Luke Shaw can see light at the end of the tunnel – but it's now on him to reach it
Luke Shaw has been around for long enough to easily forget that he’s still only 21. He is now in his third year with the Red Devils, but has largely failed to establish himself as Jose Mourinho's first-choice left-back.
That is, until now perhaps. On Saturday, Shaw started a Premier League match for the first time since October 29 in Manchester United's 1-1 draw against Bournemouth – in part due to a groin injury sustained shortly after, but after that because Mourinho simply didn't pick him. At times it's been downright odd – and sometimes fraught.
The England international’s struggles have been an unfortunate product of the situation into which he was thrown; Shaw was under pressure after signing from Southampton for £30m in 2014 – a fee which made him the world’s most expensive teenager at the time (he was eclipsed by team-mate Anthony Martial a year later). That hasn’t really eased since.
Louis van Gaal deemed him “not very fit” soon after his arrival. He fought back to make 20 appearances in 2014/15 whilst continuing to work on his fitness. Shaw's second season began with more promise; he started every league game until that fateful Champions League trip to PSV in November, when he suffered a double leg break, ruling him out for the remainder of the campaign.
All signs pointed to a successful union between player and manager, especially as Mourinho had courted Shaw while he was Chelsea boss
Until Saturday, a return to fitness hadn't brought a return to Mourinho's squad on a regular basis, let alone the starting XI: Shaw has still only started seven Premier League games this term, with Mourinho preferring square pegs for round holes in the form of Daley Blind and Matteo Darmian. The question now is: has he really turned a corner?
Coming back from a double leg fracture was always going to be difficult, and questions continue to be asked about whether Shaw has lost his explosive style and attacking threat in the final third.
Fitness issues can be traced back to his Southampton days, with Nigel Adkins and former England boss Roy Hodgson having raised the issue long before Mourinho or Van Gaal did. Mauricio Pochettino suggested that he needed time to mature psychologically – mentally and tactically.
Mourinho was clearly impressed by Shaw in pre-season, though: after an untroubled performance against Wigan, the Portuguese admitted that he was surprised at how the left-back was able to play without limitation, and praised the defender for the sacrifices he’d made during the summer.
All signs pointed to a successful union between player and manager – not least since Mourinho had courted Shaw while he was Chelsea boss.
The 21-year-old started the season strongly, playing 69 minutes in the Community Shield and completing United’s first three league games against Bournemouth, Southampton and Hull.
Defeats by Manchester City and Watford changed everything, though. Mourinho, as he has often done in the past, blamed his players – with Shaw and Henrikh Mkhitaryan picked out as the two main culprits. The former drew flak for standing off Nordin Amrabat as Watford scored their second goal at Vicarage Road, and Mourinho hinted at tactical and mental weaknesses in his game. The pair exchanged words when the 21-year-old was substituted, although Shaw claims to have taken the criticism on board and insisted he wasn’t disappointed with his manager's comments.
Someone else was, though.