Roy Keane reckons Man Utd need to get rid of Luke Shaw. Jose Mourinho’s dedicated gaslighting of the defender has warped minds which refuse to be changed.
“I like that he’s so honest. After the second game he didn’t play and said: ‘I fully understand, my performance is not right.’ But from the first day in training at pre-season he was working really hard and you can see when he has the right approach he’s a top player. I don’t mean only as a team player; he’s a leader. He’s shown a lot of leadership capacities – he’s the example at this moment – and with his skills and his physical power he brings a lot. Now, also with his mentality. He’s an example of how to win big games. I’m really happy with his development. He’s a great player and a great personality for the dressing room.”
If asked to pick the player Erik ten Hag was describing in such glowing post-World Cup terms, most would scan the Dutchman’s squad and land on some more obvious names. Long-serving figureheads such as David de Gea or Marcus Rashford; champions of globe or continent like Lisandro Martinez, Raphael Varane and Casemiro; those made of vocal captain material – Harry Maguire or Bruno Fernandes; players called Phil Jones. But each were pointed in the direction of an unlikely source for inspiration and guidance.
It remains a little perverse to hear a Man Utd manager praise Luke Shaw. Two and a half years of staunch Jose Mourinho gaslighting and general Old Trafford mismanagement have warped too many minds which refuse to be changed, even in the face of mounting evidence. Not every aspect of the club’s recent elongated period of shambles must be abandoned for progress to be possible.
Only a few weeks ago, Roy Keane named Shaw, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Fred and Scott McTominay as players who “need to be phased out” because of a requirement for Man Utd to “move on from their problems of the past”. But at 27 and as living, compelling proof of Ten Hag’s phenomenal coaching, the left-back is as big a part of their future as any player.
This victory over Leeds was testament to the brilliance of Ten Hag. Against a stubborn, invigorated opponent and in as difficult an environment as exists in the game, Man Utd could have accepted a point which ensured no ground was lost in the Champions League qualification race. It would certainly have been a fair result; the hosts were resolute in defence and ought to have scored through Crysencio Summerville at either end of the first half.
But Ten Hag rejected the idea of a second draw with Leeds over the space of four days. Wout Weghorst had struggled to make an impact but his cameo as a makeshift No. 10 helped unlock the game. The introduction of Martinez from the bench helped Man Utd move the ball quicker and with more purpose. Alejandro Garnacho, introduced as part of the same substitution on the hour mark, secured the points with a fine late goal.
Marcel Sabitzer was able to drop deeper, into the sort of position from which his switch of play unpicked a tight Leeds backline. Rashford could drift into the centre and focus solely on running in behind, opening up the kind of situation from which he scored the opening goal.
Shaw, who started at centre-half alongside Harry Maguire, was back in more familiar but no less fruitful climes on the left. His cross was as sumptuous as the Rashford header which followed and with 10 minutes remaining, Man Utd had their breakthrough.
It was a statement performance from Shaw, whose emergence as a solid option at centre-half sums up a tactical versatility, intelligence and ability to read the game long considered well beyond him. The power of Mourinho’s brain knows no bounds. But the England international was in his element on the left. As delightful as the cross for the first goal was, his ability to seamlessly transition from conceding a corner through blocking a cross to immediately turning and hammering Fred for pulling out of a midfield 50-50 was remarkable.
That moment more than any other perhaps summed up why Ten Hag thinks so highly of his Shaw thing in this Man Utd squad. While those same old critics might never be won over, the Dutchman sees “a leader” for a reason.