Manchester United: Are we sure… about Shaw’s redemption?

His first-ever professional goal and a brilliant overall performance would have appeased Jose Mourinho… for now.

oliver stein by Oli Stein

Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers

“[Antonio] Valencia, [Chris] Smalling, [Eric] Bailly and [Luke] Shaw, they are probably the ones to start the season,” a miserable Jose Mourinho told MUTV during pre-season. He was half-honest, at least.

Manchester United raised the curtain of the 2018/19 Premier League season with a 2-1 victory against Leicester City. And Luke Shaw was central to the win, netting the second goal to quell the Foxes’ momentum late on.

Mourinho’s long-term distrust of the 23-year-old is a well-documented feature of his tenure at Old Trafford, but he can feel somewhat vindicated in his decision to subject the player frequently to public criticism after he was repaid with a “very complete performance.”

Turning down opportunities to leave the club over the summer — determined to demonstrate to his doubters why the Red Devils paid £30 million to sign him four years ago — Shaw seized his opportunity with aplomb, but are we sure he’s going to stay in the first team?

[Insert Shawshank Redemption pun here]

Just as Andy Dufresne earned the trust of Warden Norton that eventually underpinned his escape from Shawshank Prison, Shaw has seemingly won over Mourinho, the man that has — arguably unfairly — kept him out in the cold since arriving at Old Trafford.

It’s been a long, arduous road to redemption spanning the best part of two years, but one that Shaw has finally traversed.

Paul Pogba may have been named Man of the Match by United fans, but Shaw was debatably their best performer in their opening day victory over the Foxes. His performance was defensively assured, but perhaps the most eye-catching feature was his willingness to get forwards.

Shaw had 99 touches of the ball — the most of any United player — with a portion coming in Leicester’s half and three in their box.

The 23-year-old consistently ran beyond Alexis Sanchez — both over and under-lapping — and consequently got himself into dangerous areas in Leicester’s defensive third, finding a lot of joy against Daniel Amartey.

He was confident to drive into space with the ball as he sought to progress it into advanced areas, made a few cutbacks to the penalty spot, presented himself as a consistent passing option — his 81 passes were the most of any United player, and he completed the most successful passes (12) in the final third — while he offered natural width on his left foot that pertained to Sanchez cutting inside and creating danger in central areas.

It’s indicative of Shaw’s threat, too, that 50% of the Red Devils’ attacking moves came down their left flank.

Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers

“The icing on the cake” — as Mourinho put it in his post-match interview — was the goal, Shaw’s first as a professional and one his manager celebrated passionately.

Juan Mata found him unmarked in the box, and Shaw’s unintentional first touch fortunately took the ball over Ricardo Pereira. But his controlled finish — and the standalone fact that he was even in this area so late in the game — exuded a newfound confidence in his ability.

Important at both ends

Adventure, however, is an afterthought for the Portuguese. Defence is his foremost concern, and it’s in this respect that Shaw’s performance will unwillingly coax a smile out of Mourinho, albeit briefly.

Shaw completed 100% of his tackles, made five clearances and three blocks as he effectively quelled Ricardo, while winning possession in his defensive third more times (7) than his teammates.

Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers

It’s a testament to his solidity, furthermore, that Leicester chose to attack United’s right — namely Matteo Darmian — in 40% of their attacks, as Demarai Gray had a lot more luck than his right-hand counterpart.

I’ve come back really fit and I’m ready to go. You know, I think this is my season. Hopefully… I’m going to work very hard and push myself even more to reach the limits that I want to reach – Shaw speaking after the game

Shaw has repeatedly seen his desire questioned, but that was one mental trait he displayed in abundance against the Foxes. And, in doing so, undermined perpetual doubts over his fitness, as he demonstrated great energy in his ability to shuttle from end-to-end across 90 minutes.

Are we Shaw?

Is Shaw fit enough? He was United’s fittest player during pre-season and backed that up with an energetic performance at both ends of the pitch on Friday. But is he hard-working? He had the greatest work rate of any player against Leicester.

What about his attacking movement? Well, he was the Red Devils’ biggest final third threat and scored the second goal. Wait, is he defensively capable, though? Just ask Ricardo.

On this evidence, Shaw has redeemed himself and then some, crucially winning over the trust of his manager. How long this amicableness lasts is undetermined — as is Shaw’s consistency —  but more performances of this quality and Shaw will soon establish himself as first choice.

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Oli Stein

Oli graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in History and has worked with RealSport since September 2016. Currently assistant football editor and Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @steinoliver_

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