A simmering summer of discontent at Old Trafford has heated up in recent weeks, with performances, results, player attitudes and managerial decisions all subjected to intense scrutiny.
With the current negativity surrounding Manchester United, as well as manager Jose Mourinho, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a start to forget for all associated. But for all the turmoil both on and off the pitch, there is one player who will view this season as an improvement upon last – Luke Shaw.
Pictured high up in the stadium rafters for the Tuesday night visit of Derby County, it has been a scintillating turnaround. Previously, League Cup fixtures would have been the only possibility Shaw had of receiving game time. Conversely now he finds himself prioritised for more critical affairs.
2018 was a pivotal summer for Luke Shaw. Out of contract at the end of the season and seemingly ostracised at every turn by his coach; it would have been easy for the left back to look for pastures new. Rumours of a swap deal with Tottenham for Danny Rose gained traction once more, following on from the previous January transfer window; but Shaw himself was in no doubt where he was going to play his football this season.
On the pre-season tour of the United States, Shaw spoke at length to The Guardian’s Manchester football reporter Jamie Jackson. On his contractual situation, he stated that “I want to earn a contract. I don’t want a contract because in the next year I’m a free agent, so they might look to tie me down. I know the club believe me – I’ve spoken with them, the manager, I’ve had discussions, meetings. If they wanted to, they could’ve cashed in. I’m going to fight for it this year, and I want to be in that starting team”. Rather than hang on in the knowledge that the club was not going to let a 30-million-pound investment run down his contract and leave for nothing, he wanted to justify any new contract offer and prove his worth.
This maturity and honesty of response might itself highlight one of the reasons behind his sudden re-emergence as a regular first-team starter. After all, a lot has happened in the few years since his move to Old Trafford in 2014 – one that at the time that made him the most expensive teenager in the world.
Shaw really caught the eye the previous season at Southampton, blending explosive power and searing pace to become a real creative outlet down the left flank; earning comparisons with former Southampton alumni Gareth Bale. His performances led to a call-up to England’s 2014 World Cup squad, as well as being shortlisted for the PFA Young Player of the Year award and securing a place in the 2013–14 PFA Team of the Year. As part of the re-building process at Manchester United after David Moyes’ disastrous season in charge, Shaw was identified as the natural successor to an ageing Patrice Evra and given a four-year contract. Not bad for an 18-year-old.
His Manchester United career didn’t get off to a flawless start. The incumbent manager, Louis Van Gaal, imposed a fitness plan on Shaw after calling him ‘not fit enough’, an accusation the Englishman has found challenging to distance himself from in recent years. Despite this early wobble, the defender fought back, and although he only racked up 20 starts in his first season, he tore out of the blocks the following year, starting and impressing in every Premier League tie until that fateful night in Eindhoven.
A collision with Hector Moreno left Shaw’s leg broken in two places. The unpunished Mexican then went on to net an equaliser 20 minutes later. Such was the severity of the injury that Shaw recently revealed he came close to losing his right leg as a result.
By the time he returned to full fitness, Van Gaal had been replaced with Jose Mourinho, and it initially looked to be a fresh start for the left-back. A series of niggling injuries and lack of form saw his game time limited in his first season under the Portuguese coach. Cracks were starting to appear in their relationship. After claiming he was way behind Daley Blind, Ashley Young, and Matteo Darmian in the pecking order, Mourinho gave Shaw a chance with a substitute appearance against Everton in April 2017. But after what seemed like an impressive return to action, Jose offered a damning verdict of his performance.
“He [Shaw] had a good performance, but it was his body with my brain,” said Mourinho. “He was in front of me, and I was making every decision for him. “The communication was possible because we were very close. I was thinking for him, when to close inside, when to open, when to press the opponent, I was making every decision for him.”
This harsh treatment continued to be played out in the media throughout the following season too. Stinging criticism of his performances, highlighting poor positional awareness and fitness, followed sparse appearances. While outrage from ex-pros and certain sections of the media over his treatment persisted, and accusations of bullying hung over Mourinho. This was of little consolation to Shaw; his United career looked doomed as the summer of 2018 approached.
Fast forward to the present day and Shaw has ousted Ashley Young as the first choice left back and earnt his first England cap since the European Championship qualifier against Switzerland in 2015. But what has changed?
‘Bouncebackability’ was a phrase coined by Iain Dowie when describing how his Crystal Palace side had achieved promotion in the 2003-2004 season, despite being in the relegation zone in December. By 2005 it was in the Oxford Dictionary and in 2018 it could be used to describe Luke Shaw’s fortunes.
Firstly, a more mature approach from the player himself has been vital. He had a stringent fitness plan set out over the summer, and while the rest of his team-mates were at the world cup or sunning themselves on holiday, Shaw knuckled down with his trainer on his break in Dubai. Having previously had to bat away criticism regarding his physique throughout his career, any perceived doubts regarding his weight and attitude will have surely disappeared. Personally, watching him at close quarters in United’s defeat to Brighton, you certainly cannot accuse him of being out of shape.
While Shaw made sure he was physically ready, circumstance also played a role. As the likes of Belgium, France, and England progressed to the World Cup semi-finals, Mourinho was lamenting the fact that most of his first-team squad were absent for the start of pre-season. So much so that, at just 23, Shaw was one of the most senior players to make the trip to the United States. With his only direct competition for the left-back berth being Demetri Mitchell, now on loan at Hearts, Shaw made the most of this opportunity to play his way back into Mourinho’s thinking.
By the time the season started, last years preferred choice, Ashley Young, had only just returned to full training from his exploits in Russia, meaning Shaw started the curtain raiser against Leicester. He turned in a man of the match performance in a 2-1 victory for the red devils, capping it with a well-taken finish – his first career goal. Defeats to Brighton and Tottenham followed; no criticism could be attached to Shaw though, in fact he was singled out – for both praise and a hug – from his manager after the Spurs game.
Shaw’s willingness to roam forward again, as he did so effectively for Southampton, provided a vital attacking outlet in two otherwise insipid performances. The benefits of employing a left-footed left back were plain to see, helping to balance up the side in conjunction with Antonio Valencia’s raids down the right.
Shaw has credited his more attacking role as being the catalyst for his re-emergence. While less than a year ago, Mourinho was berating him and his seeming inability to adapt and follow such instructions, his newly recovered aptitude has seen him highlighted in post-match news conferences for the right reasons.
As Luke Shaw has adapted and matured his game, Mourinho’s stance towards him has mellowed. At times, in past press duties, the mere mention of Shaw appeared to irk the Manchester United manager. Journalists would drop Shaw’s name, regardless of him making the matchday squad, as an easy way to grab a headline or two. Nowadays Mourinho has nothing but praise for him. Although, there are other factors to mention when reflecting on Jose’s new stance with Luke Shaw.
It would be an understatement to say the last few months have been tough for United’s manager. Entering his traditionally difficult third season; Mourinho’s transfer strategies have appeared at odds with Ed Woodward’s, causing his already hardly jovial demeanour to sour further. While his public fallout with Paul Pogba has seen scrutiny intensify.
Jose recently echoed Sir Alex Ferguson ahead of the fixture against West Ham, stating that no player was bigger than the club. Pogba’s influence and commercial value means that backing the manager at the expense of the player isn’t the simple decision is was in the past. Whether fans like it or not, money talks and players of Pogba’s stature generate vast incomes away from the pitch. He is currently the most marketable figure in the sporting world, and so United’s hierarchy would be loath to lose such a ‘commodity’.
As well as Pogba, Mourinho has called out Antony Martial repeatedly, claiming to be in the dark over the striker’s leave of absence to attend the birth of his baby. Mourinho’s handling of the situation garnered further criticism when compared to that of Gareth Southgate over the summer; Fabian Delph left the England squad in similar circumstances. While Mourinho seemed happy to sell Martial, rumours from above were that a new 5-year deal was being readied instead – hardly a sign of support for the manager.
Add to this, the media criticism of Phil Jones and Eric Bailly after the defeat to Derby that reputably led to more squad unrest. The public ostracising of individual players comes at a greater price; leading to upsetting larger factions of the squad, which result in a fractured dressing room. If the team stops playing for you, the outcome is inevitable.
While Luke Shaw is yet to attain Pogba’s stature in the game, he was the first in a seemingly ever-growing list of players perceived to be, rightly or wrongly, hung out to dry in the media spotlight. Shaw’s performances thus far have justified the praise; Mourinho seems to have come full circle in his belief in him, but Jose may also know that he needs to heal some of the wounds in the squad if he is to leave Old Trafford on his terms.
Mourinho is aware he is no longer untouchable, regardless of a recently signed contract extension. Without trusted lieutenant Rui Faria at his side, he needs the players and fans onside. For now, Shaw looks to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of this and appears to be one of the players Jose turns to first post-match. Away from the team, for Shaw himself, confidence breeds confidence, and with his manager now putting faith in him, he is beginning to show the form that prompted his move to Old Trafford.
In Shaw’s own words, at 23 he is no longer a kid, and if his early season form and the maturity displayed in conducted press briefings are anything to go by, he is on the way to proving it both on and off the pitch. In the midst of other distractions surrounding the club at present, Shaw is quietly getting on with nailing down a first-team place. The 2018/2019 season looks like it could finally be the year that Luke Shaw gets his United career back on track, and that can only be a good thing for both his club and country.