There may have been some hyperbole behind Juan Mata’s dedication of Manchester United’s 2-3 win at Southampton to Luke Shaw on Sunday afternoon, but the influence of the left-back was dearly felt even if he was at home watching it on television.
United’s game with Southampton was the first of many Shaw will have to watch from home as he begins the recovery and rehabilitation from the double fracture of his right leg suffered in the defeat to PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League. While manager Louis Van Gaal hoped that Shaw will play again this season, he will know that his left-back is looking at least a six month absence.
As Van Gaal acknowledged it is a particular setback for the 20 year old who had started the season excellently, in stark contrast to a year ago when question marks were raised against his fitness in pre-season and he had to wait until late September for his first appearance.
Shaw had played every minute of United’s season up until he was stretchered off in the Phillips Stadion and had forced his way into the England team for the games with San Marino and Switzerland.
World’s most expensive teenager
United made him the world’s most expensive teenager when they signed him for £30 million from Southampton last summer and, after a difficult first season in which he only started 15 Premier League games, he is now beginning to justify that outlay. That is before he found his progress curtailed at the hands, or indeed feet, of Hector Moreno last Tuesday night.
Although Roy Keane could have found a better word than “brilliant” to describe the tackle, it wasn’t worth the condemnation it attracted from many; it was a decent but strong challenge from Moreno and Shaw was merely unfortunate to see his studs plant his leg in the ground as it took the full weight of it.
However that was last week and Shaw will now be on the outside looking on until the spring when he will have a late chance to get back into the England squad in time for the European Championships in France.
In the meantime it presents a headscratcher for Van Gaal who discovered on the south coast on Sunday that covering Shaw for such a long period will be a difficult task.
Rojo struggles as Shaw’s possible back-up
Marcos Rojo, naturally a centre-half, was fielded there at Southampton and was given a torrid time by Saido Mane who bullied the Argentine for pace and in the air. United couldn’t deal with Southampton’s high-octane pressing and the movement of Mane, James Ward-Prowse and Dusan Tadic, in support of the physicality of Graziano Pelle, for the first 25 minutes and it was Ward-Prowse who found space on the right, vacated by Rojo, to cross for Pelle’s opening goal.
Rojo also failed to have the same effect Shaw has going forward, only managing to deliver two crosses in his 69 minutes on the pitch before he was withdrawn for Paddy McNair. Rojo was fielded at left-back, a position he has filled occasionally throughout his career, as Van Gaal wanted Daley Blind to continue at centre-half, though the Dutchman may be forced into a rethink as he was thrown around by Pelle.
Blind is a fine technical player and good at working the ball out from deep but the way he was shuffled and turned so easily by Pelle for a chance the Italian struck against the post can’t do much for the “twitchy-ass” Van Gaal complained of last season.
Blind was preferred over Shaw at left-back often last season and he may have to slot back there in his absence while Rojo, McNair and Phil Jones, on his way back from a blood clot, compete for the slot next to Chris Smalling.
It was curious to see how Van Gaal reacted to criticism, coming from his opposite number Southampton’s Ronald Koeman, about the “weakness” of his defence as he pointed out how few goals they conceded last term (they were fourth for goals against).
Though he cannot be happy, as he urges total control with possession and was beaming over the perfection of Mata’s goal, a 44-pass move which Van Gaal said was conformation his philosophy is working, about the vulnerability of his back-line.
David De Gea, like he did in the last fixture with Liverpool, made a series of good saves to deny Southampton who so nearly manage to claw something from the game in the dying minutes after Smalling and McNair parted to allow Pelle a free-header to bring the score down to 2-3. Van Gaal may be seeking domination through smart, measured and patient use of the ball but it is being easily undermined by a softness at the back.
Uneasy times ahead for Van Gaal
Van Gaal will have to solve that if United are to keep on the coattails of neighbours City at the top of the league. Sunday would not have been easy viewing for Shaw, or indeed anybody associated with United watching on, and Van Gaal will know it is down to him to find a way of coping without the 20 year old who everybody hopes makes the smoothest recovery possible.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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