Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Manchester United's Shaw flank redemption

In 2014, Manchester United acquired the then world's most expensive teenager as a rough around the edges unpolished diamond from Southampton.

Luke Shaw was signed by Louis van Gaal as a generational talent for the future, a player who had attracted flirtatious glances from Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool before settling of £27m move to Old Trafford. Tas
ked with filling the void left behind by the departure of one of our greatest ever in Patrice Evra, it always looked a baptism of fire for a young man still finding his feet in the lower echelons of the English game.

For the record, Shaw is now eighth on that particular rich list having been surpassed by some of the finest young footballers on the continent such as Joao Felix, Kylian Mbappe and our own Anthony Martial to name but three. 

Since then, and it has been a hard luck story for a man once touted as potentially the finest left-back England will ever have. There has been crippling injury lay-offs, issues with his weight, frequent fall outs with Jose Mourinho and questions surrounding Shaw's attitude and temperament. 

Indeed, Shaw is fortunate to still be playing at all, never mind for Manchester United at the highest level after his horror leg break five matches into his second season at Old Trafford - sustained in a horror two-footed challenge from Hector Moreno against PSV.
Eleven months on the sidelines set Shaw back years. Upon his return, Mourinho would publicly tear strips off him, both privately and certainly very publicly, and seemed to single the young defender out for criticism. Shaw has perhaps also been unlucky that his own personal struggles have co-incided with a wider collective malaise.

To many, all this made Shaw the very epitome of the post-Sir Alex Manchester United: an expensive flop and not up to standard. But yet, seven years after his arrival at Old Trafford, Shaw is a man in the form of his life. So much so, that not only is he already the favourite for our Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award, but he is the best left-back in the country by a considerable distance at present. An England recall surely beckons as he looks to add to his tally of eight appearances for the national side, almost two years since his last outing for England, against Spain the Nations League. 

Even before his injury in November opened the door for Alex Telles, Shaw was our best defender and his star has only shone brighter upon his return. 
Dominant and decisive at Anfield as he pocketed Mo Salah and forced Sadio Mane to the fringes when Jurgen Klopp switched wingers in frustration. Shaw created United's three big chances at Arsenal and was again in full flow as his old club came to town despite only playing the first half. It's difficult to judge a team in circumstances such as this - a shellacking of a Saints side already down to the bare bones before the brainless sending off after 79 seconds of Alexandre Jankewitz. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial ended their goal droughts and silenced any doubters whilst Shaw was simply magnificent.

The raison d'etre of the modern day full-back requires you to be able to attack and defend in equal measure. Both of these aspects of Shaw's game has improved beyond all recognition with his impetus going forward a clear tactic to stretch the Saints in Tuesday night's record equalling rout. 

First came the brilliant delivery to his fellow full-back Aaron Wan - Bissaka - it was such a peach even Shaw's notoriously goal-shy compatriot could not miss - and then doubled his tally for the season with a sumptuous delivery met by an equally excellent header from Edinson Cavani. 
Too often, with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young moonlighting as makeshift full-backs, crosses would trundle into the shins of a defender or float harmlessly out of play. This is not simply hit-and-hope into a  area, but targeted, well thought-out crosses that require vision, pace, understanding and execution. As Bruno Fernandes fades into the pack, Shaw is undoubtedly United's best player.

The autumn arrival of Telles from FC Porto, to bolster the ranks and provide tangible competition at left-back, cannot merely be a co-incidence when it comes to Shaw's upturn in form. It's as if he's taken it as a personal insult and the Brazilian's arrival has only lifted our former Player of the Year to an even loftier level.

Set pieces have perhaps skewed his numbers somewhat, but he has never created so much in a season with three assists to his name and his defensive work having benefitted hugely from his improved fitness and maturity. He is now so vital to this side that his withdrawal at the interval against his old side should be seen as a significant compliment with Shaw given a breather in preparation for Everton on Saturday. 

Solskjaer's man-management skills have worked to perfection when it comes to Shaw, talking with kindness and compassion to a man who needed an arm around the shoulder and bringing in Telles as a reminder that no one is an automatic pick. Shaw almost had his career ended by injury and then by Mourinho - there have been carrots, there has been sticks, and now at last the green shoots of recovery have finally broken through the surface. Seven years on, Luke Shaw has finally risen to prominence as a brilliant player whose consistency and reliability exceeds his unrealised potential.

Manchester United's Shaw flank redemption is in full swing. 

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