There are few things in football that are more satisfying than a comeback tale. Spectacular goals and academy debuts have their place, but watching a player emerge from a period of adversity to become the best version of themselves on the pitch is truly inspiring and emotional. That moment seemed to last for a long time for Luke Shaw. He was burdened with unreasonable expectations from the minute he arrived at Old Trafford in 2014 as the most expensive teenager in world football, as is typical of young English talents — especially those at Manchester United.
He was never really given the requirements to succeed, despite his talent. Shaw was unable to form the requisite relationships as United's defence shifted across a rotating cast of characters, denying him the opportunity to truly impress. And, of course, his ongoing injury issues posed a cognitive as well as a physical obstacle to him reaching his full potential. Maybe that's why, when Shaw did appear on screen, his performances were so forgettable. He seemed to float through a game without ever making an impact on it as if he were a passive entity inside it rather than an individual who could act on it. It was difficult to determine his strengths and weaknesses because of this.
He wasn't a defensive rock; someone who would be relied on to keep the left side of the field safe. In the final third, he didn't commit any players and it’s not that he mesmerized with his explosive speed and deft ability. He wouldn't whip in a deep cross that made you note his amazing vision and technique. And, in a tactical era where fullbacks are more important than ever, his lack of distinguishing characteristics has led many to believe he will never be more than a competent left-back. When Jose Mourinho was in command, that was certainly the feeling. Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini, Jesse Lingard, and others seemed to thrive under his abrasive, confrontational management style. However, Shaw's public chastisement by the Portuguese in press conferences and interviews did nothing to improve his performance.
The selection of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seemed to reignite Shaw's career. In almost every way, the Norwegian is a very different individual than his predecessor, with a simpler, less demanding approach to dealing with players. Despite the criticism, few can question Solskjaer's ability to keep a constructive and stable squad dynamic at Carrington. This belief had a huge impact on Shaw.
It's been a continuous thing, with Shaw making steady progress since Solskjaer's appointment, but the results of that process didn't become apparent until this season. The roundness of Shaw's growth, the way he's become a truly excellent operator in a variety of aspects of his game, is perhaps most striking.
Shaw averages 3.07 carries into the final third every 90 minutes, putting him in the 98th percentile of European defenders. That skill has become even more critical in a team that can often struggle with ball advancement from deep without Paul Pogba. He excelled as a progressive passer from deep within the left lane, playing angled, penetrative passes into Bruno Fernandes or a striker dropping in between the lines. His press resistance is one thing to talk about as well. He easily assesses circumstances and makes wise use of his body to maintain possession when under extreme stress. He makes 8.7 passes every 90 seconds even under that kind of pressure. 5.51 progressive passes per 90. 2.01 key passes per 90. 2.16 shot-creating actions from open play per 90. 0.91 shot-creating actions from set-pieces per 90.
Another thing we cannot deny is the arrival of Alex Telles to Manchester United who seems to have provided a technical boost to Shaw’s style of play. His signing appears to have been a masterstroke in getting the best out of Shaw. Of course, Solskjaer's man-management and Shaw's hard work have contributed to this degree of change.
Shaw's return is a feel-good story we can all get behind in a football season muddied with pandemics which has made it frustrating at times.
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