It’s no secret that Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young weren’t initially signed to be wing-backs. Purchased by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2010 and 2011 respectively, they were supposed to help fill the gap left by the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. They both had a tendency to run at full-backs and get crosses in for the strikers at their former clubs, and for their first few seasons at United, that seemed to be the role they were going to perform for their entire tenure at the club.
However, constant managerial changes, as well as additions to the squad and tactical alterations that were constant after the departure of Alex Ferguson, meant that both players faced an ultimatum. They were becoming bit part players, and if their game didn’t change, they were in danger of being let go.
In 2014, Louis van Gaal’s initial attempts at playing a 5-3-2 formation proved to not fit the United players, and a switch to the more familiar four-at-the-back was needed. United’s only real recognised right back at the time was Rafael, and the Dutchman felt that Valencia was the one to fill the role. He’d played there a few times under both Ferguson and David Moyes, but he never looked completely comfortable.
United fans need not have worried. The Ecuadorian powerhouse has thrived in the role ever since, and has arguably become the best right-back in the league. The man the fans know as ‘Tony V’ has had his fair share of stumbling blocks during his career, such as him struggling to deal with the pressure of wearing the famous #7 shirt during the 2012-13 season, but to see him now at the top of his game is something United fans are loving.
Valencia’s adaptation from a bit part player into one of the first names on the team sheet is astounding, and he has to be commended for putting in all the hard work in training and being able to transform himself into a defensive powerhouse in such a short amount of time.
Much like Valencia, Ashley Young was in and out of the United team during the period of managerial changes, and was forced to alter his game in order to revitalise his career Old Trafford. Thanks to van Gaal, who doesn’t seem to be credited with helping the two come back into the first team picture, Young got that opportunity.
Operating on the left hand side, he excelled towards the end of the 2014-2015 season, scoring and assisting in the 4-2 home win against Manchester City, as well as providing an important assist in an away win at Crystal Palace.
Competition from Daley Blind, Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw has limited Young from having an extended period in the starting XI, but his recent performances suggest that he may be nailing down that place for the remainder of the season.
Valencia and Young are two great examples of ageing players adapting their game in order to make sure they can continue to perform at a top level, and they have to be admired for their commitment to the club. The pair are great ambassadors for younger players to look up to, and their experience will be a great help to players like Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw, who themselves are looking to establish a place in the first XI. With these two in the team, both the present and the future look bright for Manchester United.