It seems strange to remember now, as Luke Shaw crashes back into the England squad on a wave of blistering form, that there was no real clamour for Gareth Southgate to include him for the previous international get-together.
That was in November, when England faced the Republic of Ireland, Belgium and Iceland, and Southgate relied on one pure left-back, Ben Chilwell. The manager had others who could operate or cover on the left of the defence more as wing-backs, such as Bukayo Saka, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Kieran Trippier. The discrepancy was one of the reasons he moved to a 3-4-3 system; he did not want to lose Chilwell and be exposed.
It is unclear whether or how Shaw’s re-emergence will change Southgate’s tactical thinking for the World Cup qualifiers against San Marino, Albania and Poland and the challenges beyond, but what it gives him is something more reassuring: the presence of a player in the form of his life.
The first thing to say is that the talent has always been there with Shaw. Manchester United have never doubted it, which was why they made him the fourth most expensive defender of all time when they signed him from Southampton for £27m in 2014. Ahead of him on the list were David Luiz, Thiago Silva and Rio Ferdinand. But for various reasons – mental and physical – there was the sense that Shaw could not always get everything out on the pitch; he was playing within himself.
Shaw has had good times at United before and he was named as the club’s player of the season in 2018-19 by his teammates and by fans. That was the season in which José Mourinho – the manager who came to be considered his nemesis – started him in almost every game until he was sacked before Christmas.
But Shaw has simply exploded since December, when he returned to the United lineup after a hamstring injury, taking his game to the next level and making it impossible for Southgate to ignore him. In a way there was again no real clamour for Shaw’s inclusion but only because this time it was a fait accompli.
Shaw’s driving runs have been a feature of United’s play and it feels as though he has shed the label often affixed to men of his burliness: he is deceptively quick. He is just quick, especially over sustained distances – he routinely clocks a sprint time up there with the fastest in the squad when they are tested in training. He has been a creative force, the player to whom United turn to get them up the field, but he has also put his strength and front-foot style to good use in defensive one-on-ones.
What has shone through has been Shaw’s composure on the ball, his bravery in accepting it in tight spots and his teammates’ confidence to play it to him in almost any situation.
In Sunday’s 1-0 home win over West Ham, for example, Daniel James rolled a pass back down the line and towards the corner flag, which forced Shaw to chase across with Tomas Soucek and Jarrod Bowen in close attendance. After a glance over his shoulder, Shaw executed a Cruyff turn to beat Soucek before spinning inside and away from Bowen. It was relatively inconsequential but these sort of moments spread belief in a team.
The twin traumas of Shaw’s career have been well documented. There was the double leg break against PSV Eindhoven in September 2015, which led to four operations, self-doubt and 11 months out. And then there was Mourinho, who took over at United in the summer of 2016.
There is a theory that Mourinho had not forgotten how Shaw turned down the chance to join him at Chelsea in 2014, when he instead chose United. Mourinho was heavily critical of Shaw at the time, saying: “If we pay to a boy what we were being asked for, we are dead … we would have killed our stability in our dressing room.”
Perhaps Mourinho just saw Shaw as being ideal for his trademark brand of tough love. As Shaw struggled for form and fitness – he made only 17 Premier League starts in Mourinho’s two full seasons at Old Trafford – the manager repeatedly slated him.
Mourinho said Shaw had played well as a substitute in the 1-1 draw against Everton in April 2017 “but it was his body with my brain – he was in front of me and I was making every decision for him”. After the FA Cup win over Brighton in March 2018, when Mourinho had substituted Shaw at half-time, he said: “Luke – I cannot say more. It is a relation with personality. It is a relation to trust. It is a relation to class.” There were other instances of Mourinho taking issue with Shaw, of loading blame on to him.
Sometimes, Mourinho gets results with players this way. But Shaw responds more to shows of faith, to encouragement. It was a very tough time for him and his family, even if he appeared to have won his manager over towards the end, and it is easy to see the liberation in him under Ole Gunnar Solskjær who, together with one of United’s first team coaches, Michael Carrick, has prioritised making an emotional connection with Shaw.
Solskjær did sign another left-back last October and it felt as though Alex Telles, the Brazil international from Porto, might have joined to be the first choice. But the manager told Shaw it was merely to support him, to allow him to give everything and then have a breather, if needed. Whatever the kidology, Telles represented competition and Shaw has responded to it. United, meanwhile, can reflect on getting a good new player and making one of their incumbents better.
“Luke is mentally very good at the moment … he’s become a dad [in November 2019] … and, physically, he’s very good, too – his fitness is so much better,” Solskjær said recently. “He keeps beating his high-intensity stats, his total distance stats. When you have the talent of Luke, when that fitness and mental bit is sorted, you are always going to get good performances.
“I enjoy talking to Luke and it’s about seeing everyone as human beings. It was about getting him enjoying his football, trusting his fitness injury-wise and having players who can back up so he knows he’s not going to play every single game, so he can play at full tilt.
“Both Alex coming in and Brandon [Williams, the 20-year-old] have given him a little bit of a push to say: ‘If you are not performing, just tell me … I have good options.’”
Shaw is playing his 10th season, having made is debut for Southampton at Millwall in January 2012, and yet he is only 25. He has crammed a lot in, including playing at the 2014 World Cup as an 18-year-old under Roy Hodgson. It is a further curiosity that, in four and a half years, Southgate has given him only 60 minutes of action across two matches. Shaw has eight caps. He is ready to make up for lost time.