“It is not a test, it is not an exam,” said Jose Mourinho, trying to kid us all that Luke Shaw was not being assessed with bigger issues in mind than the straight-forward completion of Manchester United’s Champions League Group A campaign.
During the 2-1 win over CSKA Moscow, the £32million left-back was handed his first start of the season, despite having been fit for all but a couple of weeks. Having been on the rough end of Mourinho’s tough love, Shaw would surely have recognised the significance of this opportunity. If he didn’t, perhaps there really is no hope for him at Old Trafford.
Of all the players to be given a platform by United in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, few have received the will of so many to succeed more than Shaw. ‘Good luck @LukeShaw23 you can be a Man Utd great’ tweeted Phil Neville, who continued to bang Shaw’s drum throughout the match. Perhaps that is to be expected given the potential he showed from such a young age when he burst on the scene at Southampton. Sympathy is also in plentiful supply after the nasty double leg break he suffered in 2015, while many just want him to prove his mean manager wrong. If he doesn’t make the grade at United, there will plenty beyond Old Trafford who will express their disappointment, but his display against CSKA perhaps demonstrated that he still has a fighting chance.
On a comfortable night for the hosts, Shaw showed all the traits that warranted him prodigy status as a teenager. From left wing-back, he drove forward with and without the ball, taking United between lines into dangerous positions, even if it once again took them too long to make the most of them. Indeed, Shaw had the most touches of any United player in the CSKA penalty area during the first half, two more than Romelu Lukaku.
Had he used one fewer touch in the box, he might have scored his first senior goal rather than seeing his sixth-minute shot blocked. Perhaps with more match practice, Shaw would have felt more comfortable taking on Lukaku’s pull-back first time.
That was not the only sign of rustiness from Shaw. He was floored by cramp 15 minutes from the end, though his fitness should not be a concern – especially if there was any modicum of truth in the story last week suggesting that he and Antonio Valencia had been identified as the fittest players in the United squad. Shaw has been healthy and training since August and has completed 90 minutes on three occasions in the Under-23s against Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham. Granted, it is a different intensity of competition, but so too will United face more arduous tests than that posed by a CSKA side who spent most of the evening retreating towards their own goal, petrified at the pace of Lukaku and Marcus Rashford.
“Offensively, very, very good,” said Mourinho of Shaw’s display. But the manager will no doubt hone in on the fact that when United’s defence was breached, it was Shaw who was caught out.
The wing-back was caught square by Konstantin Kuchaev’s pass, a few yards ahead of United’s retreating defensive line. Despite the turn of pace which he evidently retains, Shaw’s body shape and starting position gave him no chance to recover the split pass played behind him, and United were subsequently trailing despite their domination.
Against better opposition, such lapses in concentration would be far harder for United to atone for. Mourinho’s most stinging barb aimed at Shaw was delievered in April, when the manager said his player “has to change his football brain” following a 25-minute cameo during the draw against Everton. “He was in front of me and I was making every decision for him,” Mourinho continued. When he dishes out Shaw’s marks after tonight’s assessment, the grade will probably be heavily weighted on that one error in an otherwise impressive showing.
For that reason, Ashley Young, a 32-year-old right-footed winger, remains higher in the pecking order on the left side of United’s defence. Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind are also preferred but the positive facets of Shaw’s performance, in addition to the fact he was given an opportunity at all and Mourinho’s rather more encouraging tone during Monday’s pre-match press conference, suggest hope is not completely lost for Shaw to succeed.
What next? Come the derby on Sunday, Young will return after his hugely impressive form of recent weeks. If Shaw isn’t rotated in during the six Premier League matches United will play this month, then perhaps opportunities will arrive in the EFL Cup quarter-final at Bristol City in a fortnight or the FA Cup third-round tie against Derby at Old Trafford early next month.
But, even if Mourinho doesn’t feel able to offer it to him, Shaw needs more. There were whispers that United were open to offers of around £20million next month, especially given Mourinho reportedly has to free up some space in the squad and on the wage bill before he can buy again. But selling Shaw is a very final and all-too-drastic solution given the obvious talent of a player Paul Scholes describes as “without a doubt the best left-back at the club”.
A half-season loan in January seems the obvious solution. Newcastle were linked with such a deal just last week and they would surely not be the only club in the queue. A temporary move would give Shaw the chance to play and iron out the defensive kinks in his game while United get the opportunity to properly assess his prospects of solving a problem they are reportedly thinking of fixing by spluffing £50million on Danny Rose.
If Shaw can retain his fitness, and crucially, his focus ,which is said to have improved considerably as a result of Mourinho’s tough love, then Rose is simply not a necessary upgrade, especially if United persist with a three-man defence. But we will never know that unless the Red Devils find a way for Shaw to get the minutes Mourinho now says he deserves.