Manchester United fans were largely underwhelmed by the news that Ashley Young had signed for £17 million in the summer of 2011. While he had claimed a large number of assists during his career, the transfer fee seemed overinflated for a player in the final year of his contract. There was the notion from some that he was merely a big fish in a small pond, who had shone at Aston Villa, but would struggle to replicate the same impact at United.
The signing of Marouane Fellaini in the summer of 2013 was met with even greater dissatisfaction. Paying above the figure set in the release clause, which the club allowed to expire earlier that summer without getting a deal done, didn’t help placate supporters who didn’t think that Fellaini was United quality.
The players have seen mixed fortunes during their time at the club, although both have been on the receiving end from plenty of stick from the supporters over the years.
Young has been used mainly as a squad player, rather than a regular in the starting line-up, with his 23 starts in the 2014-15 season, when Louis van Gaal used him as a wing-back, the most he has ever made in the league.
Young managed a very respectable 13 goals and assists in 19 starts in the league in his first season, after quietening the dissenting voices early on with his two stunning goals in United’s 8-2 win over Arsenal in his just his third league appearance for the club. His revelation that he had turned down a move to rivals Manchester City in preference of playing at Old Trafford certainly didn’t do his reputation any harm either.
He didn’t set the world alight in the two seasons he spent playing for Sir Alex Ferguson but he was a decent enough option as a squad player. But when David Moyes arrived, Young, like many others in the team, was atrocious. Seemingly entirely bereft of any confidence, he would hardly ever take a player on, he lost the ball all the time, and managed just one assist in 20 league appearances.
How easily he went down to ground, rarely for it to be rewarded with the penalty he was playing for, only further infuriated the fans, whose patience wore increasingly thin during the months that Moyes was in charge for.
Fellaini’s association with the Scottish manager didn’t help his cause any more than his poor performances did. He didn’t score goals in the air, despite his height advantage, and he could barely even run with the ball at his feet.
While Young enjoyed a new lease of life under Van Gaal the following season, playing well at times in the wing-back position, the Dutchman persisted with Fellaini despite his rubbish form. While not his fault, the fact he represented the dull football that Van Gaal employed when being thrown up front as a striker after their possession heavy tactics had failed to produce any goals, made him all the more unpopular.
Despite only being a handful of games in to this Premier League campaign, Jose Mourinho has overseen something no fans could have expected. Young is United’s first choice left-back and Fellaini’s inclusion in the starting team no longer earns groans from the Old Trafford crowd.
There was a moment during United’s 4-0 win over Crystal Palace when the Stretford End spontaneously broke out in to singing Fellaini’s chant. His name was obviously sung following both of his goals, but on this occasion it followed a period of great play from the Belgian. Aside from scoring, he was making important interceptions and playing intelligent passes, as well as going on a couple of decent runs.
After the game, Mourinho sung the praises of his midfielder, who has managed to find this form on the back of years of criticism from the fans, with him even being booed on occasion.
“He’s a team player, a great character, we have a good relation and things are going really between us,” said the manager.
“I think only a strong character would resist the difficulties here because he had some difficult times where people didn’t recognise his qualities where probably other managers didn’t like so much the qualities that he has, so you have to be a strong character.
“He’s a fighter, a guy with lots of pride, I’m really pleased I helped him to reach this and to change the perception the fans have now, I’m really happy for him.”
It’s not just Fellaini, but Young too who has his name sung by the Stretford End. Young now has three assists in his last three games and, interestingly, 36% of all Fellaini’s goals in the league have come from Young’s crosses.
As has been repeatedly mentioned by United’s detractors, Mourinho’s team has yet to play any real top quality opposition. They haven’t played any side that finished in the top four last year yet, with their trip to Anfield after the international break their first real test.
Yet if United are to be successful this season, they will need squad players of a good enough standard to beat the so-called lesser sides, and Fellaini and Young certainly pull their weight.
Of course, if given the choice between a fully fit Luke Shaw and Young, or Paul Pogba and Fellaini, the fans’ choice would be clear. But due to injuries and number of games, United will need to rotate this season, and the former unpopular pair are deserving of their place at the club.