Pop quiz! About which footballer did Martin O'Neill, as quoted in the Daily Telegraph in December 2008, say the following:
Asked if [he] deserves to be described in the same company as the Barcelona playmaker [Lionel Messi], and Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo, O'Neill replied: "Yes. In my opinion. I see a lot of games in Europe, I watch a lot of football, and you see a lot of players in the game who are very functional. Some are decent, some are more than decent and some are very, very good. And then you have the players who are absolutely exceptional. And [he] is absolutely exceptional."
The title probably gave it away, didn't it? Yes, O'Neill was talking about then Aston Villa, now Manchester United winger Ashley Young, following a win over Everton in which Young had scored twice. It was, obviously, a ridiculous thing to say, even if the 2008 versions of Messi and Ronaldo weren't quite the paradigm-shattering goal-freaks they are now. But at the time it was good-ridiculous: an overenthusiastic overreaction from a proud manager who thought he was seeing a young player in the process of flourishing. A bit of exaggeration? Entirely understandable.
Fast forward a few years and Young isn't exciting such flattering comparisons. He hasn't scored a goal against anybody bar San Marino since May 2012, and has begun the season under some considerable scrutiny, after keeling over against both Manchester City, limply and metaphorically, and Crystal Palace, iniquitously and literally.
But if there was a moment during the Palace game that summed up this current version of Young, then it wasn't the dive. That was risible, yes, and it was embarrassing, of course, but diving is diving, and happens so often that it's almost dull. The only special features of this particular example were the fact that it was on the television, and the really quite impressive arc that Young contrived to manufacture. Oh, and former referee-turned-tabloid opinionista Graham Poll's subsequent suggestion - nay, demand - that diving be punished with a five-match suspension. That's two more games than a headbutt, Graham. That's the same as racial abuse, Graham. Would you like to have a sit down, Graham?
The real moment of clarity was the other incident, the penalty-that-shouldn't-have-been. It's not Young's fault that Kagisho Dikgacoi decided that the ball was just within range, when it wasn't, or that Jon Moss thought he was just inside the box, when he wasn't. But what's interesting about the 'clear goalscoring opportunity' that Young was denied was the way he looks, when you watch it again, like he had absolutely no intention of actually trying to score. It happens quickly of course, and this might just be a byproduct of slow-motion, but it looks for all the world like Young guides the ball through, runs across, makes sure he's between defender and ball, and then just ... waits.
Perhaps he was being clever. Perhaps he was just shielding the ball, or getting his balance right, or waiting for the goalkeeper to make the first move. Perhaps he felt that moving his body across and taking the shot with his weaker foot was the better option. Perhaps the problem is that your correspondent's faith in Young's footballing ability has drained away to the extent that it's impossible not to think the worst of whatever he does, even when it ends up working out okay. But ... well, run the action on in your head, without the foul, and if you don't see Julian Speroni coming out and easily smothering a poorly-directed, awkwardly hit shot, then I'm sorry, Mrs Young, but I don't think the rest of this article's going to be for you.
Obviously, reading too much into a single passage of play is dangerous at best. But this kind of approach is infecting everything Young does. It's not always as obvious, because it's not always as scrutinised, but there was once a time when Young would receive the ball on the left wing, and observers would groan as another ambitious shot flew in the vague direction of the far corner of the goal. Now, and for a good long while, there's been almost nothing so exciting: it's a certainty of almost Pope/woods proportions that the inevitable cut inside will be followed by a quick look up, and then a careful side-footed pass to Michael Carrick. Unless he ends up in or near the box, of course, when he'll fall over.
In truth, he was always a faintly peculiar signing. For all O'Neill's fervent backing, his performances at Aston Villa were, while impressive, not an unanswerable case for a move to the sharpest end of the table. And spending a decent (if undisclosed) fee plus hefty wages on a winger when United were in greater need elsewhere looked unwise at the time and hasn't looked much cleverer since (though obviously United haven't suffered too greatly, in the Premier League at least).
The suspicion is that his travails are a consequence of that weirdly counter-intuitive problem faced by certain footballers: being out of one's depth. It's counter-intuitive in the sense that moving from Aston Villa to Manchester United should mean that a player gets to do the same thing he's always done, against the same defences, but with better players around him. If football is a team sport, and even for wingers it is most of the time, then being in a better team should mean being better. That it doesn't -- that things ain't so trite -- is one of the most enduringly fascinating things about the weird way sport operates on the psyche of those that play.
The list of reasons that any player might fail to adapt to his new surrounding is too long to list with anything approaching thoroughness. Sometimes it's immediately clear. Fernando Torres moved to Chelsea and forgot to pack his pace somewhere along the way. Juan Sebastian Veron -- despite being a "fucking great player" -- never got used to the fact that English football likes its footballers to run around like mad things. Nicolas Anelka went to Real Madrid and nobody showed him where his locker was. But with Young there's no clear and obvious single cause.
Indeed, his first season was fairly encouraging. Perhaps he was hit hard by a poor Euro 2012, which ended when he missed the decisive penalty against Italy (and then copped some rather dispiriting racist nonsense on that Twitter). Or perhaps the injuries that disrupted 2012/13 have had a lingering effect, either physical or on his confidence in his own body. Perhaps a good start that ebbs away indicates that he has trouble coping with the inevitable squad rotation, or that he doesn't find it easy to play with Robin van Persie. Maybe, deep down, he just doesn't think he's good enough. A combination of them all? Maybe he just doesn't like red.
The cause, ultimately, is for Young and his manager to locate. What's not in doubt is the effect his presence is having on United's attacking play. A cautious (or even cowardly) winger is in some ways even more damaging to a team's performance than one who is under-performing. The predictability of a safety-first approach means that the opposition can defend with greater confidence and structure, can better retain their shape, and will cede less space all over the pitch. With Young struggling on one side and Antonio Valencia underwhelming on the other, United have lacked penetration on both flanks, and for a side that prefers Wayne Rooney's brand of perambulatory huff-and-puff to any kind of natural playmaker, clipped wings being trouble.
It is difficult to draw any firm conclusions from United's humiliation at Manchester City, because the entire team played as though they were wearing the wrong-sized boots on the wrong feet. However, for the 52 minutes that Young spent on the pitch, Opta have him playing a remarkably un-grand total of 15 passes, 9 successfully. That's 5 fewer than Antonio Valencia attempted in the same period, and he was also bobbins. That's 40 fewer than Tom Cleverley, who replaced him. Stats, of course, are entirely pointless without context and sensitive consideration -- Cleverley, for instance, played much more centrally when he came on -- but in this case, they support what the eye can see: Young is playing football like a man who is actively and genuinely terrified that the ball is going to come to him, in case he's required to do something complicated or intricate or courageous in front of all these people. He is, at the moment, the wrong kind of frustrating. Where his colleague Nani frustrates because nobody knows if he's going to do something brilliant, Young frustrates because everybody knows that he won't. Worse, it's starting to look like he can't.
Let's return to O'Neill and 2008. Describing Young's second goal against Everton, the goal that had inspired the question about Messi and Ronaldo, he said:
Could you name me two dozen players in the world that could have scored that goal? I really can't. To have the presence of mind when Gabby [Agbonlahor] placed it through, to size up the situation in that time, to go immediately to attack the centre-half, and then to whip it round [the goalkeeper], all in the last minute of a game which he has worked tirelessly through the course of the match - just to have the energy to do it was remarkable. But to have that poise was world class. I think he is a world class performer, and I don't use that word too often.
Now, that player? He sounds exciting. He sounds ideal. He sounds, in truth and noted with no little sadness, like a completely different footballer. Young, one suspects, will be spending much of the next month or so on the bench, behind Nani, Shinji Kagawa, Adnan Januzaj, maybe Wilfried Zaha, and perhaps even the newly be-tracksuited bundle of wistful nostalgia and grey hair that is Ryan Giggs. He also has a United hierarchy in desperate need of proving that they still remember how the transfer market works, and God knows what or who that might involve. It could be a long road back for the lad who once made O'Neill so very, very giddy, and now makes United fans so very, very angry.