By IAN YEE
As a Manchester United fan, I would love to see Ashley Young get dropped from the Devils’ starting line-up. The way he went to the ground for that penalty in last weekend’s game against Aston Villa was an absolute disgrace.
He might think it was just an exaggerated tumble from a foul, something professional footballers are pretty much trained to do when they feel some kind of illegal contact in the penalty area, but at this stage of the season, the psychological implications of his actions could be far more wide-ranging.
This is a game where teams get a clear advantage from the psychological boost of having your fans cheering you on at home, where managers have resorted in the past to trading petty jibes to unsettle each other, where titles have been won and lost seemingly because of an uncontrolled outburst from a manager.
It’s a game where confidence is key. Every successful team must be able to survive the mental battlefield in their own heads. Just ask Arsene Wenger, who had one of his comprehensive motivational handouts (given to players before each match) leaked to the public a couple seasons back.
The confidential document – left behind at a hotel after a match which Arsenal won – had nothing to do with tactics. It was all about putting the players in the right frame of mind, and it wasn’t just the usual “go get ‘em, tiger” kind of stuff.
It had points on believing in their style of play, on staying united as a team, on learning to communicate with each other, and even on staying grounded and humble as a person off the pitch.
That’s important because these are players – young men, most of them – who train hard every day, living a life that’s completely privileged yet completely isolated at the same time. Not only do they have to discipline themselves to maintain peak physical condition, they also have to deal with the near-constant media pressure.
They go through a roller-coaster of emotions throughout a league season, so keeping them in the right frame of mind to perform is crucial.
What Young has done is put his team under even more mental pressure. People aren’t just talking about him diving. They’re calling United cheaters, calling them lucky. He is feeding the belief that this would be the worst United team to win the league if it does happen.
And to have done it once was inviting criticism. To do it in successive games is just plain irresponsible. His equally theatrical dive a week before to get QPR’s Shaun Derry sent off had already diluted the team’s achievement in moving eight-points clear of City. Now the incident against Aston Villa has managers calling for restrospective bans on players like him. United don’t need this kind of scrutiny, not from rival fans, not from the media, and especially not from referees.
Perhaps that’s the reason why Roberto Mancini has been so adamant in insisting Manchester City’s title charge is over. He can’t seriously believe that it’s over considering United will only lead by two points if they lose at the Etihad next week; but what Mancini’s doing is taking the pressure off his players.
His side is good enough to beat any team in the league, United included. Arguably the main reason why they’ve fallen behind United is because they don’t have the experience of dealing with the pressure of the title race. By ruling themselves out of the title race completely, Mancini has lifted that pressure.
Now it’s the United players that are showing signs of nerves. Wayne Rooney had a stinker against Villa, and was substituted. The whole team struggled against relegation battlers Wigan, and they struggled to break down 10-men QPR at home.
Of course, this diving thing could swing both ways. The United dressing room could be motivated to prove everyone else wrong, which is probably why Alex Ferguson has always fostered that us-against-the-world siege mentality at United – any criticism can be turned into motivation that way.
But either way, what Young did has given his manager extra work, somethine else to think about. He will have to consider whether to continue playing Young, or to take action. I personally feel he should be dropped to the bench, especially with Nani back in the fold.
Trying to keep spirits high in a team that has been fighting all season is tough enough. Having to go out and justify your player’s actions, while at the same time not compromising your integrity as a manager that detests diving, is just not the kind of headache a manager needs at this point of a season.
The controversy surrounding Young’s theatrics is also all the more worse because, well, he’s English.
Many people in English football blame foreign players for having brought in this play-acting culture, so for an Englishman like Young to have done it feels even more unforgiveable.
And there is some merit to that argument. Players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani often went down easily as well, but that was kind of understandable because they grew up playing in leagues where fouls would have been given for a lot of the tackles you see in the Premier League.
A player like Young, on the other hand, should know full well the kind of contact he will experience in the Premier League. It’s annoying to see him go sprawling every time he gets tackled in the box, even though he’s been tackled that way his entire life. The fact that he has won the most penalties of any player in the league over the last two seasons hasn’t been lost on the media and rival fans either.
Luckily for United, Ferguson has reached a point in his career where people often allow him the final say on things (for better or worse) – Young was fouled, he exaggerated the fall a bit, but it was still a penalty. End of story. United soldier on as usual, relatively undistracted.
With Manchester City breathing down their necks, however, it could be a different story this time around. Roberto Mancini and his men have proven worthy title contenders, and United will need everything to go their way if they’re going to finish above them.
Considering United will probably lose to City at the Etihad (Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero – what a partnership!), and City’s superior goal difference, United will have to win all their other fixtures to win the league.
With the referees probably on high alert in terms of awarding United penalties, and the media all too keen on highlighting United’s recent reliance on poor refereeing decisions to grind out results, perhaps it would be best to just drop Young for a few games to take the heat off.
Don’t get me wrong, he could still be a great player for United, and I do genuinely believe that he had a case for both penalties in spite of his theatrics, but the club really doesn’t need to be caught up in a diving controversy right now.