The pre-season tour of the USA could not have gone any better for Manchester United. Wins against elite European opposition and against the old enemy has buoyed Manchester United fans worldwide. Clearly, the Dutch manager has lifted the spirit of the entire club and instilled belief into the players once more. Interestingly, van Gaal has implemented a tactical 3-5-2 (or 3-4-1-2) formation that is not normally associated with Manchester United. While it virtually means the end of the line for players such as Anderson and Nani, the system has arguably salvaged the careers of two United players – Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia.
After signing from Aston Villa, Ashley Young sizzled in his first few performances in a United shirt; scoring two deliciously curled goals in the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal. An ankle injury followed soon after, and that was the end of any stretch of consistent form for the English winger. Last season, Young had one assist in 20 premier league games; a statistical confirmation of what everyone knows – Young was awful last season.
Antonio Valencia’s Manchester United career has been more successful than Young’s. Signed as replacement for the Madrid-bound Cristiano (remember him?), Valencia forged a successful partnership with Chicharito and Wayne Rooney. He provided both forwards with numerous assists – his flat crosses and direct running troubled left backs everywhere. In spite of a nasty leg break, he got ahead of Nani in the pecking order and was voted player of the season.
Last season, however, both players produced very little and were largely disappointing. Most United fans would admit that at the start of the summer, losing either player would have been an acceptable situation.
Louis van Gaal’s 3-5-2 system relies on two wing backs who are hard-working, fast, selfless and diligent in following instructions. Both Valencia and Young possess those attributes. They are both explosive players, who can be devastating on the break. Furthermore, last season, we saw that neither player could beat a man one-on-one. Playing as a wing-back would require them to overlap past midfielders and therefore create 2 v 1 situations. This would take away the need for them to attempt too many dribbles. Arguably, on the overlap, they would be able to create more crossing opportunities than they otherwise would.
Another advantage of retaining Ashley Young, in particular, is that he is able to play the wingback role from either wing. Therefore, allowing a level of tactical flexibility that LVG clearly enjoys. Young’s desire to impress was apparent in the game against Liverpool – as he tracked back over and over again to help Phil Jones – who was clearly having trouble containing the mercurial Raheem Sterling.
It would be fair to say that had it not been for injury and fitness concerns, Rafael and Luke Shaw would be the starting fullbacks at United. Additionally, we have seen that Reece James can play that position – but he will probably be brought in for the cup games. If needed, Darren Fletcher and Tyler Blackett can also play the right and left wing back roles respectively. But, currently, Young and Valencia have managed to nail down the position . Only time will tell if they retain their spots, but suffice to say, they have done enough to earn a right to be a part of LVG’s putative revolution.