When Luke Shaw signed for Manchester United in the Summer of 2014 for a hefty £27m, many felt that, although the transfer fee was inflated, the club had locked down their left full back position for a decade to come and had added one of the world’s biggest prospects to their ranks.
Shaw had signed off the back of 18 mesmerising months at Southampton, where he had made his debut aged 16 and cemented his place in the 2014 World Cup. His eye-catching pace, strong stature and calmness on the ball that belied his years had set him apart from his peers and led to many declaring Shaw a future world class talent in the making.
There were even suggestions that Shaw, with his marauding style and penchant for supporting attacks with late overlapping runs, would emulate Southampton’s greatest ever export; a certain Gareth Bale, and would eventually become an all-action left winger.
Four years on, and those labels, predictions and adulations are a distant memory. In his latest appearance for Manchester United, a first start for several weeks, Jose Mourinho spent 45 minutes lambasting him before hauling him off at half-time. A harsh action perhaps, but this is just the latest in a string of underwhelming performances by the left back, who has gone from wonderkid to laughing stock in the space of one World Cup.
With Russia 2018 on the horizon, the chances of Shaw even making the 23 man squad, let alone starting for England at the tournament, look slim.
What has happened to the one-time boy wonder?
If as expected Shaw leaves Manchester United this summer – and such a move seems likely given that his entourage have thrown every last toy out the pram this week, and his manager has apparently given up on him – it would represent a remarkable turnaround.
Since joining the Old Trafford club, the full back has been troubled by fitness concerns. Barely featuring at the 2014 World Cup, owing to his inexperience, Shaw joined United at their pre-season fitness camp in the USA for the start of Louis Van Gaal’s reign. Almost immediately, Van Gaal questioned the teenager’s fitness, suggesting he has enjoyed the off-season break a little too much.
Not much was made of the remarks at time; Van Gaal was looking to deploy a 3-5-2 formation at United, and such a tactic requires incredibly fit, pacey wing-backs to patrol their flank. Shaw simply needed a week or 2 to get up to scratch.
In his debut season, Shaw was plagued by injury. Niggly ones that would only keep him out for two or three weeks at a time, but they interrupted his momentum and kept him from establishing himself as first choice right back.
It was the start season two that gave just about every United fan goosebumps and led to debates about how high Luke Shaw’s limit was. For seven games, Shaw was reinvigorated and at his fittest. He starred for United in both the league and Champions League as United and LVG got off to a flyer. His endless energy, tough tackling and enthusiasm to get forward won the hearts of fans in that short time.
However, the resurgence was short-lived; his form was cruelly curtailed by a horror injury against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League. An innocuous last ditch tackle left Shaw with a double-leg fracture. In a flash, Shaw’s career was hanging in the balance.
The long spell on the sidelines – Shaw was out for almost a season – curtailed his development and left him with both physical and psychological scars. Like any serious injury, it’s the first tackle back that defines a footballer. Shaw returned seemingly with a fire in his belly, but his mentality wasn’t quite right. Again, injury refrained him from making an immediate impact under new boss Jose Mourinho, and he quickly found himself as 3rd, even 4th, choice for the club.
Under Mourinho, Shaw has been drained of confidence and restricted to bit part appearances here and there. He has limited opportunity to impress and he does appear to attract more than his fair share of criticism from his boss.
However, one has to questions Shaw’s mentality during the two years under Mourinho. The manager’s questioning of his defender’s fitness and endeavour is nothing new. Every manager Shaw has played under has openly criticised his physical and mental state.
Mauricio Pochettino, the then-Southampton coach who handed Shaw his debut, wondered if his youngster was ready to adopt a lifestyle that Premier League football demands; his old England boss Roy Hodgson questioned his fitness during preparations for the 2014 World Cup; Louis Van Gaal’s comments have been explored above; and you can make a 700-page epic from Mourinho’s endless criticisms of Shaw. Even ex-coaches have got involved in recent days, supporting claims that Shaw doesn’t possess the uumph needed to push on and fulfil his talent.
If we are entering the final weeks of his Manchester United career, Shaw will join a long list of squandered talent, not just for United but in the sport as a whole.
Anderson is the first talent that springs to mind. He joined United in 2008 as Ronaldinho incarnate, the heir to Paul Scholes and the future of the club. He left several seasons later known more for his silly dancing, erratic shooting and rather large belly.
Alexandre Pato is another one. Hailed as the new Ronaldo, Pato joined AC Milan only to succumb to injury and a party lifestyle that had ingrained itself at the club at the time.
Ricardo Quaresma, Antonio Cassano, Michael Johnson, Javier Saviola, Juan Antonio Reyes: football is plagued by what-coulda-beens. Time is running out for Luke Shaw to avoid being added to the list.