Luke Shaw: England’s imposing left-field choice

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GUWAHATI: Luke Shaw’s two assists in England’s 4-0 quarter-final thrashing of Ukraine at Euro 2020 on Saturday night capped a remarkable turnaround in the career of the Manchester United full-back. That his sublime performance came at the Stadio Olimpico, the home ground of AS Roma, didn’t escape the notice of many football fans. A day earlier, Roma had unveiled their new manager Jose Mourinho, Shaw’s former antagonist.

Shaw’s turnaround has been some story. When United signed Brazilian left-back Alex Telles from Porto in the summer of 2020, it seemed like the Englishman’s days at Old Trafford were numbered. Telles was arriving at United with a burgeoning reputation as one of the best attacking left-backs in the world—he had 11 goals and eight assists in 31 league games in his final league campaign with Porto.

Shaw, who signed for United as a 19-year-old for a fee of £30 million in 2014, had been through many highs and lows at Manchester. After showing promise early on, a double leg fracture in 2015 saw his career stall. After Mourinho took over as United manager in 2016, things went from bad to worse.

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It was no secret that Mourinho was not fond of the former Southampton full-back during his turbulent time at Old Trafford. The Portuguese manager criticised Shaw publicly on many occasions but his harshest comments perhaps came after he came off the bench to earn a late penalty for United and help them salvage a point in a league game against Everton in April 2017.

Despite Shaw’s match-saving performance, Mourinho went to the extent of questioning Shaw’s intelligence. “He had a good performance but it was his body with my brain,” Mourinho told reporters. “Because he was in front of me and I was making every decision for him. We need at this level the fantastic body he has to play football, the fantastic physical qualities he has, the very good technical ability he has—but he cannot play with my understanding of the game.”

When it was time for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Shaw didn’t make the cut for England, having seen his role at United reduced to playing second fiddle to the much older Ashley Young. But confidence is a huge factor in football; and Shaw seems to have regained oodles of that under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at United.

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Despite United going trophy-less once again, Shaw had a stellar 2020-21 season, cementing himself as one of the core members of the team. From cutting out positional errors that saw him being given the slip by right wingers on many occasions to significantly developing his attacking attributes, Shaw offered United a new dimension going forward last season.

“I had a difficult couple of years before he (Solskjaer) came in; maybe he realised that and knew what I needed. He’s really helped me off the pitch. He believes in me, he tells me that. That’s the confidence you need as a player, to have the manager believe in you,” Shaw told United’s official website last year.

That he created Harry Maguire’s headed goal, England’s second, and a few minutes later delivered a pin-point cross for Harry Kane to head in his second, and England’s third, on Saturday, was hardly a surprise given the improvements in his offensive qualities. Even in the 2-0 win over Germany in the Round of 16, it was Shaw who sent the crucial low cross from the left for Raheem Sterling to tap in the opening goal in the 75th minute.

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He was heavily involved in the second goal as well, releasing Jack Grealish on the left whose cross was nodded home by Kane. Apart from his three assists, the joint-second highest in this tournament, Shaw has been crucial defensively as England have reached the semi-finals without conceding a goal.

With his match-winning contributions, Shaw has repaid the faith shown in him by England manager Gareth Southgate, who has picked him ahead of Ben Chilwell, Champions League winner with Chelsea, and the more cautious Kieran Trippier, La Liga winner with Atletico Madrid who is conventionally a right-back. Trippier started the opener against Croatia but Shaw has since taken over that role.

Even Mourinho grudgingly acknowledged Shaw’s excellent showing weeks after insisting that Chilwell should be the first-choice left-back. “Luke Shaw is playing better and better and better,” he said, analysing England’s 4-0 win over Ukraine on Talksport.

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Shaw didn’t delve on his personal showing after the game. “Defensively and on the attacking side, I help the team however I can. Tonight I did that with two assists; but there’s no time to lose concentration now. We have got another massive game in four days,” he told ITV Sport on Saturday night.

From watching the 2018 World Cup on TV to be a star at the Euro 2020 as England chase their first major tournament success since 1966, Shaw is finally proving his doubters wrong. He will hope by the time he turns 26 next Monday, he will have a European Championship winner’s medal to celebrate it with.

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