If, a few years back, you had asked Manchester United fans to predict the composition of their side’s back four in September 2017, very few would have plumped for Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Ashley Young. Yet that was the quartet which started the 4-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace prior to the international break, a result which kept Jose Mourinho’s men level on points with Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table.
The widely held view of Smalling and Jones in their first couple of the seasons at Old Trafford was that, despite being talented, both were too prone to injuries, inconsistency and error-making to be long-term options for United at centre-half. Jones, though, has been in terrific form since the start of 2017/18, while Smalling seems to have earned enough of Mourinho’s trust to continue to be a back-up option behind Eric Bailly.
The real surprise is at full-back. Valencia has now established himself as one of the best right-backs in the country, but towards the start of the decade he was still seen as a solid if unspectacular winger who could provide cover when superior alternatives were unavailable for selection. Young’s conversion to left-back, meanwhile, has been more recent and more unexpected; the 30-cap England international at times played as a No.10 for former club Aston Villa and was seen as an adventurous left winger upon his arrival at United in the summer of 2011.
Louis van Gaal’s tenure at Old Trafford was, for the most part, disappointing, but the Dutchman deserves credit for his redeployment of both Valencia and Young. Although the former had played right-back at times under both Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes, it was Van Gaal who stationed him there on a regular basis, while Young was first selected at left-back at the start of 2015/16, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich head coach’s final season in charge.
No position has undergone as big a transformation as the full-back in the last 20 years. Previously a purely defensive role, they are now expected to contribute in the attacking phase of play by providing width high up the pitch (there is even an increasing tendency for full-backs to push forward but move inside rather than outside, as demonstrated by the likes of David Alaba, Philipp Lahm, Dani Alves and Marcelo in recent years). This is particularly important for the bigger teams who dominate possession; advancing full-backs not only offer a passing option down the flank, they also allow a side’s wide forwards to drift infield and take up dangerous positions between the lines.
In that light, it makes perfect sense that two former wingers are able to excel in the position for United. When facing opponents such as Palace, who provided very little in the way of a sustained attacking threat on the last day of last month, Valencia and Young routinely take up positions which would have been associated with a traditional winger in times gone by (although while the former tends to use his athleticism to drive down the line, the latter prefers to cut back on his right foot and deliver in-swinging crosses into the box). Mourinho may opt for more of a specialist left-back in the biggest matches, but Young is perfectly capable of fulfilling the role’s functions when the Red Devils lock horns with teams they are expected to dominate.
Another reason why the duo have shone is their individual humility. At Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa respectively, Valencia and Young were among the team’s key players going forward. Once they arrived at Old Trafford, though, they found themselves surrounded by more talented footballers who simply had more to offer in attacking areas.
Even when stationed higher up the pitch, both men accepted their defensive responsibilities and remained switched on when their team did not have the ball – something which is particularly important to a coach like Mourinho, whose current preference for Marcus Rashford over Anthony Martial has much to do with the former’s superior defensive diligence. When offered the chance to play regular football, albeit in a previously unfamiliar position, neither man kicked up a fuss.
“I don’t think it is a reward, I don’t see it in this perspective,” Mourinho told MUTV after Valencia was handed a new contract in June. “I just think he is the best right-back you can have. There is no better right-back in football. It is just for us to keep the best. I don’t think it is a reward. It is a privilege for us to have such a good player and such a good man.”
The Portuguese has also been complimentary of Young in the last few weeks, insisting he always wanted the 32-year-old to remain at the club despite numerous press reports suggesting he could be on his way out of Old Trafford in the summer. With United flying high in the Premier League having scored 21 goals and conceded only two in seven matches, Mourinho has every reason to be happy with his converted full-backs.
By Greg Lea
Greg Lea is a freelance football writer for FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and various others. Follow his Twitter account @GregLeaFootball for anything and everything related to soccer and more.