A left-back Ighalo or moving Martinez: Five ways Man Utd can cope in Luke Shaw’s absence…

Ian Watson
Luke Shaw and Lisandro Martinez challenge Richarlison during Man Utd's defeat at Tottenham.
Lisandro Martinez could cover for Luke Shaw on the left of Man Utd's defence.

Manchester United need to fill the void left by Luke Shaw, including buying a centre-back to free up Martinez, or finding the left-back equivalent of Ighalo.

United have suffered another injury blow with the news that Luke Shaw is set for an extended spell on the sidelines with a muscle injury. Shaw’s absence is a kick in the balls for Erik ten Hag, who is now left without one of his most trusted players.

Here’s how the United boss can cover for the England left-back.


Play the back-up
That would be Tyrell Malacia. But the Netherlands defender cannot seize the opportunity he has been waiting for because he too is crocked. For how long, we don’t know.

So the next in line to play at left-back is a right-back. Diogo Dalot moved to the opposite flank three times for Ten Hag last season, and at least half a dozen other times during the rest of his United career. The 24-year-old has also played on the left for AC Milan and Porto, and twice for Portugal.

Dalot is arguably better on the ball than he is defensively so he should have few issues tucking in and playing further forward as an inverted midfielder, as seemingly all full-backs must these days.


Use the academy
United might be without a senior left-back, but they have a damn good rookie waiting for an opportunity.

Alvaro Fernandez spent last season on loan at Preston where he made 42 appearances, winning North End’s Young Player of the Season award. The year prior to that, the Spaniard was named United’s Reserve Team Player of the Season.

Upon returning to United this summer, Fernandez featured in half of their pre-season friendlies but mostly in those that featured a fringe side. Brandon Williams served as Shaw’s most senior back-up, which was surprising since it was widely expected that he would be leaving Old Trafford. Indeed, Williams has this week signed for Ipswich, further endearing himself to Norwich fans.

Prior to Shaw’s injury, Fernandez probably expected a loan move too, or perhaps even a permanent exit, but Ten Hag might now opt to keep him around. But the manager’s pre-season picks seemed to make clear the Spain Under-19 international’s status, which means his needs would be better served away from Old Trafford in the meantime.

Alvaro Fernandez in action for Manchester United.


Change the shape
Sometimes, when facing the loss of a key player, coaches will look to cope by changing the structure of their side. Might Ten Hag opt to play with a back three, rather than finding a like-for-like replacement for Shaw?

Not likely. Shaw’s absence alone does not necessitate a change in shape while United, especially amid their current spate of injuries, aren’t suitably equipped to play in such a way.

While United struggle for form and fitness through the early weeks of the season, taking such a drastic measure would make no sense.


Shift defenders around
Ten Hag could opt to bring defenders out of their comfort zone in the centre and employ them on the left in Shaw’s absence.

The obvious candidate would be Lisandro Martinez. The Argentina international played there occasionally for Ajax and plenty was made of his versatility when Ten Hag brought the defender with him when he moved from Amsterdam last summer; it’s why Arsenal wanted him.

Could United afford to bring Martinez out of the centre? Not right now. Alongside Raphael Varane, the 25-year-old is crucial to the security of Ten Hag’s defence.

But, if United were to move for another centre-back, that could open up the possibility of Martinez shifting one slot to his left. It would seem such a prospect might only be possible if the club can shift Harry Maguire – arf! – and it would make sense to begin succession planning for Varane.

It could be a answer to two issues, but in terms of Ten Hag’s left-back crisis, it’s a longer-term solution to a relatively short-term problem.


Dip into the transfer market
If United are to find the answer in the transfer market, then it would most likely involve the signing of a specialist left-back.

Given what we know about United’s budget – there isn’t one until they make further sales – there seems to be no chance of Ten Hag diverting what few funds he has away from the gaping void in the centre of his midfield to spend on an emergency left-back.

So, with barely as left back to speak of among the free-agent pool, United are said to be scouring the loan market instead.

But there are slim pickings there too. The two best left-backs available for loan come from Manchester City and Arsenal, with neither inclined to help United, even if Joao Cancelo and Kieran Tierney weren’t destined for Spain with Barcelona and Real Sociedad respectively.

Rather than look for a left-back equivalent of Ighalo or Wout Weghorst, Ten Hag would be better served by United spending what money they can muster on a midfielder while using an in-house solution to his latest injury concern. Even if it leaves them perilously thin on cover for either side of their defence.

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