Imagine Ashley Young bursting into the penalty box, clad in Michael Palin’s Spanish Inquisitor costume, fists on hips, proudly rattling off his best attributes: Amongst my weaponry are such diverse elements as speed, invention, passing, crossing, ruthless efficiency, a nice claret and blue uniform… ah… I’ll come in again!
Weaponry indeed. He may be Aston Villa’s most valuable asset. Bought as a striker for an initial £8m from Watford, Young has since been deployed on both wings and in the hole just behind the forwards, with much success. While Young is a true threat on goal, his real impact comes from his brilliance at playmaking and assisting. He made 15 assists in his first full season for Villa last year with 1069 succesful passes. This was a mere 221 fewer passes than recent PFA winner Cristiano Ronaldo made in the same season and more than twice as many assists.
Liverpool have Stephen Gerrard. Manchester United have Ronaldo. Everton have Mikel Arteta. Many credit Carlos Tevez with saving West Ham from relegation in 2007. Pedro Mendes may have done the same for Portsmouth the season before that. The pivotal player is not merely one who is gifted and versatile on the ball, but also one who lifts his teammates and elevates their level of play. Sometimes it’s a matter of leadership. Sometimes it’s simply allowing other players to trust you fully, knowing your attacks and possession will be so convincing, they can enjoy the confidence to take risks and cause danger as you create space and soak up the defenders who rightly fear all you can do on and off the ball.
Many would assert it is Gareth Barry who fills this pivotal role for Villa, and such an argument has plenty of merit. But in my opinion Young has been a veritable lighting rod for the Villans this season. Apart from a three-match ban after a dangerous, two-footed tackle on Sunderland’s Dean Whitehead, Young has had a pristine season. The threats he creates for himself and for others is unsettling to defenders and he has a knack for putting his opponents off balance with the simplist of turns and drives. His ability to create space, retain the ball and service his fellow attackers in key moments has been one of the utmost importance to Villa’s impressive current standing in the table. And since Gabby Agbonlahor, Villa’s top striker, is one who relies on a good delivery from his supporting attackers, Young is the perfect midfield foil to the tall, pacy hitman.
As of this writing, Villa are in third place, a mere five points shy of the top. So far they’ve shown serious intent to build on their good standing in recent years and this could be the season they finish in the top four and enjoy a campaign in next season’s Champions League. The upcoming match hosting Chelsea will be an important test. If Villa lose, they slide down to fourth. If they win, they will enjoy a five point buffer over the Blues as well as plenty of confidence and resolve from having defeated a league giant.
Expect Ashley Young to continue to fight hard for his team’s success. His pace and creativity will be all important against Chelsea. And it’s very likely that his threat from advanced positions will cause Chelsea to commit multiple players to shutting him down, opening up more space for Agbonlahor, Heskey, Barry, et al. Even if Young doesn’t deliver the killer goal or assist, his presence will influence the match and give a lift to his teammates, against Chelsea and against the other challenges to come as Villa strive to build on their impressive run of results.
Nobody expected the Ashley Young inquisition. Not all that weaponry for a mere £8m anyway.