As the full damage of Hector Moreno’s tackle on Luke Shaw last Tuesday evening became shockingly clear, the immediate concern was rightly with the young full-back.
The 20-year-old defender now faces a lonely, arduous and no doubt frustrating road back to full fitness – and that frankly is if he’s lucky enough to be able to get back to that level. Louis van Gaal endured a thoroughly miserable night; a defeat in the opening game of their Champions League campaign against a side he knows very well indeed, and then the full extent of Shaw’s horrific was revealed.
A closer inspection reveals that his difficulties might in actual fact have only just begun, for he must now consider how to best replace Shaw. The latter has looked very solid at the back so far for United this season. The young left back understandably took a while to settle after arriving from his hometown club Southampton last summer for a substantial fee, but after a few months he started to show the same trademark attacking intent, mixed with defensive poise and athleticism, that had become such a hallmark of his time on the south coast. Replacing him this season will not be easy for van Gaal.
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He has a couple of potential options. Marcos Rojo played on the left hand side against Southampton at the weekend, and did not look too out of place. He is a capable natural defender against teams like Southampton, and when he does not get pinned by a physically imposing striker.
However, he is not as naturally athletic and pacy as Shaw and as previously mentioned can sometimes be made to look in trouble against forwards of the highest quality. While he can play on the left hand side of a three, Van Gaal has not tended to use him as a left back while Shaw has been available; it would be a tough test for him.
Danny Blind is another possibility. The Dutchman is currently being used as a centre back by van Gaal – an experiment which for the most part is proving successful – but can also provide a solid, unspectacular and reliable presence at left-back if needed. The issues for van Gaal is that this is by no means a long-term solution, and frankly having just moved Blind to centre-back from a midfield role moving him again would be unhelpful for the player.
There is of course also the possibility of van Gaal returning to the system he employed at times last year, 3-5-2. While it has its flaws and detractors, the system means that the loss of his left back is not a major issue since he can play a converted winger out wide if absolutely necessary. Antonio Valencia has shown he can do this competently on the right, and Ashley Young potentially could perform the role on the left.
As with the other suggestions though, this idea does have drawbacks. Neither Young or Valencia are natural defenders, and against the heavyweights of the Premier League – and indeed in Europe – leaving the three centre backs exposed could prove fatal.
In the end, whatever van Gaal chooses could well have a decisive impact on how United do in the Premier League and in Europe this season. Shaw’s pace, attacking dynamism and defensive steel had been on show so far this year, and if United are serious about challenging for the title – as their manager suggested recently – they need to work out a solution to their left back issue. And fast.