An analysis of Manchester United full-backs Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka
As Luke Shaw whipped in a cross from the left only for Aaron Wan-Bissaka to meet it and score the first goal for Manchester United against Southampton, you could almost feel they had come a full circle. It’s no secret that Manchester United have performed much better than people have grown to expect of them.
They have produced performances with a swagger that has made them title challengers after almost close to a decade. While the usual names of Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford deserve their share of plaudits, it’s the duo of Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka that has actually been standout.
For a long period in the league, Manchester United did not have full-backs like their rivals. Manchester City boasted of Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy while Liverpool probably had the best full-back duo in the world – Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
It was evident in their style of play that they were not using the full width of the pitch in their attacks. A bulk of their attacking endeavors had to be carried by forwards alone.
However, after the addition of Aaron Wan-Bissaka in 2019, Manchester United had a decent right-back to pair up with Shaw, but the latter was still suffering from niggling injuries. So what has changed this season, so much so that Shaw and Wan-Bissaka have been two of the league’s standout full-backs?
A comparison of the current season and last season
Aaron Wan-Bissaka came to United as one of the best young defenders in the league. He has mostly lived up to that billing as he has shown that he is one of the best one-vs-one defenders in terms of tackling and intercepting the opposition forwards. His long legs allow for the defender to sweep in and take the ball without committing a foul.
The jury was however out on the fact that he lacked any sort of attacking skills that are identified with modern full-backs. He lacked the urge to go forward. In the rare occasions that he did, his output left way too much to be desired. His crossing was non-existent while he struggled to find players in the final third with his passes.
This season though, it seems like he has gone through a transformation. He looks more comfortable on the ball and has been seen venturing forward on more occasions.
More than anything, he is looking to get into the central areas and provide another option. He has scored the first two goals of his career this season, while also chipping in with assists. His crossing has looked much better as he seems to have found a nice improvement curve.
Luke Shaw’s case has been a bit different though. The former Southampton man was always identified as an attacking option but it was his ability to deliver on a more consistent basis that was holding him back. Shaw has come a long way since his double leg fracture in 2015 and his tiff with Mourinho.
The stocky full-back was struggling with fitness and injury issues over the last few seasons. However, it was the addition of Alex Telles this season that really sparked something in Shaw. He has gone on to make the left-back spot his own, with Telles becoming a second option.
Shaw has looked convincing going forward and has been piling in those dangerous crosses. His efforts have not been in vain, with his teammates finding themselves at the end of those goal-scoring chances. Another aspect is his defending and how good he has become. United’s game against Liverpool in the league is a prime example.
A comparison with Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold
While the Premier League is home to many quality full-backs, the aforementioned duo from Liverpool have been the standout ones. They have been the most prolific in their position over the last two seasons and were lynchpins of the side that won the Champions League and Premier League.
First, we compare Shaw (19 apps.) and Robertson (23 apps.) in the league.
It’s clear that Robertson still holds some edge over Shaw in terms of the parameters related to passing but what one needs to see is how good Shaw has been in defence. He almost betters Robertson in most defensive aspects. This just shows how far Shaw has come from his days under Louis Van Gaal.
Next is the comparison between Wan-Bissaka (21 apps.) and Alexander-Arnold (21 apps).
As expected Wan-Bissaka doesn’t exactly trump Arnold in the passing parameters but he does get close for a player whose passing isn’t his strongest suit. A look at the defensive parameters clearly pushes Wan-Bissaka as a much better performer.
Solskjaer’s work with Shaw and Wan-Bissaka needs to be appreciated
The Manchester United manager quite often does not get praise for the work he has done with this group of players. While they looked like a disjoint group of individuals earlier, now they look more of a cohesive unit who want to fight for their place in the side. The way he has handled Shaw and Wan-Bissaka behind the scenes to improve their respective games needs to be appreciated.
He has pushed Wan-Bissaka to be more clinical in the final third, urging him to push forward and put in those final balls. For Shaw, it was more about getting his head straight.
He has made Shaw more consistent and hasn’t pushed him under the bus after a bad performance. After years, Manchester United can say they have Premier League quality full-backs. It is showing with each passing performance. They are well on par with the best in the league.