Manchester United 1 Arsenal 2: Ashley Young shines brightest in a season of gloom, but Louis van Gaal still refuses to acknowledge it

Young has enjoyed a resurgence when his United career appeared over but Van Gaal's refusal to single players out sees him overshadowed by United's failures

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It would help lift the mood if Louis van Gaal could only discard his rule about not praising individual players, a little more. Ashley Young had just played very well in Manchester United's win over Sunderland, eight days ago, when the manager found himself squeezed into one of the stadium'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 to be short lived, wasn’t the expression Van Gaal was searching for. It was: “One swallow doesn’t make a summer.” Van Gaal just couldn’t 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 rekindled, 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 last night. He has been the best United 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 Wold 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. The journalist’s impression was not much more positive than the supporters’. At times, Young didn’t even bother with the pretence of wearing headphones when he blanked us in mixed zones.

But last July, he revealed a characteristic which is at the core of the famous Van Gaal “philosophy” – versatility. You flinched when he was asked to play as a wing back on United’s pre-season tour of the United States. But do you know what? It worked.

Young coped defensively against Roma as the tour took shape, even though there were challenging moments (he is no Patrice Evra.) 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. He has not always given the impression of having a great ability to laugh at himself but when one of the non-playing members of Manchester United's entourage asked: "About this Tom Daley business???" - a reference to the dying swan impression – he seemed to accept it.

Despite nearly two months out with a hamstring injury sustained at Stoke, 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 fifth round tie at Preston, was convincing against Sunderland and scored the winner at Newcastle. At Old Trafford last night, Van Gaal gave him license 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.

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal

His final pass was not what it might have been and his night did not end well. He 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 initial bad tackle on him. But it was a performance which reaffirms Young’s recovery, for all that. He is not the dazzling player Sir Alex Ferguson expected when signing him three 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."