Young, Lingard typify Mourinho and Man United's need for unsung players
Last week should have proved tricky for Manchester United, who faced away trips to Watford and Arsenal: The former are fully capable of upsetting bigger sides, while the latter boasted a 100 percent winning record at home. And yet United emerged with six points; they're remain second favourites for the Premier League title, but Jose Mourinho's side are winning matches.
The Watford performance was marred by a poor second half, while the Arsenal victory owed much to the heroics of David De Gea in goal, but United's matchwinners were unheralded players: Ashley Young scored two stunning goals against his former side at Vicarage Road, before Jesse Lingard struck twice at the Emirates.
It wasn't the superstars -- Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial or Zlatan Ibrahimovic -- who proved decisive in these games, but the underrated, consistent, versatile and hard-working squad members who embody everything that successful United teams have been about.
Sir Alex Ferguson had many such players. In battles against Arsene Wenger's Arsenal, the teams were usually well-matched in terms of stars -- Dennis Bergkamp for Eric Cantona, Patrick Vieira for Roy Keane, Tony Adams for Jaap Stam -- and, at both sides' best, Arsenal played better football.
However, when struggles came, United were unquestionably superior, in large part because Ferguson had a committed, reliable band of squad members capable of stepping up to do a job, particularly in big games.
Sometimes they were homegrown (Nicky Butt), sometimes they were highly versatile (Ji-Sung Park, Quinton Fortune) and, often, they were both (Darren Fletcher, Phil Neville, John O'Shea, Wes Brown).
If Ferguson wanted a winger shut down, he could turn to Neville, while Fletcher would disrupt an opposition playmaker's passing and Park would track the runs of an attacking full-back. Tactically, they were vital weapons and they also set a certain standard in the dressing room. Lingard, in particular among United's current squad, fits in that mould.
His precise purpose is often questioned but, whether on the left, right or through the middle, he is able to do anything Jose Mourinho asks, from pressing a dangerous opponent or tracking runs, to playing on the counter-attack or contributing to possession play. Lingard is also capable of outstanding moments at crucial times, as evidenced by his excellent scoring record in cup finals.
Young, meanwhile, was considered a purely creative player who excelled in the final third, but has since sacrificed himself for the greater good and embraced a newfound role as a full- or wing-back.
Mourinho is exactly the type of manager to appreciate players in this selfless mould. An example at Porto and Chelsea was Paolo Ferreira, while one of Mourinho's most trusted players at Real Madrid was Alvaro Arbeloa, who remained a dressing-room ally.
Though hardly a superstar and probably the least technically-gifted member of Spain's Euro 2012 winning squad, he could play left- or right-back and he could mark or press or overlap as a decoy, essentially everything his manager would ever ask.
At Inter, Mourinho depended upon captain Javier Zanetti in all manner of positions -- left-back, right-back, central midfield -- and deployed Cristian Chivu, once considered the most promising young central defender in Europe, as a left-back and midfielder.
In his second spell at Chelsea, Mourinho took right-back Cesar Azpilicueta and deployed him on the left with great success. It's a trend that has continued since with a move more centrally; a player once known for his attacking energy has become the Premier League's ultimate versatile defender.
Beyond Lingard and Young, Mourinho has other unfashionable, versatile, multifunctional players at Old Trafford. Matteo Darmian can play either full-back role and Marcos Rojo has operated at left-back and centre-back, while Daley Blind is capable in either of those positions plus midfield and Phil Jones has demonstrated his ability to play at right-back or further forward.
In midfield, Ander Herrera is a hard-working squad man in the manner of Fletcher and Marouane Fellaini is the classic "do a job" player lacking a best position. In a creative sense, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan drift in from wide or play centrally, while Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial do something similar in a more direct way.
Indeed, almost all of United's most-used players are capable of playing various positions; the spine will always feature Pogba, Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, with others moved around from game to game.
History tells us that, when United's squad members perform well, the club is in rude health; the treble victory in 1999, which was completed with European Cup success thanks to goals from two players -- Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer -- who weren't in the regular starting XI, was vintage Ferguson.
Among Mourinho's best performers in last season's Europa League final were Darmian, Blind and Herrera, names you wouldn't place in the first XI. If United do triumph in the Premier League this season, expect the likes of Lingard and Young to be centre-stage in the celebrations; they'll have fully earned their medals.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.