Jose Mourinho’s arrival at Manchester United has been greeted with some important signings. 34-year-old Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived on a free transfer after scoring 50 goals in 51 games, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrived as a talismanic playmaker from Borussia Dortmund. Eric Bailly added to United’s quality-bare central defence, and rumours of players of Paul Pogba’s calibre will be linked with United for the rest of the summer. Regardless of who Jose Mourinho can bring into the club, both he and our fans will know that the biggest new figure at United could be Luke Shaw, returning from a broken leg injury in the Champions League last season.
Shaw was arguably United’s best player in the opening stages of the 2015/16 season, helping Memphis in attack and tracking back to phenomenal effect throughout August and September. A horror tackle from Hector Moreno changed the entire course of United’s season in an intense clash against PSV Eindhoven, leaving fans astonished at how he didn’t get sent off and called out for a penalty. Though United discovered some good backup options in Shaw’s absence, none were as effective as the Englishman who Roy Hodgson would’ve loved to have at the Euros.
In Shaw’s position, he’s probably the best in the Premier League, with only Arsenal’s Nacho Monreal, Leicester’s Christian Fuchs and Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta able to come close to the 21-year-old. In addition, he’s just 21, and on the pitch, he looks like a seasoned veteran. Explosive in the attack and great in defence, Shaw is a defence-first fullback who is also one of the best going forward. His unique ability to both dribble all the way up the pitch and put in excellent crosses in one shot will bring the best out of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford on the left-wing.
That is the biggest reason why Shaw will be the biggest (re)addition to United’s side this season. Mkhitaryan and Ibrahimovic are up there with the best in their positions in the Premier League, and Bailly has been referred to as the best young defender in the world by Villareal fans, but Shaw alone carries the burden for United at left-back. In fact, one wonders what will happen to the side should Shaw get injured again.
United’s backups to Shaw in the last two seasons at various points were Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Blind was the best of the pack on the left, and if Bailly is in the centre of defence he will be covered for pace. Blind could be used for his passing ability, but he may not be a Mourinho-type. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson is a fullback with world class potential behind Shaw, and looked promising in his spell on the team, but he is relatively unproven. If Marcos Rojo has a future at United, there will be prayers that it isn’t at left-back, and that puts it lightly. Fosu-Mensah was a rock defensively but struggled moving forward on the left. New signing Bailly’s situation on the left is similar to Fosu-Mensah, and he may be looked to before the Dutchman in an emergency.
It seems Mourinho has benefitted from Shaw’s injury last season (assuming he recovers fully) because the good and bad options have emerged. Blind and Borthwick-Jackson would likely share the position depending on the match should Shaw go down, with Fosu-Mensah moving to right-back and Rojo getting a final chance at centre-back, where he belongs. Shaw brings so much to United’s back four, and with the addition of another ball-playing defender and some important departures United arguably becomes the best defensive unit in the Premier League. With poorer defensive options last season, United had the joint-best defence in the Premier League with the joint-most clean sheets, and the addition of Bailly as an almost direct replacement for Phil Jones could go a long way.
United fans will be eagerly awaiting to potentially see Shaw in action against Wigan on Saturday, more than they will want to see Mkhitaryan and Bailly on Saturday. That was the impact that he left on United in less than 10 matches. His injury made the Old Trafford faithful and even the United squad stutter for a while, and it took them a while. Everyone will hope Shaw proves his excellence to the world, and also that United and Mourinho have a plan if he goes down again. Shaw’s influence is incredible, unquestionable and could prove the difference for United this season, and making the same mistake as last year by not planning for his absence would be a terrible sign for a new-look Manchester United that finally looks to be addressing its weaknesses properly.