England took on Albania in their 2nd FIFA World Cup qualifier match this week. And the Three Lions expectedly cruised to an impressive 2-0 win against them on 28th March, 2021. The team selection differed from their game against San Marino, where they cruised to a 5-0 win.
The changes were visible, especially in the backline, where 3 out of the 4 starters against San Marino were replaced. England have a scary reservoir of talent and Gareth Southgate would be in a dilemma that other managers could only dream of when selecting their squads.
But Southgate handed Shaw his first England start in more than two years. He last started against Spain in a UEFA Nations League group A game in September 2018, where he had to be brought off after just 8 minutes of the second half due to an injury.
Since then, he has had a flurry of injuries and inconsistent form that has kept him out of the England squad. In that time, 23-year-old Chilwell has risen from the shadows to become a stellar option for his country in that position.
Southgate’s England started in a 4-3-3 formation, as they have been accustomed to in recent times. Shaw started in a back-4 which operated like any other defensive line in such a set-up; with the full-backs covering the length of the pitch.
Albania fielded their team in the same formation, but it was evident that the quality between the two teams was vast. This is why the average position of the players look so different in Image A, with one team clearly on the front-foot than the other.
And as evident in Image A, Shaw was the farthest forward of the full-backs who started the game. The Englishman has a knack for attacking and has been doing it consistently for his club this season as well.
This is why he is the 2nd-best player this season for United when it comes to creating goal-scoring chances in the Premier League. Image B shows how he trails only the mesmeric Bruno Fernandes in xA (expected assists) and xA90 (expected assists per 90 minutes) in the league this season (minimum 5 appearances).
And it is probably why Shaw was afforded so much attacking freedom against Albania too. Because long story short, the man can attack. His heatmap in Image C shows just how much ground he was covering down the left-hand side and how advanced he was as compared to Albania’s left-back, Frederic Veseli.
The left side was proving to be a great attacking outlet for England. Shaw and Raheem Sterling (who started as a right-winger but was playing on the left-hand side), were getting in a lot of advanced positions.
An example of this is shown in Image D, where Shaw (red circle) and Sterling (black circle) are very high up the pitch. What is more intriguing is the sight of Shaw being further up the field than the Manchester City winger at times.
Shaw’s attacking position led to England’s opener. There was a nice little interplay between Sterling, Mason Mount, and Luke Shaw, at the end of which the latter crossed a delicious ball in for Harry Kane.
But this only resulted because of Shaw being in such an attacking position and having the accuracy, quality, and the vision to execute such a cross to break the deadlock in what was, until then, an evenly balanced game.
Image E shows Shaw (red circle) play a first-time cross in as he was being closed down very quickly. A touch in that position would have meant that the chance to cross would have gone. The perfect cross then found the head of Kane (not in the picture), who attacked the ball brilliantly to head in a timely goal for the Three Lions.
Shaw was not all about attacking. The former Southampton man did get an assist and completed the second mostdribbles in the game, but it was his understanding of the game that was refreshing to see.
He realized when to push forward and when not to. There was a moment very early on in the game where he was caught very high up the pitch as Albania countered in the 13th minute. A goal then could have really changed the outcome of the match.
This incident is shown in Image F, where Shaw (red circle) is trailing Albania’s number 11, Myto Uzuni (black circle). The ball was played to Uzuni along the black arrow and his left-foot shot was poor. England were let off the hook and they never looked back from there.
But Shaw’s best trait during the game seemed to be learning from his earlier error and understanding what was required of him. After getting into a lot of attacking positions in the first hour of the game, he was comparatively reserved in the closing stages of the game.
Image G is a great example in that regard. The left side of the picture shows his touches in the first hour of the game, while the right side displays his touches in the closing 30 minutes of the match. It is clear that he stopped pushing up the pitch more as he understood that defensive solidity was needed to see out the result.
And contrasting Image H with Image F offers a clearer example of that. While he was caught up the pitch in the earlier instance, Shaw (in red circle) was drastically pushed back in the 63rd minute when Mason Mount pounced on some sloppy defending by Albania to put England 2-0 up.
Such was his defensive solidity down the left-hand side that he restricted Albania’s right-winger Soko Cikalleshi and right-back Elseid Hysaj to a combined 0 successful crosses and 0 shots on target from that side. This stat is shown in Image I, which clarifies how England and Shaw kept Albania’s right flank quiet.
It was a great performance from Shaw, one that Southgate cannot possibly ignore now. The Englishman has had a tough few years and spoke about his regret of not being able to take his chances for the England national team when they came to him. (h/t Manchester Evening News)
“The last two years, I’ve been watching the game and really regretting not being able to take my chance when I’ve had them. I’m so happy to be back. Even if I’m not playing and I’m around the squad, it’s still brilliant.”
England currently have Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw as their two left-backs. And Shaw himself knows that the Chelsea man is the biggest threat to his position in the Three Lions set-up. The Euros are fast approaching and there is no doubt that Shaw would want to start ahead of Chilwell in the summer.
But instead of being intimidated by him, Shaw says that he is enjoying the competition.
“There’s very high competition, Chilly (Chilwell) played the other night and he was outstanding. He’s a really, really good player. Competition is great and I’ll keep pushing myself.”
It does not seem like a coincidence that Shaw played well for England when he knew that Chilwell is breathing down his neck for the left-back slot in the national team. He is also having a stellar season under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and has arguably hit great form after United signed Alex Telles from Porto last summer.
Shaw is showing that he can play at high levels even under pressure of being replaced from the squad. If he stays injury-free, he could be a pinned starter for England once the UEFA European Championship begins in the summer.