Belfast Telegraph

Ashley Young is getting better with age at Manchester United

By Ian Herbert

It would help lift the mood if Louis van Gaal could just discard his rule about not praising individual players a little more.

Ashley Young had just played a blinder in Manchester United's 2-0 win over Sunderland at the end of last month when the manager found himself squeezed into one of Old Trafford's back corridors, fielding questions about the player.

"There is a Dutch saying but you won't understand it," he said, or words to that effect, when asked about Young.

And when pressed to "try us", he came out with the word "swallow," grappling with his eccentric English vocabulary as usual.

"Swallow dive", the act which Young became synonymous with as his United career appeared destined to be short-lived, was not the expression Van Gaal was searching for.

It was: "One swallow doesn't make a summer."

The United manager just could not seem to bring himself to say that Young's display should be viewed as part of a promising pattern.

That was unfair of him, because it should have.

There are presently plenty of reasons for gloom among United supporters, who are wondering how on earth the Sir Alex Ferguson elixir might ever be rediscovered, but one of the bright spots - the brightest, in fact - has been the renaissance of Young this season.

It was no surprise that he was United's best outfield player in the 2-1 FA Cup sixth-round defeat to Arsenal at Old Trafford on Monday night. He has been United's best outfield player all season.

Young had slipped so far that you felt there was no way back at the end of last summer, when he was missing from England's World Cup squad and Van Gaal was expected to wield a large broom.

Both Ferguson and David Moyes discussed the dives with the player, but that tendency seemed innate and it did not endear him to those who watched him at Old Trafford.

Journalists' impressions were not much more positive than the supporters'.

At times, Young did not even bother with the pretence of wearing headphones when he blanked us in the mixed zones, but last July he revealed a characteristic which is at the core of the famous Van Gaal "philosophy" - versatility.

You flinched when Young was asked to play as a wing-back on United's pre-season tour of the United States, but it worked.

Young coped defensively against Roma as the tour took shape, even though there were challenging moments.

And he demonstrated against Internazionale that he was capable of performing the role on both flanks, flipping between the two at half-time.

As Van Gaal prepared to put his 3-4-1-2 to work in the Premier League, Young actually seemed to cheer up.

Despite nearly six weeks out with a hamstring injury sustained at Stoke on New Year's Day, his season has maintained momentum because he is also the United player most willing to stay wide, take on a full-back and cross - something Angel di Maria is not being encouraged to do.

He impressed in the difficult FA Cup fifth-round tie at Preston, was convincing against Sunderland and scored the winner at Newcastle.

At Old Trafford on Monday, Van Gaal gave him licence to operate as a pure left winger and consequently he took on Hector Bellerin with a confidence that you wished Di Maria had displayed on the opposite flank against Nacho Monreal.

Young had drawn two free-kicks before the game was 15 minutes old.

His final pass was not what it might have been and his night did not end well.

Young had to be dragged away from referee Michael Oliver at the end and the gamesmanship which seems a perennial part of him was evident in his demands that the official dish out a second yellow for Bellerin, to go with the first after the young Frenchman's early bad tackle on him, but it was a performance which reaffirms Young's recovery, for all that.

He is not the dazzling player Ferguson expected when signing him from Aston Villa for around £15m four years ago but has proved himself, bearing out one of Van Gaal's favourite sayings.

"I don't need the 11 best," the Dutchman likes to say. "I need the best 11."

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