In the build-up to Manchester United’s Champions League visit to Basel, the points for discussion were clear. Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Gary Lineker chose to debate the future of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, again absent from the match-day squad. The BT Sport panel’s focus then turned to Romelu Lukaku, and how he had finally ended a seven-game goal drought against Newcastle at the weekend.
Jose Mourinho used his pre-match interview to weigh up the difficulties an away European fixture posed, as well as explaining why he had made seven changes to his starting line-up. “It shows my confidence in the players,” said the manager, singling out Sergio Romero for particular praise.
To describe Luke Shaw as an afterthought would be inaccurate, because that term implies he is actually in his manager’s thinking. The left-back was named on the bench in Switzerland for the second consecutive game, and remained seated for the second consecutive game. He is a substitute, an option, in theory only.
United laboured against Basel. Paul Pogba was impressive once again, Marouane Fellaini could have scored a hat-trick of headers, and the return of Marcos Rojo from injury was a notable positive. But the visitors desperately lacked any discernible width. Anthony Martial was uncharacteristically blunt, while Jesse Lingard offered willing running with little to no invention. Lukaku was isolated, and not even the introductions of Marcus Rashford and Zlatan Ibrahimovic could shock Mourinho’s side out of their deep slumber.
That United’s two worst players were exposed by Basel’s late winner summed up their respective games; that they were on either flank explains United’s ineffective forward play. Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind were horribly out of their depth on the right and left-hand sides, looking panicked in defence and causing every attack to stall and splutter. Martial received absolutely no support on one of his rare poor performances, and Pogba can only do so much to create something out of nothing.
It was the sort of game in which the Shaw of old would thrive. He would relish the opportunity to offer width against a vulnerable defence, to aim crosses at Lukaku and Fellaini, to bomb up and down the touchline in a game with relatively little pressure. Any full-back would, and yet outside of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, no United full-back does.
But the Shaw of old has not been seen for over two years. He is the perfect fit for the gaping full-back hole in the squad, yet he is not flexible enough to fill it.
Luke Shaw was fit when Ibrahimovic and Rojo tore their ACLs. Now they both are back in the team before Shaw is. Tells you a lot of things but not one positive thing about Shaw.
— Asit. (@CalcioElemento) November 22, 2017
The mental effects of the 22-year-old’s September 2015 leg break should never be understated, but it was put into context on Wednesday. Shaw’s last start in any competition came on April 20 against Anderlecht in the Europa League, when Rojo and Ibrahimovic both suffered long-term knee injuries. Both players have since returned within the subsequent seven months, and both players already have more minutes under their belt this season.
If the ignominy of losing your starting place to a 32-year-old winger in Young was not enough, standing behind both Blind and Darmian in the left-back queue must be cause for overwhelming embarrassment. Shaw is not in contention to start Carabao Cup games, never mind almost meaningless Champions League group stage ties. He is out of sight, out of mind and, as looks increasingly likely, out of the club when the first opportunity arises.
“I trust the players,” Mourinho said before the game, but Shaw is becoming more and more inconspicuous with each passing week. Of the 27 players in United’s first-team squad, 25 have more minutes in all competitions this season. Were it not for third-choice goalkeeper Joel Pereira, Shaw would be bottom of the list. As it is, he is back of the class, overlooked by the teacher and his fellow students are no longer speaking to him.
After giving Shaw his only meaningful minutes of the season, as a half-time substitute in the Carabao Cup third round against Burton in September, Mourinho was quick to make a point. “He hasn’t played for six months,” said the Portuguese, preaching caution with a player whose fitness and application has been a cause for concern. Shaw has played three minutes since, and Rojo and Ibrahimovic, who had not played for seven months, never mind six, have featured more often.
That the left-back barely registers on his manager’s radar will come as no surprise; it has been the case for well over a year. But the fact that he is gradually slipping out of the public and punditry consciousness is worrying. Shaw’s Manc redemption is no closer to fruition, and perhaps only leaving Old Trafford will be his salvation.