It’s been an embarrassing few weeks for Manchester United. First they collapsed limply against Arsenal, a defeat compounded by Leeds’ thrilling performance at the Emirates a week later. Then they were blown into tiny humiliated pieces by Manchester City. And now, the embarrassing cherry on this humiliating cake, club captain Ashley Young might be about to leave.
Stop laughing at the back.
Young, according to the rumour mill, may be moving to Internazionale to join Antonio Conte and Romelu Lukaku as they attempt to break Juventus’ stranglehold on the title. United, in response, have reportedly offered Young a year’s extension to his contract, which expires in the summer. This offer makes no sense and makes perfect sense simultaneously.
There is no reason why Manchester United — as they think they should be, as habit insists they should be, as the sponsorship deals suggest they should be — need trouble themselves with the departure of a 34-year-old squad player. However experienced, however much of a leader, however useful: so long, Ash, and thanks for all that hard work at fullback. Also there was that time a bird went in your mouth. We’ll leave that out of the farewell montage.
However, Manchester United as they are can’t really afford to lose a squad player of Young’s usefulness because, well, they have a squad made up of nothing but squad players. Every first-teamer — with maybe a handful of exceptions, which we’ll get to later — is, in this moment, good enough to appear on the bench of (the ideal ) Manchester United as an option, or a prospect, or as somebody that will do a job in a pinch. But no better.
The Ashley Young Paradox, then, is the contradiction between the abstract and the specific states in which Manchester United exists. It is extremely important that they continue to pretend that they are Manchester United, swaggering champions by right. Yet they cannot let Ashley Young go because they think they could do with having him around. And they’re probably right.
A powerful feedback loop has emerged: United can’t let anybody go, but then they don’t get any better because — surprise — they’ve got a squad filled with squad players. Ashley Young is just as important as Juan Mata (new contract in 2019; runs to 2021), or Phil Jones (same; runs to 2023), or Nemanja Matic (contract expiring this summer, but there’s a year option there ...). This is why every Manchester United lineup is underwhelming: Solskjaer doesn’t have the options to whelm.
Those exceptions, briefly. David de Gea and Paul Pogba on past brilliance. Anthony Martial on talent. And Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire were certainly brought in to form half of an elite defence.
None of them are playing up to their ceilings, though. Pogba’s barely playing at all. None would get anywhere near Liverpool’s first XI, 27 points distant. It’s not entirely clear that Maguire, on current form, would get back into Leicester’s.
Indeed, the only player in United’s squad who is playing like he belongs in the first XI of a genuinely powerful side is Marcus Rashford. As such, and in accordance with the traditions of our time, every time he has a quiet game half the internet finds him on social media and calls him appalling things.
It’s almost magical, the effect that moving to Manchester United has on footballers. Everything Fred the Red touches turns to 6 out of 10. Of course, this hasn’t come about by accident. Rather, it’s the culmination of many years of accident, mismanagement, negligence, inadequacy, arrogance, and straightforward stupidity. You can distribute those adjectives amongst the owners, the executive, the procession of managers, and the players as you please; you can’t go too far wrong.
Nobody wins a title without a few squad players, of course. They come off the bench to put useful shifts in. And there are coaches that can extract brilliance from squad players, and scouting departments that extract brilliance from the transfer market. And there are, so rumour has it, football clubs that manage to have both at the same time. Not United, though.
United are a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a paradox called Ashley Young, a faithful servant and useful squad player whose apparent importance only serves to emphasise the club’s increasing irrelevance.
All that said, he’s still a useful squad player.