Ashley Young stayed at Man United and has become vital as left-back
Jose Mourinho sprang a surprise the last time he picked a team to line up at Anfield by including Ashley Young. But if Young is on Manchester United's team sheet against Liverpool in just over a week's time -- and he probably will be -- it will not be a shock to anyone anymore.
It had been nine months to the day that he last started a game in the Premier League before being thrown in by Mourinho at Anfield last season. He lasted 89 minutes, and United left with a point. "Every time he plays for us he's doing his job well," Mourinho explained at the time. "He didn't miss one training session since before the start of preseason in July.
His reliability is one of the reasons that the 32-year-old has jumped to the top of Mourinho's list of left-backs, for Young has made the same journey backwards as Antonio Valencia on the other side.
Both arrived at Old Trafford as wingers, and both filled in at full-back under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal before being converted full-time by Mourinho. The United manager was so successful with Valencia last season that he was voted players' player of the year. But while Valencia was installed almost immediately as United's first-choice right-back, Young has had to wait his turn.
It is evidence of a wider problem that Mourinho is facing on the left: He has tried Luke Shaw, Daley Blind, Matteo Darmian and Marcos Rojo. All have, at one time or another, looked to have won the job permanently, only for injury or loss of form leaving Mourinho back at square one.
Shaw, in particular, looks to be running out of time. United are ready to trigger an option to extend Shaw's contract for another season, yet he seems as far away as ever from the first team. Fit again after an ankle injury, his one appearance this season came as a substitute in the Carabao Cup. He hasn't made a matchday squad since and is likely to miss out again at Anfield.
Sources have told ESPN FC that United still hold an interest in Tottenham left-back Danny Rose, who revealed in the summer he would eventually like to move back north. It would not be a great surprise if, by the start of next season, Shaw (once football's most expensive teenager) and Rose swapped clubs. Mauricio Pochettino is still admirer of Shaw after spending 18 months together at Southampton.
Young has benefitted from a lack of other options, but he has also taken his opportunity. It was his cross that set up Romelu Lukaku's winner at Southampton. He did the same to create Marouane Fellaini's first goal against Crystal Palace.
Both assists followed a similar pattern: A dart to the byline down the left, a check back onto his right foot, a nudge on the ball to find half a yard of space, then a dipping a cross into the penalty area. It is a dangerous weapon, especially with players like Lukaku and Fellaini to aim at; it's also one that gives him an edge over Blind, Darmian and Shaw. Mourinho would settle for another Lukaku header from a Young cross in front of the Kop on Oct. 14.
Young had offers to leave Old Trafford in January. "The only player that I am aware of a possibility to leave is Ashley Young -- a player I would love to keep," said Mourinho after reports of interest from the Premier League and Chinese Super League. "I am waiting for January 31 to know what is going on. I am not happy if he leaves, but he is the only player that I am informed has a possibility of leaving.
"I don't know if he is going to stay. If I could choose, definitely, yes, he would stay with us."
Mourinho has a policy of letting squad players go if they can find regular football elsewhere, but Young stayed and has been rewarded. So has Mourinho.
Rob is ESPN FC's Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.