It would be easy to see Young as little more than a beneficiary of Jose Mourinho’s difficult relationship with Luke Shaw, but there are reasons why he has become Manchester United’s first-choice left-back.
The club have been accused of lacking leaders this season but Young’s seizing of the reins at half-time will no doubt play a part in Mourinho’s decision to play him so often.
It’s worth noting that the other two players mentioned as being particularly vocal prior to the side’s remarkable turnaround at the Etihad were Michael Carrick, who’s closer to retirement than the pitch, and Ander Herrera, who’s been supplanted by Nemanja Matic this season.
However, Young has also shown genuine value in his on-field performances.
Mourinho wants his full-backs to push up in possession while being defensively solid. He spoke clearly about this following the FA Cup quarter-final win against Brighton and Hove Albion, where Shaw was taken off for Young at half-time.
“We work on certain kinds of movements,” Mourinho said. “It’s really important for the two full-backs to be aggressive and to be always in front of the defence to create space for [Nemanja] Matic and Scott [McTominay].
“I decided [to take off] Luke because at least Antonio was capable of getting into these good positions.”
Defensively solid and a stylistic fit
In the Premier League this season Young has outperformed Shaw in tackles and interceptions. Shaw has made 1.46 tackles per 90 minutes and – more crucially when considering defensive positioning as a full-back – just 0.49 interceptions.
Young, on the other hand, has made 1.94 tackles and 2.07 interceptions. He may well understand the defensive positioning required of him better than the youngster, for which he deserves credit.
But it is not only defensively where the ageing England international comes out on top. Going forward, as a former winger, he also makes more of a telling impact that the former Southampton youngster.
The quality of chances Young is setting up for his team-mates gives him an xA90 (expected goals assisted per 90) of 0.15, almost four times greater than Shaw’s 0.04.
And while it isn’t a stat usually used to compare full-backs, Shaw has outperformed Young in terms of xG90 (expected goals per 90) – 0.05 to 0.03. It provides insight into the styles of the two players.
Shaw’s xG and xA values are both very similar, implying that when he gets around the opponent’s box he’s as much a threat with chances he takes as those he sets up for others. Something which doesn’t appear to be what Mourinho wants in his full-backs.
The difference between Young’s xA90 of 0.16 and xG90 of 0.03 indicates he’s consistently playing wider when United are in the final third, where crossing, not shooting, opportunities are available.
What this all means
Perhaps Young’s natural game as a full-back is just closer to what Mourinho wants than Shaw’s. Yet the 32-year-old has had to adapt his style to play in the more defensive position after a career spent further up the pitch.
This has wider implications – potentially all the way to national team level.
It’s just over a year since Mourinho claimed credit for a good Shaw performance against Everton, saying that the player was using “his body with my brain”.
“I was thinking for him,” the United boss continued. “When to come inside, when to open up the pitch, when to press the opponent, I was making every decision.”
These were strong comments for a manager to make about his own player, but they’re about a player struggling to adapt, something which Young hasn’t failed to do under the Portuguese.
If the former Watford youngster is able to change his game from that of a winger to a ‘Mourinho full-back’, he should be able to adapt to playing at full-back under different managers with different styles, which bodes well for England.
Young’s transition has been a tough task, no matter how easy he’s made it look. And that deserves recognition.