When I woke up this warning I did not expect I’d be going to war for Luke Shaw today but here we are.
There’s a lot to unwrap here. Is Luke Shaw overpaid? Absolutely. There are certainly better left backs in the league than Shaw. It’s a position where there probably is room for improvement but to call it an immediate problem? That’s extreme.
Right back is an immediate problem. Center back is an immediate problem. If United address those areas and Luke Shaw is the weak link in their back four next season, that’s totally OK.
Next, fullback is one of the most difficult positions to compare players at because it is nearly entirely system based. Some teams require their fullbacks to provide a lot of offense (Liverpool) while others have them stay back completely (Burnley).
Then there’s Manchester City who use their fullbacks in a different way every week.
To assume a fullback is the way he is based solely on ability is naive. What he does or doesn’t do is largely dictated by the style the manager wants to play and the players around him.
Luke Shaw is a perfectly adequate fullback. Again, I don’t disagree that he can be upgraded, but if we’re going to make that argument than make sure it’s good. There are very good reasons why Shaw’s numbers were lacking in some areas.
Shaw spent two years in Jose Mourinho’s doghouse. He wasn’t going to get out until he started playing exactly the way Mourinho wanted him to.
Mourinho doesn’t give his full backs much license to roam forward. He doesn’t like them jumping into the attack. He doesn’t like his players dribbling and trying to take on opponents, especially his defenders. Mourinho plays a very rigid system, which limits the amount of runs even the forwards can make. If everyone is stationary then there’s not even a big ball Shaw can play to spring an attack.
Now imagine you’re sitting on the bench for two years knowing you’re not going to play until you break your habit or making runs forward, or running with the ball. Once Mourinho’s style gets drilled into you it’s not easy to just get it out.
It’s also important to look at how United attack and how that can effect Shaw’s numbers. United’s attack almost entirely comes from the left side (remember Shaw does lead the team in touches). I don’t have access to heat maps but when United get the ball in the final third the ball is almost always on the left side and their formation looks like this.
Martial or Rashford tend to hug the touchline. Since they’re right-footed, defenders are able to box them in and they need to go back to Shaw in support. At the top left of the box is where Pogba hangs out. The three of them are often condensed on top of each other, giving all of them very little space and very few options on the ball.
When Shaw does overlap with Martial/Rashford he runs into the problem of, what next? If Lukaku isn’t on the field the only players that could be making runs into the box are Rashford, Lingard, or Mata. None of them are good at receiving crosses and turning them into goals. (This is a stark difference as to when United come down the right and Pogba, a true aerial threat, is able to run into the box).
This way of playing doesn’t give Shaw many options. He’s going to have more unsuccessful crosses and fewer forward passes. He’s not going to take on defenders because there isn’t any room to.
Shaw’s role also depends on whether Ander Herrera is on the field or not. When he is, Pogba has more freedom to get forward. Shaw in turn needs to play more of a holding role to cover Pogba and prevent counter attacks. Most of Shaw’s yellow cards this year were picked up in the middle third of the field doing exactly that.
When Herrera isn’t on the pitch, Pogba has played more of a defensive role. This has led to United holding a lot less of the ball. The midfield has still gotten stretched leaving all their defenders, not just Shaw out to dry. That’s going to hurt Shaw’s defensive numbers.
As I said before, comparing fullbacks from one team to another isn’t very practical. The position is so system based. This season Liverpool became the first team to ever have two fullbacks get 10 assists in a season. That’s entirely from their system. They’ve shifted their forwards inside and taken the creative onus away from the midfielders and put it on their fullbacks.
Every team is different. Chelsea use Marcos Alonso as a wide forward, not so much a winger. If Benjamin Mendy isn’t playing Pep Guardiola doesn’t have any of his fullbacks attack. When City attack Kyle Walker becomes a third center back, Zinchenko steps into midfield. They did the same thing with Fabian Delph last year and won 100 points.
Comparing Shaw to a player like Mendy isn’t an apples to apples comparison. Mendy has five assists this year but his xA is only 2.05. He overachieved because he’s surrounded by players who are really good at scoring goals from not great chances.
If fans say that Paul Pogba underperforms because he’s surrounded by mediocre players then how can they turn around and say Shaw is underperforming? How is he supposed to get assists surrounded by players who can’t finish, or complete crosses when none of his teammates are good at them.
This chart makes Shaw look pretty average, which he might be, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s relative.
The biggest argument fans are using against Shaw, his crossing ability, is the most archaic. Crossing across the league is down. Every year it becomes less and less important.
Take a look at the forwards with the most aerial duels won this year. They play for Fulham, Huddersfield, Watford, Brighton, Newcastle, and Burnley. Only one of those teams is in the top half of the table. The fact that Romelu Lukaku is 10th on that list is a pretty good indication of why United are where they are this season.
The best teams don’t cross the ball anymore. City, Liverpool, Arsenal all play with forwards who are good with the ball at their feet. Chelsea are at their best when Eden Hazard plays as a false nine.
It’s perfectly fine to think that United can do better than Luke Shaw at left back. But if you want to prove that he’s an immediate problem you need to come up with a better argument.