There have not been many turnarounds at Manchester United more miraculous than that of Luke Shaw. The left-back went from being surplus to requirements, in the eyes of may United fans, to being one of the most important players in Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s system. His back-to-back Player of the Month awards for the club personifies his turn in fortune perfectly.
This player analysis will delve into the improvements of the full-back and ultimately how he has become one of the best full-backs in Europe.
A drastic offensive improvement
It is clear that Shaw’s effectiveness in the final third has been the left-backs main improvement for The Reds. He is now one of the most dangerous full-backs going forward and helps to create a lot of chances for United, whether that be through set-pieces, a progressive carry and cross or some link-up on their left-hand side.
Ironically, this is the aspect which caused many to lose hope in Shaw, as he was rarely as direct in the attacking side of his game previously. In fact, Shaw touched on this in a recent interview with Sky Sports: “I think people thought that maybe I was holding back a little bit.
Shaw continued: “This season I have just stopped doing that and started enjoying going forward and bringing the team up the pitch. Trying to create chances. Even just building the momentum on the pitch that we need.”
That is exactly what he is doing for The Red Devils, as shown by the two graphs below, comparing Shaw’s progressive runs and shot-creating actions against defenders in 2018/19 and this season, it uses per 90 statistics.
Although Shaw received the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award in the 2018/19 campaign, it is clear that he has stepped up a level this season. His carrying is so useful to the side, also, he is clear of any other defenders regarding his shot-creating actions and this is because of multiple facets of his game.
Shaw provides more off-the-ball runs and over/underlaps the left-winger more often than ever before, he also does so with increased intensity. Here is just one example of this, where Shaw provides a dangerous cross following a darting overlap of Marcus Rashford. This was also in the 85th minute of the game, which helps to show the improvement in Shaw’s overall fitness as well.
He has great link-up with Rashford, but Shaw’s close control, calmness in possession and good decision making all help to make him a great player to link up play with. Paul Pogba is another player who enjoys to link-up with Shaw, as well as Anthony Martial.
Shaw has also taken the responsibility of taking set-pieces for The Reds, as a left-footer, this brings great value to the side, even if United haven’t reaped rewards for this much yet. United’s number 23 has said that he has been working on his set-pieces in training and it is no surprise that we are seeing improvements in his dead-ball crosses.
His importance to United’s build-up
It is somewhat unusual for a full-back to be so fundamental to a teams build-up, but at United, that is most certainly the case, with Shaw having a key role in building the play for Solskjær’s side.
Shaw averages 7.64 progressive runs and 5.29 progressive passes per 90 in the Premier League according to FBRef. He builds the play for United through both passing and carries but he also is extremely press resistant because he is not only comfortable in possession, but also has immense strength on the ball and is able to hold off most players while in possession.
A Harry Maguire carry and pass to Shaw on the left, who then drives on the left or passes inside, has probably been one of the most common build-up patterns for United, this might say something about the progressive abilities of those in central areas, but it also helps to paint the picture of Shaw’s importance in build-up for United. In the loss against Leicester City in the FA Cup quarter-final, we saw that while Alex Telles is a good player, he can not offer anything near to what Shaw does in the build-up or progression and it ultimately hinders United – which isn’t necessarily the fault of Telles but is yet another reminder of Shaw’s importance to the side.
It isn’t only his attacking ability that has made Shaw vital to Solskjær’s side, but he is very solid in the defensive side of his game too. He deals with one-on-one situations very well due to his good body shape when wingers are on the ball but he also rarely dives in and waits for the opposition to attempt a take-on. Then using his strength and agility to win the ball back, or halt the attack.
This season, in the league, Shaw has tackled 57.6% of the dribblers that he has faced. This is the 11th highest percentage of any Premier League player – with just four of those players attempting more tackles against dribblers than Shaw’s 33.
While he does not dive in, Shaw is definitely more active in his defensive duties this season, often looking to close down wingers angles so their options become limited.
It is quite clear that Shaw had improved last season, but during this season, it is fair to say that the left-back has reached a world class level. We are finally seeing the player that Luke Shaw was meant to become when he was signed from Southampton in 2014 as the most expensive teenager ever.
His improvements in all aspects of his game have been apparent and he is now a complete player, who is integral to the way that Manchester United play.