Manchester United fans were hoping this would be the season when Luke Shaw emerged as the best left-back in the Premier League.
In the month before his injury in 2015/16, he was United’s best player - which is a rare achievement for a full-back. Shaw was brilliant in attack and solid defensively, but since then his playing time has been limited by repeated injuries and his failure to impress Jose Mourinho.
Every manager Shaw has played for has questioned his attitude at one time or another, which doesn’t bode well for the youngster. Mourinho publicly blamed him for a goal United conceded away to Watford last season and again criticised him for pulling out of a game against Swansea because he didn’t feel fit enough to play. The manager likes players who are prepared to play through the pain barrier and Shaw is not one of them. Maybe that’s understandable after missing so much of his United career with injuries.
Yet in Shaw’s absence, United aren’t blessed with options at left-back. Daley Blind can play there and, while he has a great football brain, he’s incredibly slow, which doesn’t suit the attributes United need from their wide players.
Had someone said at the beginning of the season that Ashley Young would be United’s best option in this position, the fans would have been worried. Yet Young has been brilliant for United since becoming a regular starter at the end of September. Defensively he has been sound and his crossing ability is better than anyone in the team. His four goals and assists is more than any player in his position in the league.
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With opponents aware that Young likes to come back inside and deliver balls into the box with his right foot, he’s improved his ability at taking his man on and crossing with his left at the by-line.
Against Brighton last weekend, it was Young’s deflected effort that won United the game; he celebrated wildly after the goal looped in over Mathew Ryan’s head, even if it ultimately went down as an own goal.
On Tuesday night against Watford, with Young clearly enjoying the taste of celebration days earlier, he was on a mission to get his name on the scoresheet. With 20 minutes on the clock, he put away a great chance at the near post when striking from outside of the box. Five minutes later, he made it 2-0 with an expertly taken free-kick. It was reminiscent of the Young we saw at the start of his United career - in his third appearance for the club, he scored two brilliant goals in an 8-2 win over Arsenal.
Young was at the peak of his career back then, but at 32 he's successfully adapted to a new position. It was Louis van Gaal who first trialled him successfully as a wing-back and he thrives in the more defensive role now.
Young's contract expires at the end of the season, but United have the option to automatically extend that by a year. There have been rumours that United are prepared to offer him an even better deal than that, but Young wasn’t giving anything away after the final whistle on Tuesday.
“It’s always nice to get on the scoresheet and I haven’t done that for a long while,” he said. “I’m just concentrating on things on the pitch, that’s all I can do, go out there and play well and we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”
In an era where players refuse to celebrate against their former clubs, Young paid no attention to the fact he had been developed at Watford’s academy when sliding on his knees to the corner flag.
In Young, United have a player who appears to be genuinely happy to be at the club, who has a wealth of experience, who can guide the younger players and still has plenty to contribute.
You would imagine that United will look to sign a specialist left-back in the summer, with Shaw unlikely to ever make that position his own under Mourinho, but they could do far worse than having an option like Young in their squad.