In July 2015, a few hours after Manchester United had comfortably beaten Barcelona 3-1 on their preseason tour of the United States, Louis van Gaal sat in a Santa Clara hotel room and declared it “the year of Luke Shaw.”
It has taken longer than he expected, but the Dutchman’s prediction is coming true. One of Manchester United’s best players this season and recently recalled to the England squad, the 2020-21 campaign has, so far, been Shaw’s year. He could still top it off with a place in Gareth Southgate’s squad for the European Championships this summer and a first trophy of his professional career.
United have won things during his time at Old Trafford, but it is evidence of Shaw’s struggles since Van Gaal’s bold statement nearly six years ago that when they lifted the FA Cup in 2016, the League Cup in 2017 and the Europa League later the same season, he wasn’t even a substitute. Should Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side reach the Europa League final in Gdansk, Poland on May 26, Shaw’s name would be one of the first on the team sheet.
Injuries have played a significant part in Shaw’s stop-start career, and it’s only recently that questions about the horrific broken leg he suffered in Sept. 2015 — just weeks after Van Gaal’s confident endorsement — have stopped. But United’s staff also remember Shaw facing a culture shock when he left Southampton for United in a £30 million move in the summer of 2014 that made him the world’s most expensive teenager.
The background checks made before the transfer did not reveal anything majorly wrong with his lifestyle during his journey through the academy at St Mary’s and his short stay in Southampton’s first-team, but the focus at United has been on how he can get the most of his body. It has included everything from cutting down on fizzy drinks to learning about the benefits of a full night’s sleep.
Shaw’s mental strength has also been tested. There were times under previous manager Jose Mourinho when Shaw would leave training on a Friday worrying about what the Portuguese coach might say at his weekly news conference later that afternoon. The rest of the senior squad were often left puzzled, too, by why Mourinho seemed to rebuke Shaw so often. On one occasion, he was reprimanded for speaking to opposition players after a bad-tempered draw with Bournemouth. On another, he was accused of taking up the wrong positions after being hauled off at half-time during a 2-0 win over Brighton. The FA Cup quarterfinal in March 2018 was one of his deepest lows.
At points during Mourinho’s reign there were doubts about Shaw’s future, but sources have told ESPN that the defender never asked to leave and would have only considered an exit if he had been told, face-to-face, there was no place for him in the squad.
Shaw’s determination to earn a place at United included him taking a personal trainer to Dubai on his holiday. He spent part of that holiday in 2018 running on the beach in the mornings and doing intensive core workouts in the evenings. Mourinho sent a WhatsApp message halfway through the trip to tell Shaw how impressed he was with his commitment. Shaw was on his phone when the message came through, and was worried Mourinho would think he was “weird” for opening it so quickly.
Shaw has felt more comfortable under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the Norwegian’s faith has been repaid. Solskjaer told Shaw in one of their first individual meetings that he would be a key player because of the way he wanted his full-backs to attack.
Shaw has been given more license to get forward and over the past two years, he’s spent hours on the training pitches at Carrington working on his crossing. It’s worked; already this season, he’s registered five assists in the Premier League. West Ham’s Aaron Cresswell and Everton’s Lucas Digne are the only defenders with more, and the competition from summer signing Alex Telles has also pushed him to a new level of consistency.
Off the field, those closest to him say Shaw has matured since becoming a father for the first time in Nov., 2019.
Shaw hasn’t played for England since 2018, and there have been times when Southgate and assistant Steve Holland have been frustrated by his lack of availability, either because he has been injured before an international break or pulled out of the squad after being picked. The staff at United say he’s now more robust and durable. After taking a heavy challenge in the early stages of the draw with Crystal Palace on Mar. 3, there were fears on the United bench that he would have to come off. Not only did he play through the pain to win the man-of-the-match award, he was also available for the next game — the 2-0 win at Manchester City. He scored the second goal that day, too, after a powerful run that started in his own half.
At just 18, Shaw was named in the Premier League’s team of the year in 2014 and a couple of months later, he was picked in England’s World Cup squad. Nearly seven years later, he has put himself in contention to be crowned the league’s best left-back again and play a part at the European Championships this summer.
It might have taken a few years longer than Van Gaal projected, but the year of Luke Shaw has finally arrived.