The imminent departure of James Milner to Manchester City means that Aston Villa’s 3-0 win at home to West Ham on Saturday represented the end of an era at Villa Park, but the positioning of Ashley Young meant that it also marked a potential new dawn.
Young has reportedly been angling to play in an advanced position behind the striker and in Villa’s opening game of the Premier League season he was granted his wish. Operating in a roving role in support of John Carew, he spent most of his time on the left but was able to flit from flank to flank and set up Stiliyan Petrov for Villa’s second goal with a delicately measured cross from the right-hand side.
The diagram below contrasts Young’s performance against West Ham with his contribution in the corresponding fixture last season. When the sides met in January, his remit was strictly confined to the flanks and there was an aimlessness to his crossing borne out by the fact he completed just 40 percent of his attempted passes. On Saturday, he spent much more time linking the play in the centre of the pitch and, although he tried to make fewer passes, his distribution was markedly more accurate.
When on form, Young can be one of England’s most irrepressible attacking players, but a disappointing predictability has crept into his game in recent seasons. When wide on the left he is forever dropping his shoulder and checking back onto his right foot to curl inswinging crosses towards the back post, which every defence in the country now anticipates. Martin O’Neill’s fondness for the 4-4-2 formation did not always present him with many options for a short pass either.
His apparent desire to play in the centre shows a laudable wish to exert more of an influence on the game and there are signs that he is capable of flourishing as the free man in a 4-4-1-1. As well as being skilful and both-footed, his fine chipped goal in Villa’s pre-season win over Peterborough hinted that he may possess the vision and the invention to make things happen in central areas and many Premier League fans will remember him destroying Everton centre-back Joleon Lescott in Villa’s last-gasp 3-2 win at Goodison Park in December 2008.
“Nowadays there are a lot of players who can play in different positions and that’s good for the team, the squad and the manager,” Young told the Birmingham Mail last month. “I am a versatile player. When I first signed for the club, I played up front. I have also played off the front man, I’ve played right, I’ve played left and I’ve even played in central midfield too.”
Milner’s exit means there is a vacancy for a creative driving force in the Villa side, and although his nominal replacement Stephen Ireland possesses plenty of guile, he cannot compete with Young for pace and directness. Furthermore, with Steven Gerrard squarely ahead of him in the pecking order on the England left, Young’s chances of forcing his way into Fabio Capello’s thinking would only be enhanced by a successful move into the centre. In any case, it will be intriguing to see where caretaker Villa coach Kevin MacDonald deploys Young when Milner has gone and Gabriel Agbonlahor has returned to fitness.