Man Utd’s weak link: Why Mourinho was right about Luke Shaw
A lot of people who watched Manchester United beat Chelsea 4-0 on the opening weekend of the Premier League season went away with the same impression that Chelsea did not deserve to lose by that many goals.
It was as evenly contested as a 4-0 could be, with a penalty and a second-half sucker punch establishing a lead on the scoreboard that United probably didn’t merit.
That’s not to take anything away from United, they hit hard and accurately when their chances fell. Their ability to play unfussy counter-attack football will gain them plenty of points through the season.
That style caters to the strengths of Paul Pogba, with his through passes, and for the quick attackers ahead of him.
To put together a promising season, however, will take more than counters. United are going to have to be able to resist and to win the ball back in the first place, all the while hoping that opponents miss the chances they get.
On the basis of matchday one, that plan worked. But not every striker is going to hit the post, like Tammy Abraham, and to rely on that kind of football is unsustainable.
Furthermore, United are going to run into a major problem when it comes to giving up chances when teams start to repeatedly target Luke Shaw’s side of defence.
Chelsea had great success in this sector, with Abraham’s clever runs into midfield and his layoffs providing the space needed for players like Pedro and Mason Mount to gallop into the space left behind the United left back.
In April 2017, and having restored Shaw to the United squad, Jose Mourinho fielded a question about his performance in a league game against Everton.
"He had a good performance, but it was his body with my brain,” Mourinho said.
"He was in front of me and I was making every decision for him.
"The communication was possible because we were very close. I was thinking for him, when to close inside, when to open, when to press the opponent, I was making every decision for him."
The evidence of these long-standing tactical issues are still present in Shaw.
Mourinho was out in front of the Sky Sports cameras last Sunday, remarking that new signing Harry Maguire had better get used to covering for Shaw on that side of defence.
“When Maguire has to cover for Luke Shaw, he will learn he has to do this a lot of times during the season, the space in the face of the ball, somebody has to arrive,” Mourinho said.
It was widely interpreted as another dig at Shaw from the former United manager, who had well documented issues with him during their two-and-a-bit seasons together.
A lot of what Mourinho said during his time at United – about how finishing second with that squad of players would rank among his all-time achievements, about United’s young players not being as good as many in the media thought they were – has subsequently been proven correct.
By pointing out Shaw’s shortcomings he was not directly criticising him, he was merely calling it how he saw it. Given he coached him every day during his time at the club, he is better placed than most to point it out.
United played against Paris St-Germain in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League last 16 match last season. The significance of that game has probably been glossed over considering the heroics United performed in the second match to overturn a 2-0 victory and get through to the quarterfinals.
But there is a lot to learn by re-examining the game, where it becomes apparent just how Shaw’s flaws – combined with Solskjaer’s inexperience – offers the blueprint for big teams to overpower United.
That night Thomas Tuchel’s team selection disguised the fact that he would play with a back three. By the time the game kicked off, and PSG got into possession, it became apparent that PSG were going to gang up on Shaw with Dani Alves and Julian Draxler on the right side of the attack.
Alves played high and, in combination with Draxler, the pair took turns to go one-on-one with Shaw or else provide one another with the two-on-one tactical advantage needed to gain the edge.
Shaw was snowed under, unable to break out of his zone and do any damage at the PSG end, and could not keep two world-class opponents at bay on his own either.
He could have done with a hand that night from Nemanja Matic but did not seem to relay the message that something had to be done. That, in turn, led to a blindspot in the game plan of Solskjaer.
Either he was content to watch his left-back get repeatedly ramraided – with the game decided in that sector – or else he didn’t see it. Both are worrying and both would have ramifications.
Frank Lampard exploited Shaw’s ineptitude and was unlucky not to get rewarded for it.3
Left-back is one area of the pitch that United failed to address in the summer transfer window and the depth there is not good either. If Shaw has to be withdrawn then the place in the team will go to Ashley Young. He is probably still more dependable than Shaw, but Solskjaer will persist for now with the younger man.
The issue will not go away, however. Shaw is no longer a promising 18-year-old. He is a fully-fledged professional who has by now celebrated his 24th birthday. Players of that age are not young in the professional sense; they are reckoned to be in their peak performance years.
If this is as good as it gets for Shaw, then Solskjaer will have serious questions to answer in that position in the coming weeks and months.
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