Manchester United’s summer signing of Alex Telles was what many assumed would be the final nail in the coffin for Luke Shaw as the first choice left back at Old Trafford.
Not because he was a dislikeable guy or because he’d done anything too calamitous, but more so because it felt like believing in Shaw in 2020 was like flogging a dead horse. The ‘young English talent with potential’ moniker had died a death and it was time to let him go and rebuild his image elsewhere.
Quite the opposite has happened, though. Instead of Telles seamlessly taking over first team responsibilities and relegating Shaw to cup appearances, the Englishman has made a comeback as unexpected as John Cena’s at the 2008 Royal Rumble.
It’s actually Telles having to fight his way back into the side following a £15.4m transfer, with Shaw suddenly hulking up and remembering that he was meant to be good a few years ago. Like, really good.
While Telles has managed a healthy 15 appearances in all competitions for the Red Devils so far, only six of those have come in the Premier League, compared to Shaw’s 14 Premier League appearances from 20 in all competitions. Shaw has relished the challenge and threat posed to him by the arrival and risen to the occasion; despite a turbulent start to the campaign, he’s quickly become one of United’s best players and can be relied upon to put in consistent performances in big games.
Two assists don’t quite tell the full story as the 25-year-old looks much improved going forward. Capable of providing the overlap or moving inside with the ball at his feet, Shaw looks composed in advanced areas and can find a key pass, but also gets back into position well and looks equally as reliable at the back. He kept Mohamed Salah extremely quiet when United faced Liverpool at Anfield, which was the culmination of a number of solid performances.
There is still work to do, of course. Since joining United, Shaw’s best season in terms of attacking numbers was his contribution of one goal and five assists in the 2018/19 campaign – the one where he managed to win the club’s Player of the Year award. He’s managed two assists so far this season – the same as his Brazilian colleague – but must do more with the ball when he finds himself in attacking positions. While Telles looks capable of consistently providing the final ball, Shaw still lacks it as a constant.
He’s improved, though. Massively. And it’s simply because United have sought competition rather than cover in their recent transfer strategy.
It’s always disappointing to see a new signing warm the bench, but it’s also testament to the rest of the squad doing their job. Too often have United signed players who simply aren’t good enough in recent seasons to ‘provide cover’ and been left with poor options from the bench. Instead, Telles is pushing Shaw every week and making him fight for his place in the XI, which can only improve a player.
It’s not a one off, either. David De Gea is recapturing his best form in the wake of Dean Henderson’s emergence, while Scott McTominay, Paul Pogba and Fred are doing well to keep Donny van de Beek and Nemanja Matic out of the XI.
Shaw’s seven clean sheets from his 20 appearances so far is equally as impressive. While capable of moving the ball forward, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can rely on him to put in a concentrated defensive display when needed. He managed 15 in the 2019/20 season, thus is on course to at least equal – if not better – that tally.
While him being voted as United’s Player of the Year in the 2018/19 campaign would suggest by default that it was his best season at Old Trafford, Shaw’s performances and growing importance to Solskjaer’s improved side suggest that, actually, the 2020/21 campaign could be his best in a United shirt.
The season is long and where there’s a Shaw appearance, there’s a muscle injury not so far behind, but it’s time to give the 25-year-old some much deserved credit for becoming one of the best performing players in his team, and proving to the doubters that he’s had the ability all along.