Football didn’t want Luke Shaw to thrive but Man Utd success is in sight
June 2014 was a good time to be a teenager. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was out in cinemas, Arcade Fire were killing it at Glastonbury, and – if you were Luke Shaw – you were being signed by Manchester United for £30million.
When transfers like Shaw’s happen, you sometimes have people mentioning the player’s age and suggesting he can have a couple of fallow years before hitting his stride.
They don’t normally mean it, especially when the fee is so high, but in Shaw’s case those who called to give him time are being vindicated.
It’s impossible to talk about Shaw’s time at Manchester United without addressing his injuries, from the hamstring problem which delayed his Premier League debut to the gruesome double leg-break inflicted by PSV Eindhoven’s Héctor Moreno.
The latter was devastating not just for the pain it caused but for the time at which it arrived: Shaw had begun the 2015-16 season developing a promising partnership with new arrival Memphis Depay, with d the word ‘bromance’ making its way into the discourse.
“I think our relationship is starting to build up, we have played a couple of games together and I am starting to understand how he wants to play,” Shaw said of the Dutchman on August 19.
Less than a month later, both of their seasons were turned upside down.
United didn’t have a real like-for-like replacement for Shaw, with rookie Cameron Borthwick-Jackson the closest they could come to replacing the England defender’s qualities, and Memphis wasn’t able to get the same understanding with the more robust Marcos Rojo or the more right-footed Matteo Darmian when either of the pair slotted in on the left of the back four.
There also might have been an element of survivor’s guilt, with the Dutchman sensing Moreno’s challenge could just as easily have felled him rather than Shaw – after all, the run into the box was arguably one which a winger would normally be making.
Memphis’ subsequent goal against PSV was his third in his first eight games, but he added just four more before the end of the season. More importantly, though, the absence of Shaw in support made him generally less fun.
As for Shaw himself, the Manchester United he came back to was very different to the one which he had left to recover.
Van Gaal, the man who brought him to Old Trafford, had made way for José Mourinho. United had spent £150million on new players, plus Zlatan Ibrahimović on a free. The goalposts had been moved.
As someone who was (a) young, (b) exciting and (c) signed by someone else, it quickly became clear Shaw wasn’t close to ticking any of the ‘Mourinho player’ boxes.
The thing about having always been the best at what you do is that when that’s no longer the case, building yourself back up doesn’t always come naturally. Shaw didn’t just have to learn – he had to learn to learn.
Biding his time
There were points at which Shaw seemed unlikely to even last the season, with Mourinho seemingly prepared to throw the defender to the wolves and critics of the defender seemingly prepared to just accept it as the Portuguese’s style of management.
However, not only did Shaw ride out the storm, he even outlasted Mourinho at Old Trafford.
It turns out both men needed to adjust to a changing football landscape, but only one of them figured that much out on his own.
Mourinho was happy continuing to do what he always had, but Shaw knew he wouldn’t be able to make do with the same approach: even if his qualities were sufficient to keep him at a Premier League level, a Mourinho level was an altogether different challenge, and one which it might be impossible to pass even if he did everything right.
The only answer, then, is to be the best version of yourself. Luckily for Shaw, Mourinho’s track record meant he had a likely end-point in sight – if he could stick it out for three years, he’d be free, and he’d still only be 23.
What he probably didn’t anticipate, however, was becoming a key part of the team while Mourinho was still around.
It’s hard to tell whether you can claim to have won a battle of wits when the other person involved is merely fighting with himself, but we won’t stop Shaw if he wants to put it on his CV.
Since Mourinho’s exit, Shaw has gone up a level, with performances such as the Man of the Match display against Watford meaning it’s now hard to picture a Manchester United squad without him playing a part.
The defensive aspect of his game has also improved, as demonstrated with the way he neutralised Mohamed Salah in the draw with Liverpool under Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
Had he not picked up that broken leg against PSV, and had he not returned to a set-up which at times seemed designed with his failure in mind, there’s every chance he’d have developed into a very different player.
Those who hit the top at 18 often don’t have to make adjustments, but the important thing is they’re still young enough that they can.
Luke Shaw turns 24 shortly before the start of the 2019-20 season, not much older than fellow defenders Rafael and Daley Blind were back when he arrived at Old Trafford. If that doesn’t tell us time is still on his side, nothing does.