“I think that it shall be the season of Luke Shaw, that I believe.”
For all his faults, Louis van Gaal got some things right. The signing of Anthony Martial, the introduction of Marcus Rashford and the premonition of Luke Shaw’s rise to the top.
In the summer of 2015, after a stop-start debut season at Manchester United, van Gaal made the assertion that Shaw’s quality would shine through on the world’s biggest stage. He was absolutely spot on.
In the first month of the season, Shaw was in fine form. Quick, agile, tenacious, the 20-year-old was United’s best player. The memory of Shaw, with electric pace, rampaging down the wing is enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. He was just so exciting.
Shaw's form disrupted by injury
But in one moment it was all taken away. Lying prone on the turf in Eindhoven, Shaw’s career, as well as his right leg, was in tatters. All that promise, all that potential, all that ability, snatched away from a young boy who was only starting to realise what he was truly capable of.
After two long years of rehabilitation, false starts, long hours in the gym and lonely nights alone watching his team play from afar, Luke Shaw, at 22, was approaching a make or break period in his Manchester United career.
Mourinho has always addressed Shaw situation
José Mourinho has often spoken about Shaw. First, it was about his lack of application in training, then about his unwillingness to play through the pain, then finally about his quality. The manager accepted, although claimed he could do little about it, that Shaw would need a run of matches to fully match fit.
“He needs [lots of] matches in a row to play, to make mistakes, to get conditioned, to get match fitness and at this moment I can't give him that."
From nothing, something. On Tuesday night, quite out of the blue, Mourinho did give Shaw an opportunity. The former Southampton man was named in the starting XI against CSKA Moscow. Going into the match it felt like this was it for Shaw; perform now or step aside. United could not wait for him any longer.
What followed was nothing short of spectacular.
Shaw's return was remarkable
After just 48 minutes of action this season, you could have been forgiven for thinking Shaw might start slow. Tentative even. Make a few passes, get your touch right, don’t overdo it. He didn’t do that, though. From the first moment he got the ball, Shaw was positive. He was brave. In a few fleeting moments, Shaw had shown the courage and the character required to play for Manchester United.
There is an overwhelming connection between Shaw and the Old Trafford faithful. A nurturing, caring kind of love, like a father watching on as his son takes to the field. United fans remember how good he was and remain aware of how good he still could be.
It isn’t blind loyalty, though. Shaw knows that. So aside from the gushing praise and tortured metaphors surrounding his return, it really is remarkable that he was able to put in a performance filled with so many moments of genuine quality.
Most reasonable followers of this sport know that a broken leg as severe as Luke Shaw’s might take this long to mend. The bone heals quickly but the trauma remains. The psychological impact of such a ferocious tackle, the muscle memory, the fitness, the match sharpness. When a player goes through something like this, it’s not just a medical recovery. It’s a physically, psychologically and emotionally gargantuan task. For Shaw to return at all was a Herculean effort.
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Shaw showed United fans what they've missed
Against CSKA Moscow, Shaw’s return showed United exactly what they were missing. Three moments in the first half encapsulated that. The first was the Shaw of old. Picking the ball up around the halfway line, he drove at the Moscow defence, gliding past two or three players with ease before reaching the penalty area. The turn of pace, the confidence, the quality to dribble in the opponent’s half, United have missed that.
The second moment reinforced the first. Paul Pogba was in possession, carrying the ball towards the visitors’ goal. In the blink of an eye, Shaw turned on the afterburners and provided an overlapping run in behind the CSKA backline. Pogba, unsurprisingly, played a perfectly weighted pass and Shaw fired the ball across the penalty area, narrowly missing the onrushing Marcus Rashford who was hoping for a tap-in. The execution was fractionally off, yet it was so encouraging, so exciting, so refreshing to see the renewal of such a dynamic threat on United’s left flank.
The final moment of Shaw’s first half was brief. Antonio Valencia, United’s right wing-back, crossed the ball to the back post, evading Romelu Lukaku but right into the path of the Englishmen, Without needing to adjust his body, accommodate for his right foot or take a touch to steady himself, Shaw unleashed a volley towards goal that was well saved by Igor Akinfeev. One wing-back crossing to another. Pace on both sides, one left-footed, the other right-footed. Both with the ability to beat a man and cross the ball. That is the key to the jigsaw. That is what United have been yearning. Balance.
The final moment of Shaw’s return that brought a smile to my face was a small one. It was almost insignificant in the face of what had gone before, but it was telling of the confidence and the quality in the young man. With his energy dwindling and the game slowing, Shaw was slow to reach a pass and was closed down by his opponent.
Could Shaw have kickstarted United career?
With no room to manoeuvre and seemingly set to lose the ball, Shaw nonchalantly flicked the ball over the despairing tackle and skipped past the defender, before crossing towards the penalty area. The confidence to try that piece of skill and the quality to execute it point towards something bigger than a token appearance in a group stage game.
It could be the start of something special.
Jose Mourinho was seemingly impressed. Where before he was sceptical, he now seemed convinced. Could Shaw have really changed the manager’s mind?
"He was deserving that opportunity for a long time and is going to get more because his performance was really positive."