Scoring in a Manchester derby is the type of moment which makes people sit up and take notice of you, but even before Sunday’s slaloming 70-yard run, one-two with Marcus Rashford and finish for his third career goal, Luke Shaw was already playing like one of the best left-backs in the Premier League.
Shaw’s form is nothing new. Ever since nailing down a starting spot at Old Trafford this time last year, he has been a dependable presence at the back for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and has taken on such an influential role going forward that he has become Manchester United’s second-most important player.
Think back to the second half of last season. United’s impressive form down the stretch and run to secure Champions League qualification owed much to the arrival of Bruno Fernandes as someone who would take risks in possession and make ambitious plays. Yet it also coincided with Shaw coming into the side.
Shaw had missed much of the campaign up to that point with a hamstring injury. Ashley Young and Brandon Williams were United’s left-backs in his absence but both were right-footed. On the opposite flank, Aaron Wan-Bissaka offered relatively little going forward, while the right wing role has been a problem position at Old Trafford for years.
Shaw’s return on the cusp of the first lockdown added a new, essential dimension: natural, left-footed width. And though it did not immediately translate into assists, his willingness to join the attack and offer overlapping runs offered another creative outlet as well as Fernandes.
It was only after Shaw was forced off against former club Southampton that United began dropping points again during Project Restart and, though they ultimately did enough to guarantee a top-four finish, his absence was keenly felt during the disappointing climax to the Europa League campaign.
This season, Shaw has stayed relatively free of injury, only missing four weeks with another hamstring problem in November. The result is that only Fernandes has more assists, expected assists, key passes and passes into the penalty area per 90 minutes than Shaw among Solskjaer’s squad.
Quite simply, if it isn’t going through Bruno, it’s probably going through Luke. 43 per cent of United’s attacks come down the left wing - one of the highest proportions of any Premier League side - and when they do, it is often Shaw’s work. No top-flight full-back has created better opportunities or carried the ball into the final third as much as Shaw this season.
He has improved in many different ways, though. Shaw’s delivery from set-pieces is noticeably better, with him trusted on corners and free-kicks more often. Though he will never be as dominant when defending one-on-one as Wan-Bissaka, he did a near-faultless job on Mohamed Salah in the 0-0 draw at Anfield in January.
His goal and performance at the Etihad was merely one of many excellent displays over the past year.
“Absolutely incredible,” was how Solskjaer described it, and it was all the more remarkable as Shaw nearly did not make the starting line-up. “He was a massive doubt until after the warm-up. He had to wait until after the warm-up to be cleared to play, so Alex [Telles] was ready,” his manager revealed.
“Luke’s performance was top,” Solskjaer added. “He’s aggressive, hard to play one against one. When he goes forward on those runs he’s unstoppable. He’s improved so much and is improving all the time and I’m delighted for him.”
The United manager has always believed that Shaw was capable of this form. In January last year, shortly after Young had brought his United career to an end and joined Internazionale, Solskjaer was asked about his remaining options at full-back.
There was praise for Wan-Bissaka, the then-emerging Williams and even the largely unfancied Diogo Dalot, but the biggest compliment was saved for Shaw, who he described as “potentially one of the best left-backs in England”.
At the time, it was difficult to see that potential being fulfilled. Little more than a year later though, Solskjaer’s faith has been vindicated.
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