Manchester United kicked off their Premier League season in dominant fashion with a convincing 4-0 win over West Ham. José Mourinho’s team were barely challenged as they dispatched the London outfit with some fluid attacking football. The result enhanced expectations for the rest of the season, as well as making a statement to the other teams in the top tier. Luke Shaw, however, who has not played a minute since the start of May, did not feature.
The left-back suffered a foot problem in a home game against Swansea last season and didn’t earn any minutes with the first-team in the pre-season tour of the United States. He has been training with the side as he hopes to return to first-team action next month, however.
In arguably the biggest season of his career, Shaw faces the tough task of proving himself to his fans, manager and the club. He will be looking to accomplish the expectations that were on him when he signed for the club in 2014, and earn a spot in the England squad for the 2018 World Cup. The scale of his task is massive and he must adapt if he is to have a successful season and regain his reputation.
Adapting to the new side
Full-backs are arguably the most sought-after players in modern-day football, with the current transfer window already seeing the transfer record for defenders broken following Manchester City’s moves for Kyle Walker from Tottenham and Benjamin Mendy from Monaco. Other major transfers this year have included Nelson Semedo’s move to Barcelona, while Danilo swapped Real Madrid for the Citizens as well.
Managers see full-backs as another attacking outlet, with wing-backs rising in popularity in recent years. Shaw, on the other hand, will not have to play as a wing-back; he will have to adapt to the new additions in the positions in front of him.
By signing Romelu Lukaku, United have a more mobile option up front compared to Zlatan Ibrahimović and that will increase the work that needs to be done by the wingers and full-backs. Ibrahimović often used to drop deeper into midfield to receive the ball and that gave opposition defences more space and time against the United attack. Now with Lukaku, however, they face a tougher task. The Belgian has the speed and mobility to quickly defeat defenders and move into spaces. This forces opposition defences to stick to him and create spaces between full-backs and centre-halves, which creates room in the wide areas of the pitch.
This creates opportunities for players like Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw himself. They have to improve the energy levels and work on their crossing techniques, due to much of the side standing at over six feet tall. The Ecuadorian has already proven his quality over the last 12 months, whereas Shaw has his work cut out for him as he returns from another long injury lay-off.
In Shaw’s absence, the likes of Daley Blind and Matteo Darmian have deputised. Much to their credit, they have done a fine job despite not playing in their strongest positions. The Dutchman was one of the best players on the pitch in the win over West Ham, and Darmian has also done well whenever called upon, proving to be a good squad player. Shaw could have the task of having to displace one of them if they thrive in their roles and are able to have a consistent role in the team. Blind, in particular, could be his main competitor.
Shaw could gain positivity from the fact that Mourinho is possibly showing faith in him by not opting to sign a permanent replacement. He will, however, have to overcome competition from his own side if he is to have a key role. Plenty of players fail to regain confidence or struggle to integrate into new systems when they are down the pecking order, but Shaw needs to keep his head in the task and do what is necessary to cement his spot.
He could take inspiration from some of his team-mates, including Valencia and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The right-winger-turned-right-back seemed destined to be out of the club, but rejuvenated himself at the end of Louis van Gaal’s reign. He was the first name on the team sheet in José Mourinho’s first season in charge. Mkhitaryan was always meant to be a first-team regular. After a rocky first three months, though, he overcame his injury issues, and then became a crucial figure in their EFL Cup and Europa League successes last season.
The first few weeks after returning from a long injury lay-off are the most crucial part of the recovery process. Shaw won’t be given every possible minute, but will have to make the most of the minutes he gets to gain confidence and prove his fitness to the manager.
Following his return, he will have to perform in a way which does not stress his body too much and is at the optimum level to suggest that he is indeed able to return to full-time action amongst the first-team plans. Players such as Jack Wilshere and Phil Jones have had consistently aggravated injury problems over the years. If Luke Shaw aims to avoid a similar situation, these early weeks are crucial. Perhaps a spell with the U23s in Manchester United’s Premier League 2 campaign could be a possibility.
It is a massive season for every top-level footballer with the World Cup right around the corner. Every player will aim to be at his best to play at the grandest stage in football. For now, Luke Shaw’s journey will have to start smoothly as he aims to avoid an injury-ravaged career. He faces the toughest task of his short career so far with the aim of making a name for himself and rebuilding his reputation in Manchester.