As Luke Shaw produced another masterclass in the backyard of his fiercest critic the easy temptation on social media was to wonder what Jose Mourinho made of it all.
Almost everything Shaw does these days is framed around his relationship with Mourinho, but as the left-back said last week, “It is time to move on. I am trying to move on but, obviously, he can’t.”
Shaw has moved on and moved up during the European Championship. He’s produced three assists this week as England have beaten Germany and Ukraine to reach the semi-finals at Wembley on Wednesday and in Rome he was a gladiator for the Three Lions.
Instead of going back to his turbulent relationship with Mourinho at Old Trafford, we should instead be focusing on Shaw’s own individual improvement and the triumph of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s man-management, for that is what this story is really all about.
Shaw’s rise to being one of the best left-backs in world football can be traced back maybe 18 months, when Solskjaer showed him he now had a manager who believed in him.
At that point of the season Shaw had been fit enough to start just 10 games of the campaign and the emergence of Brandon Williams had put his place under pressure. He hadn’t been fit enough to play on a consistent basis and he was now under pressure for his place.
Two days before United travelled to Anfield to face a Liverpool side running away with the title Solskjaer sat in the press room at Carrington for his pre-match press conference and as he spoke to the Sunday papers he was asked whether the back four of recent weeks – Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire and Williams – was one to build around for years to come.
There was no mention of Shaw in the question and he’d been a peripheral figure all season, but fairly early on his response Solskjaer mentioned Shaw anyway.
“And potentially we have the best left-back in England. Luke has the potential to be the best one. And that is the great challenge for him now,” said Solskjaer.
It would be fair to say that comment raised eyebrows at the time, amongst those of us in attendance who heard it first hand and United fans. When I wrote the story for Sunday’s paper the response from supporters was generally along the lines of ‘he’s not even the best left-back at the club’.
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At this point the jury was still out on Solskjaer’s time at United, who were fifth in the league and still had no Bruno Fernandes. To talk up a player who a lot of supporters had given up on due to his patchy fitness record was a bold move.
The fact Solskjaer had mentioned Shaw off his own back and in such positive terms certainly laid down the challenge to Shaw. He was back in the team at Anfield, playing left centre-back in a back three and he played well. He’s not looked back since. The challenge of Williams was seen off, then came Alex Telles in the summer, but the Brazil international has barely had a look in. There’s only one player doing a more than passable impression of a Brazilian left-back at United these days.
Shaw was good enough to be part of the centre of defence last season but this campaign it’s his attacking play that has improved. He created more chances than any other full-back in the Premier League and his fitness to get up and down the left flank was exemplary. He looks at the very top of his game.
Coming into the European Championship it looked like a battle between Shaw and Ben Chilwell for the role of left-back in the England side, but what seemed a close fight is anything but. Shaw is head and shoulders above the Chelsea man.
He was involved in both goals against Germany, creating Raheem Sterling’s opener with a smart low cross and then winning the ball back with a bit of aggressive play to start the move that led to Harry Kane’s header. In Rome on Saturday he delivered a pin-point free-kick for Maguire to score, a combination United should be getting used to, and then floated an inviting cross for Kane to score again.
What has been striking about Shaw’s advances down the left is the timing of his runs. For Kane’s second against Ukraine his run to glide past Sterling and collect the pass on the overlap was perfection.
In the early stages of the season just gone there was plenty of praise for Shaw’s understanding with Marcus Rashford down the United left. But then Paul Pogba played there and Shaw linked up excellently with him as well.
Now he’s doing the same with Sterling for England and at one stage last night Jadon Sancho switched wings and immediately combined impressively with Shaw. There’s a common denominator here and that’s Shaw. A winger’s dream to play with.
It was Kane who named star man against Ukraine, but it really should have been Shaw. Right now he is the best left-back in the league and there’s no potentially about it. Nobody saw that coming 18 months ago, except for Solskjaer.