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Opinion: The re-emergence of Luke Shaw, aided by Solskjaer’s belief in Man Utd left-back

The top of the table clash between defending Premier League champions Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield on Sunday failed to live up to the hype with the game finishing 0-0 at full time. The game on Merseyside was a cagey affair with both teams approaching the game cautiously due to the other team’s array of attacking talent and it was Manchester United left-back Luke Shaw who picked up the man of the match award for his performance.

The re-emergence of Shaw at left back this season has been another positive under Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as the Red Devils continue to challenge for an unlikely Premier League title. The arrival of Brazilian left back Alex Telles from FC Porto in the summer transfer window has benefited Shaw as he now has a genuine challenger for the left back position at the club.

Telles has been used sparingly so far by manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as he eases the Brazilian slowly into the English game. Luke Shaw’s man of the match display on Sunday at Anfield will surely have caught England manager Gareth Southgate’s eye with the postponed 2020 European Championship due to take place this coming summer. The England left back impressed on Sunday against Liverpool with his excellent man marking of Liverpool danger men Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane with both players swapping positions during the game due to finding no joy down the left flank of the United defence. Perhaps the most impressive of Shaw’s developments has been the improvement in his passing ability and set piece delivery which has been evident throughout the season in his performances.

Luke Shaw rose to prominence in 2012 when he made the breakthrough into the Southampton first team at the age of 16 making his debut against Millwall in the FA Cup. Newly appointed Argentinian manager Mauricio Pochettino helped nurture the young left back’s development and integration into the first team squad during his time at the Saints. The impressive Shaw made 38 appearances for the Saints in the 2013/14 season and made his international debut in February 2014 against Denmark. His impressive performances in the Premier League earned him an array of plaudits with him getting into the PFA Team of the Year 2013/14 in the left back position.

Shaw’s development with Southampton and England debut attracted the attention of England’s top clubs as they chased the young left back’s signature. Manchester United signed Luke Shaw in June 2014, with him signing a four year contract with the club for a fee worth £27 million, as per BBC Sport, which made Luke Shaw the most expensive teenager in world football. The Red Devils were keen to sign the impressive Shaw as a replacement for fan favourite Patrice Evra who departed the club after eight successful years. Luke Shaw’s United career got off to a slow start under manager Louis van Gaal with the young defender only making 20 appearances in his first season at the club. Van Gaal was not impressed with Shaw’s fitness levels upon his arrival at the club which resulted in the young left back participating in double sessions daily during the club’s pre-season tour. Despite some impressive performances in his debut season Shaw failed to nail down the left back position for the Red Devils.

Luke Shaw started the 2015/16 season excellently for United at left back starting every league match in first few weeks. However, Shaw suffered a horrific double leg fracture on the 15th September 2015 against PSV in the Champions League which ended the young left back’s season. The horrific injury required two major surgeries for Shaw and his rehabilitation was complicated due to excessive force from the tackle. Shaw finally returned to first team training on the 4th of April 2016 after more than six months injured.

The 2015/16 season was a season to forget for Shaw who only made 8 appearances before missing the rest of the season through injury. Despite winning the FA Cup Ed Woodward decided a change of manager was needed at the club with Jose Mourinho replacing the sacked Louis van Gaal. The “Special One” was not a fan of Luke Shaw from the start and this made the youngster’s recovery from injury significantly harder as he struggled to break back into the first team. During Mourinho’s tenure at the club Shaw struggled for consistent game time which resulted in a loss of form and an array of unfortunate injuries. Shaw only made 43 appearances for the Red Devils during Jose Mourinho’s two and a half years in charge of the club which prohibited the young left back’s development. Mourinho’s public criticism of his players was nothing new but the comments regarding Shaw were borderline controversial and unhelpful as the player continued to fight for his future at the club. United manager Mourinho made a number of sniping comments regarding Shaw’s lack of tactical nous, his fitness levels and even went as far as saying that he played against Watford “with his body but my brain” (via the Mirror). Shaw silenced Mourinho and his coaching staff when he returned to pre-season training in 2018 and topped the charts of all players in all the pre-season tests. The “Special One” continued to alienate Shaw from the first team set up with the left back mostly playing in cup competitions. Mourinho’s third season at United proved to be his last with Woodward sacking him following the 3-1 defeat away to Liverpool at Anfield.

The appointment of club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as interim manager in December 2018 proved to be a turning point for Shaw’s Manchester United career. Solskjaer went into a flat dressing room after Mourinho’s toxic last few months at the club and quickly had the players onside with his positive managerial style. The Norwegian brought Shaw back into the starting XI at left back which resulted in him enjoying his best season for the Red Devils.

Shaw impressed upon his return to the first team under Solskjaer in the 2018/19 season making an impressive 40 appearances in all competitions and the end of the season he was voted Manchester United Player’s Player of the Year and the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year. During Solskjaer’s first season in charge of the club his man management of Luke Shaw was excellent and his displays showcased what the talented left back is capable of. Shaw impressed Solskjaer, his coaching staff and the strength & conditioning staff with his work rate and his eagerness to improve his overall fitness levels. He has worked closely with the club’s respected reconditioning coach Michael Clegg to prevent his reoccurrence of soft tissue injuries as has predominantly struggled with hamstring injuries throughout his professional career.

He continued to impress throughout the 2019/20 season for the Red Devils before the COVID-19 pandemic halted football for 100 days across the world. He made 33 appearances in all competitions for United as the club finished third in the Premier League and reached three semi-finals in the cup competitions. However, throughout the season Shaw struggled with a number of hamstring injuries which resulted in him missing a number of weeks at different stages of the season.

The emergence of academy graduate Brandon Williams at left back proved to be another catalyst for Shaw as he was excellent when he returned to first team after a period out injured. Another key development under Solskjaer has been Shaw’s ability to play as a left sided centre half in a (3-5-2) formation which has been deployed by United in a number of important games. Shaw was immense in a back 3 last season in particular against Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal and Manchester City. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Shaw’s ability as part of a back three is his ability of playing out from the back and his excellent passing range which has been a significant development under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s development.

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Manchester United returned to the Premier League in June for “Project Restart” and they were excellent in the resumption of the league finishing third to qualify for the Champions League. Luke Shaw was excellent at left back and looked extremely fit despite the short turnaround period after the 10-week lockdown in the UK.

Shaw, now in his seventh season at Old Trafford, has continued his excellent form under Solskjaer. Despite an indifferent start to the season with some heavy defeats at home to Palace and Spurs, United find themselves mounting an unlikely Premier League challenge as they top the league in the middle of January.

The arrival of Telles from Porto as extra competition at left back in the summer has seen Luke Shaw reach another level this season. Solskjaer has been astute in the transfer market and has strength in depth in key positions for the first time during his tenure at the club. Shaw has benefited from Solskjaer’s excellent man management and squad rotation as United navigate a heavily congested fixture calendar. Solskjaer will be relying heavily on the excellent left back as United look to maintain top spot in the Premier League and challenge for the Europa League and F.A Cup this season. Despite not featuring for Gareth Southgate’s England side since 2018, if he continues to perform as he did on Sunday against Liverpool a recall to the national team for the upcoming European Championships would not be unlikely.

It is hard to believe that Luke Shaw is only 25-years-old considering what he has been through during his relatively short career. The England international has had to deal with managers publicly criticising his professionalism, fitness levels, technical ability, etc. which did not help the youngsters’ development as he struggled to find his feet at the biggest club in the world. Shaw has also had to deal with recovering from a horrific double leg fractured he sustained in his second season at the club at the age of 19. Despite the criticism, injuries and public criticism Luke Shaw continues to silence the doubters as he proves that he belongs at the highest level.

His performances during Solskjaer’s tenure at the club prove that he has the potential to be Manchester United’s left back for years to come. After suffering so many lows at Manchester United it’s about time Luke Shaw experiences some highs.

Read more: Jordan Henderson baffled by Shaw and Solskjaer comments after Anfield draw

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