It was September 15. Manchester United were playing PSV Eindhoven away from home and something bad happened in the 22nd minute that changed the course of the entire season for one particular young player – Luke Shaw. He suffered a horrific double leg break after a challenge by Hector Moreno. It ended what was shaping up to be a promising season for the Southampton academy graduate as he dreamed of being the first choice left–back at Man United and for England at Euro 2016 this coming summer having made the squad for the World Cup of 2014 ahead of veteran Ashley Cole.
While the injury itself was disheartening, it brought up a whole new problem for Louis van Gaal and his staff. Until that part of the season, United had played seven games and conceded a measly four goals, keeping four clean sheets in the process. The defence looked settled with a back four of Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Shaw shielding the Spaniard David de Gea. But now with Shaw out for the foreseeable future and with no reserve left-back in the squad, the Dutchman had to field other players in that position thus compromising what was a solid back four and the uncertainty surrounding that position has been alarming.
So far, van Gaal has used Shaw, Blind, Darmian, Ashley Young, Marcos Rojo, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Darmian there but has been unable to settle down on one player owing to various factors and that has really hurt United.
While Smalling and Blind have formed a steady partnership in the centre of the defence, the constant chopping and changing around them hasn’t helped at all. The other players have been forced to play as a left-back despite it not being their natural position and the team’s style of play has consequently suffered because of that.
Van Gaal is a manager who likes his full-backs to overlap their counterparts on the wing and also be defensively solid when the opposition is knocking at your door. With Shaw out of the picture, the other players that were fielded might have been adventurous in attack but were defensively susceptible, which left huge spaces in behind after failing to track their player. Following Shaw’s injury, United have conceded 37 goals in 41 games in the Premier League and the Champions League, not exactly a bad record, but the real picture can be seen when you compare it to our earlier statistics and consider the level of opposition that we have faced in the Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup so far.
Another very important part of Shaw’s game that has been badly missed has been his boundless energy and drive going forward. He was purposeful and created chances at will. His record of one assist in five games (and four chances created in total) in the Premier League was decent and with Danny Rose sitting on six assists after 31 games, Shaw had every chance of bettering that total given his start.
He was one of the few players in United’s team that looked good while marching forward and the team’s creativity has suffered a lot in his absence, least not from Memphis Depay who looks like a completely different player without Shaw backing him up.
Recently, Borthwick-Jackson was been handed the responsibility of filing that gap by van Gaal and he’s been the most adequate replacement we’ve found for Shaw this season but nobody has really come close to replacing him fully.
All season long Shaw has been working on his rehabilitation and he could be back in first-team training by next week which would be a big morale boost not only for him but the squad as well.
This is a lad who was criticised on his arrival at United for being overweight and was ordered to focus on getting into the right shape before he could be considered for the first team. A lad who had an underwhelming first year which led to questions over his price tag and people doubting his ability. His response for the next time was to take a trainer with him while on his holidays after the end of the last season so that he could be in shape on arrival for our pre-season this year. That’s the sort of attitude which turns talent into world beaters.
While it would be safe to chalk off this season from his career, he still has the potential to become one of the best in his position and being a United fan, I genuinely hope he does.