Manchester United is in a race for second place in the English Premier League. Second place!
This is the same Manchester United that was managed by David Moyes last season. And finished seventh. And couldn’t do much of anything right. And whose first choice central defense is Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.
Needless to say, manager Louis van Gaal is a wizard. But the above accomplishments are just indicative of competent-level wizardry. Anyone who got decent scores on their OWLs could do it.
There is another level of wizardry, though. There’s the Order of Merlin: First Class, and van Gaal has it because of one remarkable accomplishment, he made Ashley Young good at soccer again.
This is the same Young who Sir Alex Ferguson bought and couldn’t get to play at his best. And the same Young who Moyes certainly couldn’t sort out. And the same Young everyone figured van Gaal would offload, only to laugh when he was shunted out to wingback, where logic dictated he was just filling a spot because there wasn’t a good option and he could be hidden there.
Instead, Young has become good. Really good. And not just at wingback, but even pushed forward as well.
With Manchester United hosting Manchester City on Sunday and the Red Devils looking to move four points clear of their rivals in the standings, van Gaal put Young on the wing. He tasked him with some defensive responsibilities, but more than anything, he was supposed to get forward and establish the left side for United. Van Gaal was intent on playing with width and winning out wide, and Young was the man who had to do it all for him on the left side.
Not only did Young do it, but he may have been the best player on the field. Shortly after City took an eighth minute lead, Young got United even. He came in from the wing with a great run to get inside of a defender, receive a ball and — albeit with some luck — beat Joe Hart to bring the match level.
That was followed by him playing a gorgeous one-two with Daley Blind to unhinge the City defense before eventually hitting an inch-perfect cross for Maruoane Fellaini. Manchester United was 2-1 up and well on its way to a thorough beating of its rivals, and it all started with Young’s great play.
This was hardly Young’s first good match of the season. He’s made good flank play the norm. He’s done it from a variety of places and with a variety of responsibilities. As van Gaal alters his team from match to match, formation-wise and tactically, Young has been one of the key cogs. His versatility has allowed his new manager to be flexible.
And in return, somehow, van Gaal has made Ashley Young good. He’s made his versatility effective. He’s made him a key. And this on a team competing for second place in the Premier League. It can only be explained by magic.