Inter Milan, 2020–
Ashley Young became the third player to leave Manchester United to join Antonio Conte at Inter Milan when he followed Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez in moving directly from Old Trafford to the San Siro. In making that very move, Young also demonstrated a desire to extend his career at the highest level.
“Conte was fundamental in the choice to come here," he said. “He already wanted to take me with him to Chelsea. "He is a fantastic manager, who has the ambition to win trophies and it is like that for me, too.” Where he once had become peripheral for United and England, Young appears likely to continue what was the unlikeliest of impressive conclusions to his career.
Once a wide forward for Watford and Aston Villa, Young has seamlessly fitted into Conte's 3-5-2, operating from either side as a wing-back having adopted a defensive role in his time at Old Trafford and when playing as England's left wing-back at the 2018 World Cup. He is more comfortable on the left, from where he is able to cut infield and on to his favoured right foot, but he can also play on the right.
From the right he mostly retains a wide position, inviting his closest central defender to drive forwards with possession. At his most comfortable crossing with his right foot, he advances further compared to when positioned on the left, creating spaces for the right-sided central defender to move into. When on the left Young possesses the ability to play reverse passes towards the strikers in front of him, using Lukaku’s ability to hold off defenders and retain possession high up the pitch – a particularly useful approach when Inter are building from deep territory and under intense pressure, or if a central midfielder can’t be accessed with a direct pass.
Young also possesses the ability to create crossing opportunities from particularly wide positions. Both Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez represent potent aerial targets and will often advance across their marker inside the penalty area. If both of Inter's attacking midfielders and the wing-back on the opposite wing also attack his crosses, Young has numerous potential options. It was on his debut that he created Martínez's headed goal with a perfectly-placed cross from the right (below). Though on the left Young can still attack around the outside and deliver off of his weaker foot, when used as the left wing-back he inevitably attempts to turn back and play off of his right, and to deliver inswinging crosses.
Doing so poses opponents a new challenge, through those deliveries often targeting the spaces behind them, but Young’s delivery will regardless be delayed because of the need to work the ball on to his stronger foot, giving defenders more time to get into position. He also requires closer support from central midfield when playing from the left, which can force Conte into changing the composition of his midfield. With Young on the right Inter can select one deeper midfielder and two box-to-box players capable of advancing and offering cut-back options – and Christian Eriksen, Nicolò Barella, Arturo Vidal, Robert Gagliardini and Stefano Sensi are particularly effective options. With Young on the left, a double pivot is required so that he consistently has a square passing option when he turns infield, meaning only one attacking, central midfielder, and therefore Inter having a reduced attacking threat.
Role at Inter Milan
If that approach means fewer runners into the penalty area, Young can still bend passes around the corner – a trademark of one of Conte's teams – towards Inter's strikers (below). Possession can then be set back to an attacking midfielder while he is facing forwards. Theirs is an ideal attacking pattern when attempting to penetrate a compact defensive block, but when that option isn't available Inter’s deeper midfielders can provide close support to Young, creating the passing options required to retain possession.
By running into different positions – including towards the far post – Inter's wing-backs are instructed to deliver crosses from new angles and therefore increase the variety they offer. They also work to preserve Conte's favoured front two by one making that nature of run when either striker has withdrawn into a deeper position, contributing to Inter's attacking midfielders increasingly operating from outside of the penalty area and, should those wing-backs be more central, drifting wide. In the same way their wing-backs' movements have enhanced their attacking potential, they have also made Inter's defence more resilient. Their back three and defensive midfielder receive greater support because their attacking midfielders' positioning means that they are considerably less exposed.
Pace has for some time no longer been a significant strength, but Young's effectiveness isn't being undermined. He retains the ability to dummy a cross and turn back on to the other foot to create space to play into the area, as he has throughout his career. He also adds further experience to the left side of their defence, where he has often played in front of Alessandro Bastoni, Inter's young central defender, or where he can feature at full-back if they are pressing with a 4-4-2. Playing on the left of a back three between Stefan de Vrij and Young in Serie A gives Bastoni the perfect platform with which to develop.
Theirs is a partnership that benefits Young. The athletic and exuberant Bastoni is capable of moving to cover the spaces he vacates – particularly when opponents attempt to counter into that channel.