Ole Gunnar Solskjaer demanded more out of the Red Devils duo from an attacking perspective and they have responded in fine fashion this season
In the first half of Manchester United’s 9-0 rout of Southampton, the impact of Alex Telles’ arrival at Old Trafford was made abundantly clear.
The Brazilian full-back was an unused substitute on Tuesday night but his signing has proven the catalyst in getting the best out of Luke Shaw.
The 25-year-old Englishman created five chances against the Saints – his best-ever haul in a Premier League match – and with his two assists, for Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Edinson Cavani, he matched his tally for his previous 45 league appearances combined.
Shaw, then, is in the best form of his career. As well as defending solidly, he is also, more importantly, excelling going forward, which will be of particular satisfaction to Solskjaer, who has been working closely with the left-back on his offensive game.
Tuesday's game was no flash in the pan either. Shaw has already created 35 chances this season, eclipsing his previous best total of 33 for the 2018-19 campaign – and United still have 16 Premier League games to play.
He is also averaging a cross every 29 minutes. Last season, it was one every 52 minutes. The season before that? One every 66 minutes.
Shaw is clearly reaping the rewards of the extra effort he is putting in on the training ground and it's clear that the signing of Telles last summer was a motivating factor.
The former Southampton ace knew that if he was to hold on to his starting spot, he would have to improve his attacking game.
“I think that Luke is now consistently producing what a modern full-back should be doing,” Solskjaer told reporters when asked about Shaw's impressive statistics in the final third.
Of course, he's not the only full-back at Old Trafford that is becoming a better all-round player this season.
There have never been any doubts about Wan-Bissaka's commitment to his defensive game and he once again tops the charts for tackles won in the Premier League this season, with 39.
The 23-year-old had to improve going forward, as Solskjaer warned last term.
“We always knew that Aaron was going to be hard to beat," Solskjaer said last season. "He's one of the best one-versus-one defenders I've ever seen, but he used to be a winger when he was younger, so he's got it in him [to provide more assists].
“The way we want to play, we rely on the full-backs getting forward and Aaron's getting better on the ball; he doesn't give the ball away a lot.
"But when you play at full-back for Manchester United, you do have to provide assists."
Even since Solskjaer succeeded Jose Mourinho at the helm just over two years ago, he has been trying to make his defenders more comfortable playing the ball out from the back and using the full-backs to add width to his team's attacking play – which is something that Wan-Bissaka had not been used to while playing for Crystal Palace.
In his final season at Selhurst Park, in 2018-19, he was creating a chance, on average, every 223 minutes. This season, on top of his two goals and one assist, he is creating a chance every 128 minutes.
In addition, his average number of touches is up to 77 from 63 and whereas he managed zero touches in the opposition box during the 2017-18 season, now his average is 1.1 per game.
"That's why I came to this club," he said of his impressive development in an interview with United's official website. "This club is capable of helping me with that. I want to become a better player every year.
"I don't really focus on statistics at the time but, at the end of the season, I look back and see if it's better than the previous season, and the season before that."
Solskjaer and his staff have been impressed with the huge strides forward Wan-Bissaka is now taking and games like Southampton showcased the fruits of his labour, as he earned the fans’ man of the match award for his efforts.
Of course, there is still room for improvement. The barnstorming runs of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson down the right and left flanks at Anfield helped transform Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool into title winners, and those two remain the benchmark for all attacking full-backs in the Premier League.
For example, Robertson has made 40 successful crosses this season, and Alexander-Arnold 28. Wan-Bissaka has pulled off just four.
Those numbers explain why United are considering bringing in another right-back this summer to compete with the former England Under-21 international for a starting spot.
Kieran Trippier has been previously considered, while Max Aarons is still on the club’s radar. And that's hardly surprising, given the success Solskjaer has had at left-back by putting pressure on Shaw with the acquisition of Telles.
“I think it’s a sign of a Man Utd player when you take on the challenge of competition because if you can’t deal with competition, you’re at the wrong place,” the Norwegian said.
“Nobody is guaranteed a place in the team here. You’ve got to perform to be part of the success of Man Utd and I’ve been part of that competition myself, with strikers coming in. You’ve just got to meet the challenge head on.
“I’ve really enjoyed the response I’ve had from players like Luke [Shaw] and David [de Gea] but we've continued to sign players, like Donny [van de Beek] and Amad [Diallo], because that’s also kicked some of the other players up the backside to make sure they keep performing.”
For now, Shaw should be Wan-Bissaka’s source of inspiration. The threat of new arrivals should prove the extra shove he needs to take his game to the next level.
If Wan-Bissaka can follow the example being set by his fellow full-back, Solskjaer will be halfway towards solving the team's long-standing lack of incision down the right wing.
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