Being the ‘most improved player’ is a tag steeped in negative connotation. Whilst it is awarded (hypothetically or otherwise) by way of compliment, there is an inevitable implication of “you were s**t and now you’re not so s**t”. That combines with an air of condescension to create precious little celebration.
There is no doubt as to Manchester United’s most improved performer of 2014/15. The expectation was that Louis van Gaal would have very little time for Ashley Young, the winger who couldn’t cross. It was a question of when, not if, Young would leave Old Trafford, and his next destination would be a sharp step down. That anticipation has proved drastically misplaced.
I don’t want to seem harsh on Young, because there is no doubt as to his improvement this season. He has raised his level by almost every relevant statistic, and looks to have regained the confidence that must have been at rock bottom after 49 league starts in three seasons.
Indeed, Young has become an integral part of the stereotypical move of United’s season: De Gea to Fellaini, Fellaini to Young, Young runs forward, cuts back, shifts the ball onto his right foot and deliver a cross into the box. The ball either finds the head of Fellaini, or bypasses the Belgian and arrives at the feet of a Spaniard (Ander Herrera or Juan Mata). One could sweepingly say that that strategy has taken United into the top four.
“I’ve just listened to what the manager has said,” said Young after the Manchester derby victory last month. “He’s wanted to play me and I’ve wanted to go out there and repay him.” Repay him he has. After the unmitigated disappointment of Angel Di Maria, Young has filled the void.
Van Gaal’s quotes on Young reflect this idea of him as a patch to cover up an unexpected puncture. “He is a player who wants to perform what you say,” said the Dutchman in March. “I think Ashley Young was the man of the match. He did his job as a left winger,” was the reaction following that Manchester City victory. Young is a loyal foot soldier, a trier and a grafter, player who does what he’s told. Only six players have played more minutes for United in the league this season.
However, is the love-in for Young becoming a little overstated? Whilst the improvement is obvious, Young is at least partly the beneficiary of drastically reduced expectations. When you set the bar so low, it becomes far easier to clear.
Furthermore, Young’s improved output must in part be put down to Marouane Fellaini’s own enhancement. Young created a chance every 64 minutes in 2013/14, but that has only improved to every 61 minutes this season despite the increase in Young’s assists. The Belgian makes for a useful target man.
There are widespread reports that Young will sign a new three-year deal this summer worth around £120,000 a week. Is there a danger of rewarding the short-term fix that Young provided rather than the potential for what he could become? A summer England return has also been mooted; it’s worth remembering that he turns 30 in July.
Young is United’s bellwether player, indicative of their season as a whole. The improvement has been noticeable and necessary, but this still remains a job half-done. The arrival of Memphis Depay is likely to relegate Young back to the fringes of the United first team, and rightly so. If that sounds harsh, you’re allowing heart to rule over head.
Young should be warmly congratulated for his resurgence under a new manager, but the fact remains that he has no place in a side challenging for the Premier League title. Having been United’s effective stopgap, it’s time for someone else to take the baton. This is no time for sentimentality.