The strange timing of Ashley Young’s England breakthrough

It is ironic that Ashley Young seems to be finally making headway at international level during a season when his form for Aston Villa has arguably reached its lowest ebb. Both of the goals in England’s European Championship qualifying win over Wales had a Villa connection; Young hauled down by Villa team-mate James Collins for a sixth-minute penalty, before crossing for another Villan, Darren Bent, to make the game safe. It was the winger’s most influential performance in an England shirt to date, in only his second competitive start, and follows on the heels of his first international goal in last month’s friendly win over Denmark.

For Aston Villa, however, Young has struggled this season in a struggling side. Moving from the wide role – a position in which he turned in a number of dazzling displays since arriving as an expensively-acquired teenager from Watford in 2007 – Young has operated in a floating, central role behind the main striker. It initially seemed an inspired transition, as Kevin MacDonald’s Young-powered Villa eased to victory over West Ham on the opening day; his pace and movement pulling defenders all over the place and opening gaps for himself and his fellow attackers to exploit. Under Gerard Houllier, however, Young’s performances in the centre have divided supporters, with many believing him to be far less effective than out wide, where his whipped-in delivery is at its most dangerous.

It could be argued that Villa lack the midfield presence to provide the supply line Young needs to flourish in the hole. James Milner has gone, his replacement Stephen Ireland has proven to be a disaster, and Stiliyan Petrov has spent much of the campaign injured. Curiously, however, Young has suggested that he prefers playing behind the striker. A forward in his Watford days, who idolised Ian Wright in his youth, he claimed in February: “I’ve loved every minute of playing in the hole. It gives me more freedom to go and get the ball and to join in more. Hopefully, I will continue to keep playing there for my club and impress the England manager.”

Perhaps Young has gone stale at Villa. Certain sections of the Holte End faithful have accused him of petulance and apathy at times this term, and of wearing the look of a man who knows he will not be at Villa Park next season. Young only has 12 months of his contract left to run, with a host of top clubs, among them Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham rumoured to be keen to sign him. He has been at pains to make clear his lack of interest in signing a new deal any time soon.

With none of the other contenders for a role on the England flanks convincing consistently, Young’s recent showings for the Three Lions have catapulted him to the front of the queue. Yet he now has two important decisions to make. First, which is his best position, and second, which club will showcase his talents most effectively. The answer to the first question is not yet clear. The second should be resolved in the summer, but it seems increasingly unlikely that the answer will be Aston Villa. The Villans have sold their star player in each of the last two summer transfer windows. They may have little option but to make it a hat-trick with Ashley Young.

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