Jim White

Embarrassing Young offers United little bar wretched dives

Jim White

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In his autobiography, Alex Ferguson talks of Cristiano Ronaldo’s habit, in his early days at Manchester United, of going to ground too easily when challenged. Ferguson insists he spent some time trying to rid the player of the diving instinct. But the manager concedes he had some sympathy. When you are running at high speed past opposing players, then the slightest touch does knock you off kilter. Tumbles are inevitable.

You can see the logic. Running at high speed past opposing players will inevitably put a forward in danger of having his equilibrium disturbed. So what exactly is Ashley Young’s excuse? If anyone can remember him doing either of those things during his time at Old Trafford they must have a sharper eye than me.

And yet there he was last night in San Sebastian, as United laboured against a limited Real Sociedad, tumbling to the turf at the merest brush of an opponent’s arm as if he had just been hit by sniper fire during an Olympic sprint. It was embarrassing to watch.

While it is always harsh to single out an individual for opprobrium – and there are several others, some of whom appear to be wearing comedy wigs, who were equally as responsible for United’s underwhelming showing last night - in Young’s case we should make an exception.

His performance after coming on as substitute was a 20-minute cameo of his entire United career. Running at pace seems to be beyond him. Taking on opponents – even full backs as uninspiring as Sociedad’s – something other people do.

In one incident, a well-targeted clearance out of defence by Patrice Evra found him in open country on the left wing. Ahead of him was a vast expanse of space into which he might gallop. If that had been Ronaldo in the same position, the game would have been over. But this was Ashley Young. Instead he ambled, allowing the defence to re-group. Then, as always, when confronted by the first defender, he checked and stalled progress, eventually losing the ball.

Never mind running or dribbling, his passing too was abject. One on occasion a straightforward six-yard pass went straight into touch. True, he produced the game’s one incisive cross, which Javier Hernandez should have converted. But that ought to be his routine, his bread and butter. He should constantly get himself into a position to fire in crosses like that. One a game is not enough.

All that would have been forgivable had he not gone airborne to win a penalty. That dive was wretched. And depressingly all too typical.

In the National Hockey League, teams employ a player with a specific destructive role. Known as the enforcer, his job is to be summoned off the bench when his side is in trouble, to seek out the best performing opponent, and deliberately assault him.

The hope is that the attack will provoke a response from the opponent which results in him being sent off the ice. In the tactical calculation, it is worth losing one of your own, if you can take down the best of theirs. It was an idea, you might recall, Joey Barton pathetically attempted to emulate at the Etihad in May 2012.

Well Young seems to have developed into a player with as limited a role as the ice hockey enforcer. His one purpose seems to be to come off the bench and win a penalty. Except, according to David Moyes who was obliged to lecture the player after a laughable tumble earlier in the season, this is not an official tactic. It just seems to be a role Young has adopted for himself. These days, by far his most notable contribution in a United shirt is diving at the first opportunity.

Of course, if the ploy is successful, if the penalty is not only awarded but converted, if three points and qualification for the next stage of the competition are the result of your effort, then it could be argued there is a purpose behind the initiative. But last night, when Robin van Persie hammered the resulting penalty against the post, it was exposed for what it was: an empty embarrassment. And the justification for playing Young just looks thinner by the day.

It is a really odd decline, his. In March 2011 I saw Young run the game for England against Wales in the Millennium Stadium. He looked quick, lively, intelligent, a real prospect. Since his subsequent move to Manchester, however, he has diminished to the point that almost his sole contribution to a game is whether he manages to convince the referee that there was contact before he hurled himself to the grass.

Clearly, with just 20 minutes game time in two Champions League fixtures and a starting position in the Capital One Cup to show for his last six weeks' work at Old Trafford, his manager has concluded that is not enough.

It may be that his confidence has been shot. It may be that he needs an extended run to recover the vim he displayed that March afternoon in Cardiff. But whatever the case his cause – and with it his chances of making it to Brazil next summer – is not helped by the growing conviction that all he has to offer is a strategic fall.

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