Six months ago, Luke Shaw was in Australia before heading to the Far East as part of a full pre-season programme as Manchester United’s reigning Player of the Season. Okay, the Sir Matt Busby Trophy was a reward for being the shiniest turd in a sewer of a season for the Red Devils but for Shaw it marked a big step forward after long periods of regression at Old Trafford. Indeed, when he was omitted from the England squad for the Nations League finals, many felt he had been harshly judged.
Waving off four of his Under-23s team-mates as they boarded the flight to Perth with Shaw and the rest of the senior squad stood Brandon Williams. The then-18-year-old was instead heading to Austria for a week of graft with Quinton Fortune’s second string. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took ten defenders Down Under but Williams was not among them.
Half a season later, the scenario could hardly look more different. Williams has rocketed up the United reckoning, past three of his four contemporaries who toured with the big boys in the summer, and into the United first team while earning himself a new contract. Of last season’s Under-23s side, only Mason Greenwood has made more than the 15 appearances Williams has managed so far, but with the competition for places up front, it could be argued that the left-back is closer to becoming an undisputed first XI fixture.
Williams’ ascent has come at Shaw’s expense. After making almost double the number of league appearances that he’d managed in any of his previous four years at United, the £30million signing began the season as Solskjaer’s first choice but, as so often has been the case before, injury struck at an inopportune time for the 24-year-old. Just 214 minutes into the Premier League campaign, Shaw’s hamstring went and so did Shaw from the first-team picture for three months.
Even then, Williams had to wait for his promotion. In United’s next game after Shaw was injured against Crystal Palace, the teenager travelled with the Under-23s while Solskjaer picked Ashley Young to fill in with Marcos Rojo as further cover. It was another month before Williams was offered a taste of first-team action, but since coming on as a half-time sub in the Carabao Cup shoot-out win over Rochdale, the Mancunian has barely looked back.
A Premier League minute was earned as a late substitute against Liverpool at Old Trafford before a full league debut in the 3-1 home win over Brighton. By that time, Williams had already got a couple of starts under his belt in the Europa League, the second of which saw him earn a decisive penalty in a 1-0 win at Partizan Belgrade. Solskjaer gave him man of the match that night; United fans did the same following his maiden start in the Premier League.
“We got a result, but the performance wasn’t what we hoped for.”
“Brandon Williams was absolutely exceptional, man of the match for me.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer singled out Man Utd’s young left-back for praise after a win in Belgrade. pic.twitter.com/mzFWBls0DS
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) October 24, 2019
It is no wonder the Stretford End have taken to Williams. The Crumpsall-born kid has displayed all the traits United expect in their full-backs, a position in which they have endured something of an identity crisis in recent years. Wingers have been moved back and centre-halves shuffled across while Jose Mourinho and Solskjaer have tried in vain to find solutions.
Solskjaer threw £50million at the right-sided problem in the summer and it was thought he would have to go into the market again this month when Shaw succumbed to his latest injury. But Williams has saved United a hefty sum which can be spent on filling bigger holes in their squad.
Shaw will be rather less chuffed at Williams’ emergence because there is currently no good reason why the youngster should step aside. Williams has already demonstrated that he can do everything Shaw can do – most notably when he stopped Adama Traore – and a little more.
Going forward, Williams has looked like the Shaw that United saw at Southampton, the one who chugged relentlessly up and down the left flank. Shaw might chug forward now but too often he’ll puff back.
Had to rewind this ‘effort’ level from Luke Shaw…
He’s playing for MANCHESTER UNITED. pic.twitter.com/egiTdEwT3c
— Graeme Power (@GrayPower3) May 5, 2019
Williams took 1o0 minutes to score his first Premier League goal where Shaw took four years, while the young upstart has created 1.41 chances per 90 this season compared to the senior man’s 0.93. Williams has embarked on more dribbles with a higher success rate, and though Shaw has attempted more crosses, only 11% have found a team-mate.
One advantage Williams offers around either box is the ability to go on either side. The teenager, like Greenwood, can use either foot but is naturally right-sided, as his goal at Sheffield United demonstrated. In contrast, Shaw’s right foot is exclusively for standing on. Which makes him predictable to defend against, especially if he lacks the lightning speed that injury appears to have stolen.
Yes, serious injuries have been decisive in Shaw’s stagnation but more than one United manager has seen fit to bemoan Shaw’s fitness and attitude to his work. Solskjaer has no such worries over Williams: “He’s definitely a lesson for everyone who wants to be a professional footballer; the attitude he’s showing,” said the manager at the weekend.
He was even more gushing after the win in Belgrade: “The boy has no fear, he is as brave as a lion and he got us the win. Brandon has an absolutely great attitude. The boy is going to be a top, top player.”
Brandon Williams among Man Utd players vs. Norwich City:
2nd most final third passes (26)
most interceptions (5)
2nd most tackles won (3)
2nd most take-ons (3)
most blocked crosses (2)
Impressive. 👏👏👏 pic.twitter.com/TRji7N5tOB
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) January 11, 2020
Saturday was Williams and Shaw’s seasons in microcosm. The former kept his place against Norwich and turned in a hugely impressive performance marred only by a missed sitter. The latter had to make do with a place on the bench before another hamstring injury in the warm-up robbed him even of that role.
Shaw certainly faces a fight to win his place back but United fans are already enamoured with Williams’ – cousin of English Super-Featherweight boxer Zelfa Barrett – appetite for a scrap. Right now, the rookie has his rival pinned to the ropes. It might not be long before Solskjaer chucks in Shaw’s towel.