Following Luke Shaw closely feels a bit like Groundhog Day. You have the pre-season photos on social media of the pudgy left-back working out. This is followed by murmurs of excitement from fans that he’s finally going to lose some weight and we’re going to get pre-injury Shaw back.
He starts the season going into it as first-choice left-back. He then plays second-fiddle to the player who takes his spot, who then often disappoints, and Shaw is restored as starting full-back. Rinse and repeat.
His lax disposition gives the impression that this is perhaps a player who likes the idea of being a footballer and doesn’t really like football. Most footballers have nutritionists, and it was alarming that one who represents Manchester United didn’t have one till 2018 and maybe rightly was pilloried by José Mourinho for the same.
In Shaw’s defence, he’s great at receiving the ball from deep, playing short passes, creating triangles with team-mates, carrying the ball forward, keeping possession in tight spaces, making recovery runs, heading and nullifying his direct opponent. One might think, “Well, that’s a lot of good qualities!” So why does Shaw flatter to deceive? It’s mostly because he had all of these qualities as an 18-year-old at Southampton, and there was an expectation that he could’ve been more.
There’s also the role of a full-back in the modern day game and this idea that every full-back in all the great sides is an attacking full-back, which is a myth that needs to be nipped in the bud. Yes, there are some full-backs who love whipping crosses, and others in wing-back systems that make back-post runs and score goals. But there are others still who are adept at forming a back 3 in possession or moving into midfield as an inverted full-back — and Shaw has always been in this category.
Shaw’s been this player even before injury and at Southampton. The fact that he’s remembered differentently is merely a case of the psychological phenomena of rosy retrospection.
You only need to go back to his time under Louis van Gaal. Much of the footage has Shaw moving inside with Ángel Di María going wide to whip in crosses or take shots on goal. With Memphis Depay, another player who could create and score goals, Shaw would simply be making decoy runs for him to cut inside and amplify his game.
Shaw was partnering creative players who could perform both their attacking functions, and all Shaw had to do was position himself to stop turnovers or enhance their strengths. Why? Because creative players lose possession frequently in their attempts to deliver the final ball. Shaw’s was mostly a very functional role according to the tactical model of the side.
Shaw’s 2019-20 season was sandwiched between two injuries. His most notable performance of the season came at Anfield in a losing cause when he played as a left-sided centre-back and it’s clear why United are looking for left-sided defenders in the market. But it’s post-restart where Shaw has had his most sophisticated role since joining the club in the summer of 2014.
He’s often seen switching as a left-sided centre-back or left-sided midfielder with Nemanja Matić. This allows Marcus Rashford to move to something akin to a left-midfield/left-wingback role, where he uses his passing ability to find the onrushing Anthony Martial (usually darting towards the left,) Bruno Fernandes (making a run behind the defensive line), or Mason Greenwood (moving inward from his right wing position). Shaw can also be seen making a run from midfield and looking to play a cut back if he’s the one to receive the pass.
This is perhaps Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s greatest sign of tactical sophistication since he took charge of the club and though it coincided with a great run, it also highlighted a weakness. Where having Shaw sets every other pattern into play, his absence has a negative domino effect. Without Shaw, Rashford doesn’t have the passing options anymore and he’s then seen improvising, often unsuccessfully.
There are things that Shaw could work on. His creative stats aren’t great. Per FBref.com, he has an expected assists per 90 value of 0.07 — this is painfully low. It’s been explained here that he’s not asked to create, but he does have 2.18 shot creating actions per 90, which is average at best. The player he competes with for the left-back spot in the national side, Ben Chilwell, has an expected assists per 90 value of 0.13 and shot creating actions per 90 of 2.35. Two very similar players who perform multiple functions for their sides.
United could look to an alternative, someone who hugs the touchline and can gives the side a different option. For a club that has historically boasted some of the most entertaining players on the byline, it’s a shame that this current side lacks anyone of such a profile.
Despite a decent season, the general feeling among most United fans towards Shaw is lukewarm (ahem) at best. Adding to the general disappointment are his big wages and his recent somewhat questionable player of the year award, both of which are mostly symbolic of a dysfunctional club (wage structure and low standards). But there are signs that those days are behind us now.
With Shaw, it’s best to accept that this is a player who probably has plateaued when you look at his skill-sets. What he had at 18 is what he has now and he’s unlikely to bring additions to his game. However, his skills — if used well, as has been the case recently — are always of value to a good team. He’s likely a stop-gap till someone better comes along. He was never the New Hope.