Why the loss of Luke Shaw is a major problem for Manchester United
Manchester United’s season started so well, with all other sides stuttering in the league they were slowly moving to the summit without getting to their best. But one fateful night in Eindhoven could derail their season, as not only did they lose the game 2-1 to a very average PSV side but they lost Luke Shaw to a major double leg break. Shaw had started the season so well and with Leighton Baines injured he had jumped clear in the race for the left back position for England. It had been a brilliant response to an underwhelming debut season at the Red Devils, as injury and bad form plagued his season. His injury, which will rule him out for at least 6 months, is a big loss for England and himself as he battles to be fit for the European Championships in France in June next year, but it is even bigger for his club with no cover for the former Southampton man. They have tried many different alternatives to solve the problem, but Sunday’s mauling by Arsenal showed it just isn’t working. I will be looking at why they are struggling to cope with his loss and I will be looking at two potential alternative solutions that may save their season from a major collapse.
The line-up that has been tried most by Louis Van Gaal since Shaw’s injury is to line up with Antonio Valencia on the right, Daley Blind and Chris Smalling in the centre, with Matteo Darmian slotting in at left back. There are many obvious reasons why this selection will be ineffective and was actually scrapped for the trip to fellow title rivals Arsenal. The first flaw in this choice is that as everyone knows, Valencia is a winger and is not known for his defensive qualities. In fact Valencia is very poor defensively and the only time his selection at right back will work is when United are on top and attack a lot, without having to defend much. Going forward Valencia is very good and will be a key attacking asset, but the fact he was omitted from United’s team at Arsenal shows he isn’t trusted to do a job against a quality winger like Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez.
The next problem (This will become a recurring theme in this article) is that Daley Blind is very prone to lapses in concentration and just general idiocy, so isn’t the best centre back to have as his defensive abilities are very questionable. Look at Arsenal’s second goal for example, Theo Walcott squared him up far too easily and laid a simple pass to Mesut Ozil to stroke home less than a minute after the kick-off that came about due to Alexis Sanchez’s opener. With Phil Jones still not fit and very short of match fitness, Chris Smalling is the only out and out centre back available for selection and he has had a good season, but you can never trust him completely with his tendency to make mistakes or make rash decisions. The final problem is that Matteo Darmian is a right back and whilst he does an ok job sitting in at left back, you can see that he isn’t completely comfortable there and needs to be on the right to be most effective.
Another potential solution thought up by Van Gaal is with Darmian restored to right back, with Smalling and Blind again in the middle and Ashley Young on the left. This does have its benefits with Darmian much more comfortable in his usual role at right back, although he got destroyed by Alexis against Arsenal and was subsequently replaced at the break. What this showed was that Darmian is a very good addition to the team, but he doesn’t seem totally convincing when defending and will always be troubled by someone with the pace of Jefferson Montero, or the quality of Alexis Sanchez. The same problems lie at centre back and Jones’ pending return could be important so there is a real risk of being dropped if standards drop. Young’s inclusion has its benefits with his crossing exemplary and his attacking skills very good, but he has the same problems defensively as Valencia and realistically you can’t play wingers at full back and actually succeed in the long term, unless you are good enough that you don’t have to do much defending.
My first suggestion for Manchester United to try would be to keep Darmian at right back, switch Blind to the left back position and move Michael Carrick into the defence to sit with Smalling. This would enable Darmian to play in his best position whilst not having to play a winger in a defensive position. This will also help Blind as concentration lapses won’t be punished as much if he is at full back and he can defend to a decent level. His big strength is his vision which is incredible, look at Robin Van Persie’s worldie against Spain in the 2014 World Cup. Having Carrick at the back will put less pressure on Smalling to be a ball playing defender, he looks uncomfortable in that role and Carrick is good on the ball and looks good in front of the defence so there is no reason why he can’t actually play at the heart of the defence.
My final suggestion is slightly more ambitious with Darmian/Valencia at right wing back, Smalling, Blind and McNair (Jones when he’s fit) at Centre back and Darmian/Young at left wing back. This would put less emphasis on the wing backs having to defend well as there will be more cover defensively and whilst the will have to go up and down the flank all game, there will be more emphasis on attack. Putting 3 at the back will give them a stable base to defend from and with Carrick or Morgan Schneiderlin in the defensive midfield spot they should be very solid defensively and hard to break down. The main reason for this tactic though is that it will give them the opportunity to utilise Young or Valencia in the right way and should lead to more goal scored and less conceded.
Whilst I believe my suggestions could help United in the short term, there is no doubting that United will be a better team when Shaw returns. He may struggle to get back to the level he was at before his injury and this could be a career changing injury for him and he will need to recover and get back to his best if United have any chance of success in the long term.
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