Before Manchester United signed Bruno Fernandes the challenge for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was to find a playmaker that could take his team to the next level.
Once Fernandes had arrived and done exactly that, the challenge moved from finding a creative fulcrum to finding a way to be less reliant on United’s best player.
That’s life at a football club as big as Manchester United, one that looks like going eight years without a league title, despite a superb 2-0 win against Manchester City that reduced the gap at the top to 11 points.
If anything this win will add to the frustration that United’s challenge has faded in a succession of disappointing results and goalless draws. It highlighted the need to ease the burden on Fernandes.
But gradually this season United have been developing a new way to hurt teams.
As they’ve watched, with great discomfort, Manchester City and Liverpool win the league title, United and Solskjaer, in particular, will have noted the influence of the full-backs, in different ways.
Pep Guardiola has used his full-backs to give his attackers greater freedom recently, using them as a shield against counter attacks, while Jurgen Klopp’s pair were Liverpool’s most dangerous creators, playmakers from full-back.
Last season this was an area where United looked obviously short. Full-backs are a vital weapon in the modern game but in Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw United’s were too cautious, leaving the duties of creating chances inside the penalty box to Fernandes, rather than attacking the byline themselves and putting dangerous balls into the area.
This season has seen a gradual change in that regard. Wan-Bissaka’s attacking play continues to evolve, but it is Shaw who has improved most of all. It’s no exaggeration to say he is pushing Fernandes hard in the battle to be the club’s player of the year.
Last January Solskjaer said he felt Shaw could be the best left-back in England, a claim laughed off by most United fans at the time. Shaw had just recovered from his latest injury and a lot of supporters felt Shaw was no longer the best left-back at United, having been overtaken by Brandon Williams.
But in the last 14 months we’ve come to realise Shaw loves a challenge. He saw off Williams, but United laid down another question to him with the summer signing of Alex Telles. Such has been Shaw’s form the Brazilian has hardly had a look in.
Telles arrived from Porto with a reputation as an attacking full-back, as you’d expect from a Samba star, but Shaw has outshone the new arrival in that regard as well.
The 25-year-old has taken on more responsibility this season and his impact from set-pieces has been impressive and unexpected.
He’s also become more of a threat down the left. His understanding with Marcus Rashford down that flank is one of United’s strengths going forward.
Against City Shaw should have put United 2-0 up inside four minutes. He was deep inside the City area during an attack from open play, then helped win the ball back in the Blues’ penalty area, but scuffed a shot straight at Ederson.
Early in the second half he made amends. Dean Henderson’s clever throw found Shaw on the left and he showed his desire to break forward by immediately chesting it beyond Joao Cancelo and into space. From there the run continued into the box, passes were exchanged with Rashford and Shaw drilled a fine left-footed finish into the bottom corner. It eased United nerves.
Shaw has been a creative threat as well this season. He has six assists in 31 games, having had 10 assists in his previous 197 appearances for United and Southampton.
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Manchester United secured a memorable 2-0 derby victory over Man City at the Etihad Stadium.
Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw scored the goals to clinch an unexpected, but empathic, victory for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s troops against the league leaders.
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His delivery from set-pieces and open play has been excellent and recently he’s started to make runs inside Rashford and into the box, becoming a goal threat as well.
Shaw is certainly in the discussion for best left-back in the country now and an England recall later this month is a certainty.
Last season he was excellent as a left-sided centre back in a back three, now he’s showing signs of being a fine attacking left-back. There can’t be many left-backs with as good an all-round game as Shaw at the moment.
His defensive quality has always been clear, but United needed more from him going forward. He’s now beginning to produce that on a regular basis.