After all these years, it looks like United have the left back they have been wanting…
United have had a very good season, no one is going to doubt that.
Their most recent win over Manchester City is another testament to the fact that United have made serious tangible steps forward this season. While they are not good enough to challenge their rivals in a real league title chase, they are still improved to the point where they can safely be among the three best teams in the league. Plenty of their top players have had plenty of praise this season. Everyone seems to talk about Bruno Fernandes every week, Marcus Rashford has become a hero on and off the pitch, and many are seemingly realizing how good and how under-appreciated Paul Pogba has been in the heart of the United midfield. But I am here to talk about a player that has gone under the radar, one who has had a truly career-defining season that is just as worthy of discussion and appreciation as any other United player.
It is time for us to talk about Luke Shaw.
With a goal and a clean sheet in the Manchester Derby, Shaw, at least in my eyes, put out a Man of the Match display as an exclamation mark to the fantastic year he has had. You can make a legitimate, and very convincing, argument that he has been the best left back in the Premier League this season, something that very few people would have seen coming before the season started. Shaw’s meteoric rise is made even more incredible by the journey he took to get to this point and the challenges he overcame along the way.
Luke Shaw was one of the many shining wunderkinds that have come through at Southampton over the last two decades. He made his professional debut as a 16 year old, when the Saints were still in the Championship, and by the time he was 18, he was a regular in a Southampton team that was playing in the Premier League. Shaw finished the 2014 season as one of the nominees for the PFA Young Player of the Year award, as well as being named in the PFA Team of the Year as an 18 year old. He was included in the England team that went to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, being included over the legendary Ashley Cole and acting as the back up left back, being the youngest player to play in the tournament. He was a prodigy, the future for England at left back for the next decade. His performances and status earned him a move to Manchester United for about £33 million, making him the most expensive teenage footballer in the world at the time (wild to see how that record has grown, huh?).
Life in Manchester was, well, difficult.
In his first season, under new manager Louis van Gaal, Shaw had some inconsistent moments, being in and out of the team throughout the season. It is understandable for a young player to have some adjustment issues after making a big move, but you could still clearly see the potential that Shaw had. He clearly had talent, and you had to believe that, after a bit of adaptation time, Shaw would be one of the first names in the team on a consistent basis. Unfortunately, things took a sharp and negative turn in 2015, when Shaw suffered a double leg fracture after a challenge from Héctor Moreno in a Champions League match against PSV Eindhoven. The horror injury ruled Shaw out for the remainder of the season, and the mental and emotional anguish caused by the injury lingered for a while after he made his physical competitive return. And then came the Mourinho drama.
Van Gaal was sacked by Man United at the end of the 2015-16 season, replaced by another legendary manager in Jose Mourinho. Mourinho’s time in Manchester was, well, it was a lot of things. You could probably write a whole book about everything that happened on and off the pitch while the oft-outspoken Portuguese roamed the touchline at Old Trafford. But one of the biggest storylines of Mourinho’s tenure was his strong willingness to single out Luke Shaw for very harsh and very public criticism. Shaw was on the outside looking in under Mourinho, his career seemingly derailed. His attitude was regularly questioned, there were rumors that he was overweight, and it looked like his time in Manchester was coming to an end. It seemed that the once-boy wonder left back was going to be doomed to live in the “what if” category alongside other promising wunderkinds who never achieved the lofty heights that they were supposed to.
Mourinho was sacked in 2018, replaced by current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Solskjær restored Shaw to the team, but he still could not find a run of good form. United went into this season feeling that they needed a first choice left back, that Shaw was no longer a feasible option. He was a defensive liability and could not produce enough on the attacking end to fit into Solskjær’s system. Signing Alex Telles from Porto seemed to be the end of the line for Shaw in the team, but for a variety of reasons, Telles could not make the starting role his own. In that time, Shaw has emerged as the player United were always looking for in that position.
Shaw has enjoyed a career year in many ways. Attacking-wise, he is performing better in shot creating actions, expected assists, and key passes per 90 minutes compared to the last several years. His six assists in all competitions this season is the best mark he has achieved in his professional career, and he has been able to round this much-improved attacking ability into a package that also includes a much-improved defensive solidity. The numbers do not lie, as when you watch him play with your own eyes, you can see the improvement. He is positionally solid, no longer the player that Mourinho claimed you had to accommodate for. He was always a fairly strong player in one-on-one situations, but that has been cranked up to another level this year, most notably in his very effective games against Liverpool, PSG, and now in the Manchester Derby. He seems to have developed an incredible connection with Marcus Rashford, as the two often work in perfect synchronization in attack. Any questions regarding his mentality can now be dismissed, as it seems now he is more locked in than he has been at any other stage in his career, seemingly fueled by the desire to prove the world wrong.
It is an incredible transformation and revitalization of the career of a player who was always talented enough to make it, and given everything Shaw has been through, it might be one of the best feel-good stories in football over recent years. His incredible experience and growth this season still shows that he has the ability to at least come close to the peaks that was expected of him years ago. Shaw is one of those players who, because he has been in and around high-level football conversation for quite a long time, is often assumed to be older than he actually is, but he is only 25 years old. For a comparison point, Ben Chilwell, Chelsea’s left back who has been widely billed to be the future for England at that position, is 24. We want to think that, since Shaw has made over 150 appearances for Man United and has been a recognizable name to fans for nearly a decade, that he is rounding out his career or at least at his peak, but he is only really entering his prime.
And it seems we are just now seeing the player we were all promised when he burst onto the scene at Southampton.
Shaw’s revitalization might be one of the biggest stories of the season despite being one that very few are talking about. In a season of progress for United, their biggest step forward may have come from the least likely place. Again, he is only 25, and he could be the starting left back for United and England for at least the next five years. While United (and England for that matter) are still very flawed and have a ways to go before they can contend for serious silverware (league titles, Champions Leagues, World Cups, etc.), they have at least one position that is solved.
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