The Curious Case of Luke Shaw: Surely Time IS On His Side?

The left-back position at Manchester United has historically been one of the least problematic to successfully ‘fill’ down through the years, with a succession of great players making the number 3 shirt ‘their own’ during their time at Old Trafford… I give you Tony Dunne, Arthur Albiston, Denis Irwin, Patrice Evra… and those legends were ably assisted by players who were at least competent enough to ‘do a job’ for United for a few years; for example, Stewart Houston, John Gidman and Mikael Silvestre.

However, for the last few seasons, the left-back (or, more accurately these days, left wing-back) position seems to have become a continual headache for the managers who have succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson, with no single player able to claim the starting shirt for himself on a regular basis. That really shouldn’t be the case, and it certainly wasn’t supposed to be the case, because on 27th June 2014, United successfully held off the competing interest of Chelsea to complete the £30 million signing of Southampton academy product Luke Shaw, then just 18 years of age; the fee was a world record for a teenager.

Shaw, from Kingston-upon-Thames and a self-confessed Chelsea fan as a boy, had spent 10 years at St. Mary’s, emerging on the Saints’ conveyor-belt of young talents through their academy, debuting for the 1st team as a 16-year-old amateur in an F.A. Cup tie against Millwall on 28th January 2012. He was offered a professional contract the following summer, along with such fellow young luminaries as Jack Stephens, Calum Chambers and James Ward-Prowse, as Southampton won promotion back to the Premier League under manager Nigel Adkins, following time spent in the Championship ‘wilderness’.

The young man made his full debut in August 2012, in a 4-1 League Cup win over Stevenage, and on 10th November became the youngest player ever to play for Southampton in the Premier League, playing 74 minutes of the 1-1 draw with Swansea City. It was just the beginning- Shaw finished his first full season as a professional with 28 appearances, 25 of those in the Premier League.

By then already aware of growing interest in their youthful full-back, Southampton moved quickly to tie Shaw to a new 5-year contract in July 2013; the young man fully justified their faith in him by playing so well during the 2013-14 season that he was nominated for the Professional Footballers’ Association (P.F.A.) “Young Player of the Year” award the following April, and was selected in the left-back position for the 2013-14 P.F.A. “Team of the Year”. He also won his first call-up to the England senior team set-up, coming on as a half-time substitute in the 1-0 friendly win over Denmark to secure his first cap.

It was little surprise when Shaw was chosen as understudy to established first-choice left-back Leighton Baines of Everton in Roy Hodgson’s squad to go to the World Cup in Brazil that summer, a decision which effectively ended veteran Ashley Cole’s International career. In Brazil, he played in England’s final group game, an uneventful & disappointing 0-0 draw with Costa Rica, and in doing so became the youngest player to appear in the 2014 Finals.

He returned to England into the midst of a bidding war for his services, a battle being waged between new United boss Louis van Gaal and a certain Jose Mourinho at Chelsea; eventually Chelsea refused to meet Shaw’s wage demands, and he made the switch to Old Trafford on 27th June 2014, where it was anticipated he would become United’s left-back for years to come….

It simply didn’t happen. Almost immediately, during pre-season, the hitherto always healthy young left-back picked up a hamstring strain which ruled him out for over a month, Luke finally making his Old Trafford debut on 27th September in a 2-1 win over West Ham United. Thereafter he endured a stop-start first season in Manchester, eventually finishing up with 20 appearances in all competitions. United stumbled to a 4th placed league finish, and crashed out of the F.A. Cup in the 6th Round at home to Arsenal. For his part, Louis van Gaal was openly critical of Shaw’s fitness levels, later claiming that the young full-back had turned up for pre-season training duty in shockingly poor physical condition, clearly lacked self-discipline, and that that had in no small way contributed to his indifferent fitness and form during his debut United season.

The following season started off much better for Shaw; he was ever-present for van Gaal and looked in fine form as United made a bright start to their domestic campaign, winning three and drawing another of their first five league games, including a superb 3-1 win over bitter rivals Liverpool which featured a stunning debut goal from young French prodigy Anthony Martial. Everything looked to be rosy in Luke Shaw’s future as United made the midweek trip to Eindhoven to face P.S.V. in the opening tie of that season’s Champions League Group stage on 15th September 2015. Little did anyone know that it was to be the beginning of a nightmare for the young England full-back, a nightmare that some would argue he has yet to fully return from.

Just 15 minutes into the game in Eindhoven, Shaw made a forward dash into the opposition area to try to get on the end of a through ball, and was heavily caught by P.S.V. defender Hector Moreno as he followed through in the tackle; the result was a double fracture of Shaw’s right leg, a terrible injury which ended his season in the middle of September.

Discarded to the sidelines, reduced to being a mere spectator of his team-mates for months as his leg bones slowly healed, Shaw somewhat understandably gained weight and lost any semblance of match fitness, and when he eventually returned to training with the rest of the senior squad in April 2016, he was unable to contribute in any way to the team’s successful triumph in their F.A. Cup campaign, though the 2-1 comeback win over Crystal Palace proved a bittersweet day for manager Louis van Gaal, sacked by the United board just hours after lifting the famous old trophy at Wembley.

Therefore, when Shaw returned for club duty in July, it was a familiar face that greeted him in the manager’s office: Jose Mourinho. It seemed this could be the bright new dawn Luke needed, particularly as he played the opening 70 minutes of the 2-1 Charity Shield win over new League Champions Leicester City on 7th August, having successfully negotiated a Mourinho pre-season training trip to the Far East. Alas, despite a bright beginning, it wasn’t.

Shaw was the favoured starter at left-back in Mourinho’s first selection, as the Red Devils made a good start to the Premier League season, winning their opening three games, before losing a tight contest at home to Manchester City in early September. However, the following game, away at Watford, was one Shaw will want to forget, as he was deemed personally at fault for the Hornets’ decisive second goal in their 3-1 victory after 83 minutes and immediately removed from the action by a furious Mourinho. Worse, afterwards the manager launched into a stinging public criticism of his young full-back in his television interviews, and it therefore came as no surprise to anyone when Luke Shaw’s name was not listed on another United matchday squad until he made a cameo two-minute substitute appearance in a 0-0 draw at Anfield almost exactly one month later, the adaptable right-footed Italian Matteo Darmian taking his left-back role in the interim period.

Shaw was used widely by Mourinho in the cup competitions thereafter, but featured only once in the Premier League, in a goal-less draw with Burnley, before suffering a knock in a League Cup tie with West Ham United on 30th November which kept him side-lined until the end of January 2017, when he returned for United’s 4-0 win over Wigan Athletic in the F.A. Cup 4th Round.

During his lengthy absences, the left-back slot was filled, mostly without distinction, by Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo or Matteo Darmian, and it became increasingly clear that it was becoming a ‘problem position’ at United. Shaw struggled to regain his starting position in the second half of the season, featuring in only a further four Premier League games as he once again suffered an irritating foot ligament injury which effectively ended his season in April. A barrage of speculation and questions over his place at United were widespread in the media, with rumours that Mourinho ‘didn’t fancy him much’ and would look to bring in ‘his own man’ sooner rather than later.

Certainly most pundits and many fans expected Luke Shaw to be sold by United during the summer, but when August came around the 22-year-old Englishman was still here; however as this season has progressed, Shaw has largely been nowhere in sight once more, banished to playing for the U-23 team at one point, for whom his performance in one game was so poor that many viewing it apparently would have left thinking that Mourinho had been right to ‘bin him’.

However, he seemingly did enough in training to impress the Portuguese into give him a start in the final Champions League Group game against C.S.K.A. Moscow at Old Trafford on 5th December, which unbelievably was only his 50th appearance for United, despite being at the Club for over 3 years. He was fine that evening, but then dropped back to either the bench or out of the matchday squad entirely again until United faced Burnley at Old Trafford on Boxing Day. Despite that game ending in a poor 2-2 draw, Shaw impressed the United faithful with a storming display down the left side, threatening the Clarets’ defence on more than one occasion, and generally played like a man who knew he belonged in that red shirt.

Luke has retained his hold on the left-back shirt for the last few games against Southampton, Everton and Derby County in the F.A. Cup, and has looked like he is getting back to the level he was at when he took to the pitch in Eindhoven on that fateful evening in September 2015.

Yet the doubts regarding his place at United remain. The media speculation refuses to go away, with United almost linked on a daily basis to Tottenham Hotspur left-back Danny Rose, who has become somewhat “persona non grata” in North London after publicly questioning his club’s ambition to push itself into the top tier in England with a lack of summer spending.

Mourinho, a known fan of Rose, hasn’t helped ease the situation. He questioned Shaw’s commitment to the club late last season, indicating Shaw was “far behind” several other defensive players at United in terms of his application and dedication to improve his situation, and made further comments after Shaw’s appearance against Burton Albion in the League Cup on 20th September, indicating that Shaw “has to work, has to improve” and that the young England man “doesn’t play for a long, long time”. However, I for one find claims that Mourinho simply doesn’t like Shaw or want him at the Club to be, frankly, disingenuous. Was the combustible Portuguese not the manager of Chelsea when they tried to persuade the young lad to swap St. Mary’s for Stamford Bridge back in 2014?!

Despite his abject luck and dreadful history with injuries since moving to Manchester, Luke Shaw is still only 22-years-old, and is therefore much younger than his would-be replacement Rose (27), who has also had a patchy history with injuries, and is currently only regaining fitness after a serious knee ligament injury sidelined him for much of 2017. In effect, Danny Rose would now be regarded as just as susceptible to a serious injury as Luke Shaw, so why spend the large amount of money it would now cost us to sign Rose from Tottenham (rumoured at £40 million) when he is not an improvement on Shaw, either in terms of quality or consistency? It doesn’t make sense to me, and I will be more than disappointed if Danny Rose is wearing a Manchester United shirt by 1st February.

The vast majority of United fans I am in contact with have a huge amount of sympathy and patience for Luke Shaw. We can SEE the lad’s blatant ability and potential to (still) become a world-class left wing-back, both for United and England, and I believe I would be only one of a very large number of Reds who would be very unhappy to see the young man pushed out of Old Trafford to accommodate the arrival of Danny Rose.

With some much needed change of fortunes, I still believe Luke Shaw can become the marauding full-back United fans expected he would become when he arrived from Southampton in 2014… we can only hope Jose Mourinho is equally willing to be patient with the boy, and give him a chance to prove he is not ready to be labelled a ‘failure’ at Manchester United just yet…