but he knows how to pick his moments.
You can see this any time Young is one-on-one with an opponent. His body position is usually superb; his feet constantly moving, ready to snuff out any burst of pace. He makes sure he gets close enough to apply pressure but not so close that he’d be easy to get past.
What does help is that he, unlike many modern full-backs, isn’t expected to cover the entire flank. Chances are, given he is almost in his mid-thirties, he wouldn’t be able to.
Compare his heatmap with Luke Shaw’s on United’s other side and it’s clear Young is far more likely to stay closer to home.
This isn’t always to United’s benefit in possession – it contributes to a left-sided lopsidedness – but it helps the England international to be at his best.
Granted, the claim that Young is one of the best defensive full-backs in the league isn’t one which faces too much competition. That’s because at the big clubs, and even further down the table, the emphasis is much more on the attacking aspect of this position.
So perhaps Young is a throwback, coincidentally, to the type of full-backs that were around when he was starting out his career as a winger. Ones who focussed on defending, the craft of keeping an attacker at bay, with constant communication with their defensive teammates and positional nous.
Young will be 34 this summer and several players a few years younger than him are starting to feel the sharp side of the age-performance curve. Yet he’s still plugging away.
It was Albert Einstien who once wrote, ‘The measure of intelligence is the ability to change’. Learning, evolving, adapting, Young has proven to have a smarter football brain than most.