In Focus: Young has the Vill to help Stevie G succeed
When Aston Villa’s starting XI was announced for the game against Crystal Palace on Saturday, some may have thought they had teleported 10 years back in time.
Ashley Young, 36, was selected to start on the left wing — the position he excelled in during his first spell at Villa Park but had not really played for several years.
The former Manchester United man has surprisingly been a standout player in new manager Steven Gerrard’s bright start after setting up the crucial opener off the bench against Brighton before grabbing another assist in the 2-1 win at Selhurst Park.
As he looks set to play another key role in Villa’s game against Manchester City on Wednesday night, can Young continue to impress under his former England team-mate?
Young looked set to plug gaps in the team when he was brought back to the Midlands by former manager Dean Smith over the summer.
With an average squad age of just 26, he would provide some much-needed experience and know-how as they looked to recover from losing talisman Jack Grealish in the summer.
When his signing was confirmed, it was clear that Smith would be using Young’s understanding of Premier League football as his biggest asset.
He said in July: "Ashley brings with him a wealth of experience of top-level football both at club and international level and he is joining having just won a league championship in Italy.
"He is a player who can play in a number of positions and, having spoken to him at length, I know he is determined to make a real impact with us this season."
A fresh start
While he would not have been expecting to start every match, Young would have been disappointed with his game time under the former boss.
After three consecutive starts at the beginning of the season due to injuries, a sole Carabao Cup outing was Young’s only time named in the XI from August onwards.
A run of five straight defeats saw Smith dismissed and replaced with Gerrard as Villa entered into a new era under the former Rangers boss.
Many would have seen the opportunity as a fresh start and a chance to impress their new boss — not least Young.
Top of the class
Young’s increased involvement under Gerrard may have come as a surprise to many but perhaps not to anyone who has witnessed training since the Liverpool legend replaced Smith earlier this month.
With several key players still away on international duty when he arrived, Gerrard did not have long to prepare the team for his first game against Brighton.
So having Young — a man Gerrard has shared a pitch and dressing room with for England — around the place will certainly have helped with the bedding-in process.
For all the talent that Villa possess in their squad, numerous accounts stated that Young had been the top performer during the first week — so much so that he was pushing for a shock start against the Seagulls.
On Young’s impact, Gerrard told Sky Sports: "He's been brilliant since I've walked in the door, but I expected nothing else.
"I've play with Ash, I know what his standards and his levels are like. Everything we've asked for, to the letter, he's done."
While he did not quite make the XI for that game, Young made a telling contribution when he was introduced as a second-half substitute.
Coming on in an unfamiliar central midfield role during a cagey affair, Young smartly maneuvered out of pressure before driving forward and calmly playing Ollie Watkins in to allow the striker to open the scoring in the 84th minute.
And despite only being on the field for a 16-minute cameo, Young astonishingly ranked third in his side for final third passes completed as he claimed his first Villa assist since May 2011.
After his match-winning impact, Gerrard had nothing but praise for the former Watford man and singled out his ability to play comfortably in many positions.
The Villa boss said: "I know Ashley extremely well and he's been absolutely outstanding since we walked through the door. Not just on the training pitch but his leadership and standard setting.
"We see players like him as an outer-layer of the staff, if you like, who really help us when we need to lean on him.
"He was ready today and the big thing about Ash is he can play right-back, left-back, he can play as an eight, a 10 or wide. That's what good players allow you to do as a manager, allow you to play in different ways."
And that versatility was clear in Villa’s next game as Young starred on the left-wing during their 2-1 victory.
The days of Young turning defenders inside out with his slaloming runs that he was famed for during his first spell at the club are gone but he has replaced that with a smarter side to his game.
The veteran barely put a foot wrong during the 85 minutes he was on the pitch during a disciplined away performance from Gerrard’s men.
His assist for Matt Targett’s opener means no other player in Villa’s history has provided more in the Premier League than Young’s 42, while he also went close with a trademark free-kick.
With Gerrard having the likes of Danny Ings, Watkins, Emi Buendia and Leon Bailey to choose from in attacking areas, Young has done remarkably well to earn a place in the side.
The quality those players possess — and the price tags they demanded — means elder statesman Young will likely give way once they and Gerrard settle as the season goes on.
But with the next task being champions City, it would be a surprise not to see Gerrard’s lieutenant somewhere in the team.