EPL

Talking Point: Is Luke Shaw now the Premier League's best attacking full-back?

By Sports Desk February 21, 2021

Manchester United's opening-day 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace was a chastening reminder of the team's frailties, but there was a somewhat surprising voice behind the subsequent call-to-action for the club's hierarchy.

Luke Shaw provided undoubtedly the most honest assessment of the situation among United players, this from a player who had rarely come across as a natural leader during his time at the club.

"We have a very good group, but personally I think we need more players to strengthen the squad," he told Norway's TV2. "It can give us a boost. When you look around at how other teams are strengthening their teams, then we must also do it to keep up with the others."

Perhaps the fact he wasn't speaking to a British outlet resulted in a more relaxed, open response from Shaw, who then also went on to criticise their pre-season.

But it was a new, authoritative look for a player who has always seemingly preferred to keep away from the media spotlight, and few United fans would have disagreed with him.

What happened next, however, he probably didn't expect – among the four players signed on deadline day in October was a new left-back, a Brazil international with the kind of attack-minded profile many had hoped Shaw would develop at United.

While Shaw definitely showed signs of progress in 2019-20, Alex Telles' arrival was the clearest sign that his position was no longer assured – he needed to respond.

 

A SHAW THING

The fact Telles has made just six Premier League starts in his debut season at Old Trafford is as good a starting point as any when highlighting Shaw's improved standing, and in fairness to the new signing, he's hardly put a foot wrong.

Telles has looked a solid acquisition and certainly fits the bill as a forward-thinking full-back who is also capable defensively, but Shaw has reached a level he has arguably never shown before in his career.

As an attacking outlet, Shaw's output has improved almost across the board, as such he has made himself almost undroppable.

 

His five assists is already a personal high for a Premier League season, having only managed seven in total before 2020-21, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. He is creating 2.3 chances per 90 minutes, which is up from one last term and well clear of his previous best of 1.2 each game for an entire campaign.

Undoubtedly one reason for that is the fact he is taking more set-pieces, yet his average of 1.4 open play chances created per 90 minutes remains a frequency he has never matched before over the course of a season, proving his increased familiarity with dead-ball duties isn't skewing the data.

A quick glance at his average position activity maps shows his involvement in the left-hand channel of the attacking third is up on each of the past two seasons, as well as his final year with Southampton.

 

This shows Shaw is embracing greater attacking responsibility, and where that is reflected most is the number of passes (including crosses) he is playing into the box each game (7.4). His last season with Saints had been his best in this regard (4.4), yet he's way up on that, and his productivity here is more than two-and-a-half times what it was in 2019-20 (2.9).

Shaw's early days with Southampton appeared to promise much. Finally, he appears to be back on track, not that it's been smooth sailing.

 

COPING, OUTLASTING, PROGRESSING

Shaw's relationship with Jose Mourinho became something of a distraction at times during the Portuguese's ill-fated reign.

Granted, Shaw wasn't the only player Mourinho seemed to have a problem with, but his treatment of Shaw in particular did leave a sour taste.

In two-and-a-half years playing for Mourinho, Shaw only made 33 Premier League appearances. While he did have injury and fitness problems, the manager's attitude seemingly did little to endear himself to the player.

Mourinho publicly criticised him after a 2016 defeat to Watford, saying: "For the second goal, [Nordin] Amrabat on the right side, our left-back is 25 metres distance from him, instead of five metres. But even at 25 metres, then you have to jump and go press. But no, we wait."

Mourinho then used Shaw's positive performance against Everton in 2017 against him. He said: "He had a good performance, but it was his body with my brain. He was in front of me and I was making every decision for him."

This isn't to say Shaw has been faultless this season. In fact, his defensive focus has been questionable at times in 2020-21, such as against Tottenham and Manchester City, for example.

But it's fair to say the greater attacking impetus he is showing this term compared to under Mourinho means he is more than making up for the occasional defensive lapse, and it's not like he's being beaten time after time – on average Shaw is dribbled past once every two games, the second lowest frequency for a single season in his entire career.

The difference? Well, according to the man himself, belief and competition.

"I feel really good, obviously big credit to Ole for that for believing in me and pushing me," Shaw said last month. "Alex [Telles] as well, we have a great relationship and he pushes me each day in training. We get on really well. It's nice to have that type of competition, but we push each other to get the best from ourselves. When he plays, I want the best for him, and it's the same the other way round. It's a positive way for both of us to look at it and push each other."

 

THE BEST?

There was a time – not even that long ago – when the very suggestion of Shaw being among the Premier League's best full-backs would have drawn a chuckle of derision in response.

Granted, across the four seasons prior to 2020-21, Shaw's best record of open play chances created per 90 minutes was 0.2, but there can be no doubt he is now at least in the conversation.

 

Liverpool's Andy Robertson is generally seen as the standard-bearer for left-backs in England's top flight, and Shaw compares well from an attacking sense with the Scotland international.

Shaw's 40 chances created this term is one more than Robertson, while the latter is just ahead in terms of key passes in open play (29 to 24) – though the United man has made 20 appearances to his rival's 24.

Robertson is proving a more regular source of service, with his 213 passes into the box and 201 total crosses/corners far more than Shaw's respective numbers (129 and 105), but the United left-back's deliveries are far more reliable.

Shaw's 37 successful crosses/corners is just five fewer than Robertson despite playing almost half the amount of overall deliveries.

But what really highlights Shaw's growth is his xA (expected assists) figures. His xA per 90, so the amount of assists he would ordinarily be expected to get per game, is 0.21 in 2020-21. Not only is that better than his previous best by some distance (0.12), Joao Cancelo (0.24) is the only full-back doing better here this term.

 

Shaw has made himself almost indispensable to United, his influence all the more important given Aaron Wan-Bissaka isn't particularly refined as an attacking outlet and they very rarely play with conventional wingers on either flank.

Therefore, Shaw offers the kind of threat from the wings that arguably no one else in the United squad does – and as his xA record shows, he is proving a consistent danger that marks him out as one of the league's best.

After being plagued by questions relating to his mentality for years, it's fair to say he is responding in the ideal fashion, with Telles' signing seemingly an important catalyst.

While it might be a little early to declare him outright the Premier League's best, his current trajectory at least shows that to be a realistic aim.

Related items

  • The Numbers Game: Milan attempt to put January blues behind them with derby win over Inter The Numbers Game: Milan attempt to put January blues behind them with derby win over Inter

    Milan will attempt to recover from a miserable January when they do battle with in-form Inter in a derby at San Siro on Sunday.

    The Rossoneri have suffered three consecutive defeats in all competitions, conceding 12 goals in the process to lose the Supercoppa Italiana and leave their hopes of retaining the Serie A title in tatters.

    Stefano Pioli's side have slipped to fifth, but a victory this weekend would put them above their second-placed city rivals.

    Either way, there are appears to be no stopping Napoli in their quest for the Scudetto, with the runaway leaders holding a 13-point advantage at the summit.

    Stats Perform picks out the standout Opta numbers for a derby Milan fans may be dreading given their alarming slump.

    Milan suffer the January blues

    It has certainly not been a happy new year for Milan so far, and a 5-2 home defeat to Sassuolo last Sunday saw them sink to a new low.

    That came on the back of a 4-0 hammering at Lazio, and Inter also capitalised on their defensive frailties to win the Supercoppa Italiana with a 3-0 victory last month.

    Milan have extended the season of goodwill into 2023, and they made unwanted history in January, with the 18 goals they conceded more than they had previously shipped in any single month since records began in 1929-30.

    The last time they lost four games in a row was between January and February 2017 under Vincenzo Montella.

    Inter to deny Milan a long-awaited double?

    Inter have won their past two games in all competitions and were able to keep defender Milan Skriniar during the transfer window, although he is expected to join Paris Saint-Germain at the end of the season.

    Simone Inzaghi's side have lost their past two Serie A derbies against Milan, but they have not suffered three losses in a row to their fierce rivals since a run of four defeats on the spin between November 2002 and February 2004.

    Rafael Leao scored twice in a 3-2 win when Milan were the home team in the Serie A clash in September, and they will be striving to complete a first league double over Inter since the 2010-11 campaign.

    Nerazzurri's strong home form built on solid foundations

    While Milan can't stop conceding goals, Inter have had no such trouble at home in Serie A this season.

    They have only let five goals in at home in the league, the joint-best record along with Roma.

    Only Napoli (28) have earned more points at home this season than Inzaghi's men, who have 24 from 10 games – winning eight and losing two.

     

    More derby delight for Giroud?

    Milan striker Olivier Giroud has scored in both Serie A derbies he has played in against Inter.

    The France international could become the first player to find the back of the net in his first three derbies for Milan in the three-points-for-a-win era (since 1994-95).

    Giroud was on target in the drubbing at the hands of Sassuolo last weekend, that goal taking his tally in Serie A to six for the season.

  • Six Nations: The Breakdown – France out to lay down a marker in Rome as Scotland seek more Twickenham joy Six Nations: The Breakdown – France out to lay down a marker in Rome as Scotland seek more Twickenham joy

    France will begin their quest to become the first side in six years to retain the Six Nations when they travel to perennial wooden spoon winners Italy on Sunday.

    Les Blues ended a 12-year wait to get their hands back on the trophy last year, doing so in style as they claimed a Grand Slam with a perfect five wins from five.

    Italy also ended last year's tournament on a high as they broke a 36-game losing run with victory in Wales and are now out to avoid finishing bottom for the first time since 2015.

    While France may be reigning champions and in good form, Ireland are top of the world rankings and are many people's favourites to go one better than last year by finishing top.

    Up first for Andy Farrell's Ireland side is a trip to Wales, who are in action for the first time since Warren Gatland replaced Wayne Pivac on the back of some alarming results last year.

    England also have a new head coach in Steve Borthwick, who replaced Eddie Jones in December, with his first test a mouth-watering Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland.

    Ahead of the opening round of action, Stats Perform previews each match with help from Opta.


    WALES V IRELAND

    FORM

    Wales' loss to Italy was their third in a row in the Six Nations – only once since the start of 2008, at the end of their 2020 campaign, have they endured a longer winless run – but Gatland's return has provided fresh hope.

    The Dragons won their last seven on the bounce in the championship under Gatland, who landed three Grand Slams in his previous 12-year spell in charge before stepping down in 2019.

    Ireland have won seven of their past eight games in the tournament, winning the past three of those by margins of at least 17 points and conceding just one try in total.

    However, the away team have not come out on top in any of the past nine Six Nations encounters between these sides, with the nations sharing four wins each over that period and one draw.


    ONES TO WATCH

    Wales are without the injured Leigh Halfpenny, meaning Liam Williams will start at full-back, but they have plenty of other familiar and experienced faces in their starting line-up – George North among them.

    He is one try short of matching Shane Williams' record haul of 23 for Wales in the Six Nations, and behind only Brian O'Driscoll (26) of all players in the tournament's history.

    Plenty of eyes will be on Johnny Sexton in what will be his final Six Nations campaign, but Ireland have many other players for Wales to concern themselves with.

    James Lowe, returning from a calf injury that ruled him out of the November fixtures, will be looking to push on from last year when he finished level with Damian Penaud and Gabin Villiere as the joint-highest try scorer with three.

     

    ENGLAND V SCOTLAND

    FORM

    Jones may have bowed out with the best win rate of any England head coach (73 per cent), but the Red Rose won just two of their final five home matches under the now-Australia boss – not since November 2008 have they had a longer winless run at Twickenham.

    With former skipper Borthwick now at the helm as head coach, England are aiming to avoid losing their opening fixture in the tournament for a fourth year running, following a streak of five successive round-one wins.

    Scotland have a far better recent record on the opening weekend than their opponents, having won four of their past six such matches, including the past two in a row – both against England.

    Indeed, Scotland have lost just one of their past five Calcutta Cup clashes, having lost each of the previous seven. A victory on enemy territory this weekend will make it three wins in a row for the first time since 1972.

     

    ONES TO WATCH

    Manu Tuilagi's absence will be felt by England, who have handed a debut to wing Ollie Hassell-Collins, but Joe Marchant will add pace alongside exciting Harlequins team-mate Marcus Smith.

    Smith was the top points-scorer in last year's Six Nations (71) and also registered over twice as many running metres as any other fly-half in the tournament (412), as well as beating more defenders than anyone other number 10 (10).

    Hamish Watson is not ready for a return to the Scotland side this weekend in a blow for coach Gregor Townsend. The 31-year-old was one of just three players to make 50 or more tackles without missing one in the 2022 edition (70), along with team-mate Grant Gilchrist and Ireland's Caelan Doris (both 53).

    Gilchrist is available, though, and he resumes a partnership with Richie Gray in the second row that impressed during Scotland's November internationals.

     

    ITALY V FRANCE

    FORM

    The signs of improvement were clear to see from an Italy perspective in 2022 as they picked up a first win in the tournament since 2015 and then beat Australia for the first time ever in November's Test.

    The Azzurri have now won five of their past seven Tests, as many as they had won in their previous 36 combined, but they have not won at home in the Six Nations since 2013 and have won back-to-back games in the championship just twice previously.

    France enter the competition boasting a team-record 13-match winning run after winning every game in a calendar year for the first time in 2022. They were not always at their best towards the end of the year, though, with three of their past four wins coming by margins of five points or fewer.

    Les Blues have won their opening match in each of their past four campaigns as reigning champions, which does not bode well for an Italy side who have won only two of their 23 Six Nations home matches against this weekend's opponents.

     

    ONES TO WATCH

    Italy are without the pace and power of Monty Ioane after he returned to Australia and became unavailable for selection in this championship. No player made more line breaks (seven), beat more defenders (21), completed more offloads (eight) and made more dominant tackles (seven) than Ioane in last year's Six Nations.

    The Azzurri still have Pierre Bruno and Ange Capuozzo at their disposal, with the latter impressing on his tournament bow in 2022 en route to winning World Rugby's men's Breakthrough Player of the Year award.

    Even with the likes of regular starters Jonathan Danty and Cameron Woki ruled out, France still boast a number of top-class talents in their squad.

    Gregory Alldritt, who will combine with Charles Ollivon and Anthony Jelonch in the back row, made more carries than any other player in last year's tournament (65) and was one of two players, along with team-mate Julien Marchand (50), to hit 50 or more defensive rucks with 59.

     

  • PSG boss Galtier defends handling of Mbappe as injury blow jolts French giants PSG boss Galtier defends handling of Mbappe as injury blow jolts French giants

    Kylian Mbappe has not been mishandled by Paris Saint-Germain since the World Cup and injuries are "part of the job", coach Christophe Galtier said on Friday.

    Mbappe is expected to miss PSG's Champions League last-16 first leg against Bayern Munich on February 14 after suffering a hamstring injury in the win at Montpellier on Wednesday.

    Facing three weeks on the sidelines, Mbappe should also sit out Ligue 1 games against Toulouse, Monaco and Lille, as well as the Coupe de France clash with Marseille.

    Considering Mbappe has 25 goals in 26 appearances for PSG this season, this is a major blow at a significant stage of the campaign, with Neymar also on the injured list.

    The Toulouse game comes on Saturday as PSG look to extend their five-point lead over second-placed Marseille, with Lionel Messi heading into the fixture without his fellow star attackers.

    Galtier has considered whether he has played Mbappe too much since the France striker returned from Qatar 2022. His verdict is that PSG have protected Mbappe as much as possible.

    "We are in a unique season, with a World Cup in the middle," Galtier said, "and I realise that at many other clubs with many internationals, there has been fatigue that has generated automatically and injuries.

    "As a philosophy, I am in the habit of saying injuries are part of the job.

    "We're sorry above all for Kylian. He is a competitor and always wants to be involved, but we can't have a season where we don't have physical problems, that's part of a season and part of the competition. 

    "It's even more so for a club with internationals who are in demand all the time, as much with club as with country."

     

    Galtier said PSG "took a lot of precautions for Kylian's return".

    The striker reported for duty with the capital giants in the midweek after France's World Cup final penalty shoot-out loss to Argentina in December, illustrating his eagerness to get back into club action.

    He was then allowed a holiday in January, with Mbappe travelling to the United States for that break.

    "I don't think Kylian played too much," Galtier said, "and from the moment you play, there is always an element of risk."

    Veteran defender Sergio Ramos, hit by a thigh problem at Montpellier, is another who will sit out the Toulouse game. The onus will fall on Messi to drive PSG to victory on Saturday, and the Argentine great scored in the 3-1 success at Montpellier.

    "Leo Messi was able to take matters into his own hands against Montpellier, as soon as Kylian Mbappe and Sergio Ramos went off," said Galtier.

    "He was a natural leader and the players put themselves at his service. I congratulated everyone for doing the work necessary to get this victory, which was difficult to obtain.

    "The absence of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe is inevitably damaging since there were many connections between these three players. I now have to organise the team, taking into account these combined absences.

    "Leo Messi will continue in his usual role. It will be up to the players who will be at his side to seize the opportunities and for everyone to raise their level of play."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.