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Opinion: Manchester United’s Shaw flank redemption

In 2014, Manchester United acquired the then world’s most expensive teenager as a rough-around-the-edges, unpolished diamond from Southampton.

Luke Shaw was signed by Louis van Gaal as one for the future, a player who had attracted flirtatious glances from three of the country’s biggest clubs before settling on a £27m (via BBC Sport) move to Old Trafford. In the wake of legendary left-back Patrice Evra’s departure, it looked to be a rapid learning curve for Shaw, tasked with filling the void left behind by one of United’s all time greats. Co-incidentally, Shaw is now eighth on that particular rich list, having been surpassed by Joao Felix, Kylian Mbappe and our very own Anthony Martial, to name but three.

Since then, it has been a hard luck story for the man touted as a generational talent and a player with the potential to be one of the best England has ever produced. There has been crippling injury lay-offs, issues with his weight, frequent fall-outs with Jose Mourinho and questions surrounding Shaw’s temperament and attitude.

Indeed, Shaw is fortunate to still be playing at all, never mind for Manchester United at the highest level, after his horror leg-break five games into his second season against PSV, sustained in a two-footed challenge from Hector Moreno.

Eleven months on the sidelines set Shaw back years. Mourinho would regularly tear strips off Shaw, both privately and publicly, and seemed to single the defender out for particularly harsh criticism. He has also perhaps been unlucky that his own personal struggles have co-incited with a wider collective malaise.

To some, all this made Shaw the epitome of  the post-Sir Alex Manchester United – an expensive flop and not up to standard. But despite this being his seventh campaign at Old Trafford, he is still only 25-years-old and not yet at his peak.

Yet even before his return from injury in November, Shaw was an early contender for our Player of the Year. He was our best defender, and his electrifying progression this season was only further emphasised at Anfield. The home of the champions is said to be one of the hardest places to go to in world football (?), yet Shaw had Liverpool’s much-vaunted attack on his own form of lockdown.

Dominant and decisive, he ran further than anyone else and pushed Mo Salah, the league’s top scorer, to the periphery. Liverpool’s feted Egyptian hotshot was barely given a moment by Shaw. Having often been shackled by Ashley Young in previous meetings against us, Salah must be sick of the sight of even the most rudimentary of Red left-backs. There was one moment in the second half that summed up Shaw’s seminal, man of the match showing. Instead of taking him on and skinning Shaw, Salah turned and passed backwards. For a man who devours defences for breakfast, it was quite a step out of his comfort zone. With Klopp’s increasingly frustrated star man getting little change out of Shaw, the German manager changed tack, swapping wingers and putting Sadio Mane up against Shaw. Different opponent, same result. Door slammed.

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You have to be strong in both mind and body in games like this one, and Shaw shone like the sun among a galaxy of stars. He ran more than anyone else on the pitch, was the best performer for either side by a distance and carried the air of a man on a mission at the peak of his powers. I struggle to remember a better performance from the United left-back, deservedly voted man of the match.

His passing accuracy of 81% was highest in the United side, and he won more fouls and made more key passes than anyone else for Solskjaer’s side. In addition, he remarkably won 100% of his tackles, recovered the ball eight times, made five clearances and of course helped steer us to a clean sheet.

Not only was he brilliant defensively but he excelled going forward too, drawing the foul from which a Bruno Fernandes free-kick went close in the first half before setting up both late chances for the Portuguese play-maker and Paul Pogba. The raison d’etre of the modern full-back requires you to be able to defend and attack in equal measure. Both these aspects of Shaw’s game have improved beyond all recognition and he is by far United’s most improved player. The autumn arrival of Alex Telles from FC Porto, to bolster the ranks and provide tangible competition at left-back, cannot merely be a co-incidence when it comes to Shaw’s upturn in form and consistency. Telles arrival has only lifted our former Player of the Year to an even loftier level.

Shaw has had so much to cope with and it’s been a far from easy journey at Old Trafford for him. But now, seven years on from his arrival, the green shoots of recovery have finally begun to spring through the surface. Manchester United’s Shaw-flank redemption is in full swing.

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