In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Manchester United’s Luke Shaw opens up on the reasons behind the form that has earned him an England recall and why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – and fatherhood – has brought out the best in him…
Some said it was a counter-attack but Manchester City were well set with men behind the ball when Dean Henderson threw the ball to Luke Shaw. The full-back just started to run.
“As soon as I took that first touch, I knew the space was there,” he tells Sky Sports. “I saw the space and I used it. Sometimes when I do that, I feel like nobody can catch me.”
It was Shaw’s second chance of the game but only his third goal in 174 appearances spanning almost seven years as a Manchester United player. It is already his favourite.
“The first one is always special but it was quite a lucky one against Leicester. The second was against Derby where Jesse [Lingard] tried to claim it but he wasn’t having that. But the magnitude of this goal just makes it special, after everything that I have been through.”
Shaw has been on quite the journey since playing in a World Cup while still a teenager. He went on to become the fourth most expensive defender in the game’s history later that summer, experiencing ups and plenty of downs under Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.
The conversation will touch on those troubles under Mourinho and the thrill of his England recall after two years on the outside looking in. But the changes in his private life have been even more dramatic. His eyes light up when the subject turns to fatherhood.
“He has completely changed my whole life,” says Shaw of his young son Reign, born in November 2019. “Obviously, for the better. He is brilliant and he is growing up so quick. He gets emotional now when I have to leave. But he is a joy. Every day is different.”
Lockdown has been a challenge but rewarding. “There has been no getting out of anything in lockdown,” he laughs. “But I have been lucky to spend so much time with him. My girlfriend has been quite kind in letting me lie in with so many games at the moment.”
Shaw is speaking after a flight back from Milan, United having progressed again in Europe. As ever, he was wearing special socks adorned with his son’s face, a gift from his girlfriend. “I always make sure I have them on,” he says. “They are kind of like my lucky socks.”
Whether it is luck, hard work or both, Shaw is a player transformed. He won Manchester United’s player of the year award back in 2019 but feels he is playing much better now.
“I was nowhere near my best then. If I am honest, it was quite a poor season from everyone. Maybe I was just one of the ones who stood out a little bit more but I was nothing special.
“Definitely now is the best period I have had. I have managed to sustain a run of games and keep playing. I am enjoying it and I think that is the most important thing that I wanted to get back, that enjoyment of football. Getting back to doing what I enjoy doing.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s role in that can hardly be overstated.
“His man-management is second to none. The way he conducts himself in terms of how he speaks to the players, it gets the best out of them. You can see that. He deals with situations perfectly in terms of what is needed, especially at a big club like Manchester United.
“He takes the pressure off the lads and takes it all himself. Sometimes it is not fair because we are the ones on the pitch and we need to take our fair share too. For me, especially, from what I had before Ole came in, it is a total difference. It has pushed me to a new level.”
Shaw does not mention Mourinho by name at this point but then he does not have to. There is no denying it was a difficult time, the former United boss once infamously claiming that a display against Everton in 2017 had been ‘his body with my brain’. It was not helpful.
He is keen to stress that it was not all bad. Half of his player-of-the-year winning season was played out under Mourinho, after all. But his preference for Solskjaer’s methods is obvious.
“I don’t want to come across like I was a little kid who could not deal with being put under pressure because at a big club like Manchester United you are always going to be under pressure and under the spotlight. That makes you mentally stronger.
“But I had no confidence at that time. I was losing my belief. I think that is what changed with Ole. He managed me right and I got my confidence back and I am really enjoying it at the moment.
“Enjoyment and confidence. For me, they are the two biggest things you need on the pitch. You need that belief in your ability to perform at the highest level. I feel I have that now.”
How exactly has this improvement in confidence manifested itself in performance? Firstly, that goal against Manchester City simply would not have happened before because those ball-carrying instincts were being curtailed. “I used to hold back from driving with the ball.”
The statistics show that Shaw is attempting to run with the ball more often during matches and when he does run with it he is running further too, opening the game up for his side.
“I feel like I always knew I had it in my locker but there were times when I did not use it,” he explains. “It was just about getting it out of me. I have started to do it more this season.
“I think people thought that maybe I was holding back a little bit. This season I have just stopped doing that and started enjoying going forward and bringing the team up the pitch. Trying to create chances. Even just building the momentum on the pitch that we need.”
His total of five Premier League assists this season is already his best ever, even if he playfully suggests it could be more “if the lads had finished off some of the chances”.
He has a point. Shaw has created 52 chances in the competition this season, the most by any defender. He ranks among the top 10 in the Premier League regardless of position, second only to Bruno Fernandes at Old Trafford. His crosses have been a feature.
“I never used to cross it as much as I should have done,” he says. But the arrival of Edinson Cavani changed his thinking. “It helps to have Edi and that threat in the box. It means that if you do deliver a ball he will be there to fight for it and give everything he can to win it.
“Since he came in, the lads up front have seen how he works and what he does. They are trying to copy what he does in the box so there is definitely more movement. It means that you don’t have to hit a man, you just have to hit a space and someone will be in there.”
Shaw’s figures have also been bolstered by taking on set-piece duties for United, assuming responsibility for corners and many wide free-kicks, including the curled cross that found the head of Scott McTominay against Everton last month.
He ranks seventh in the Premier League for chances created from set plays.
Again, it is about putting in the work. “I do quite a lot of work with Martyn who does the set pieces here,” he says, referring to first-team coach Martyn Pert. “After sessions, me and him will take 10 balls and go over to the corner.” That is just the start of the process.
“Whatever team we are playing that weekend, we will look at how they defend set pieces and then we will look at how we can exploit their weaknesses in different areas. He will tell me the areas to hit and I will go through it with him once or twice a week.”
All of which was enough to ensure there was little chance of Gareth Southgate ignoring Shaw when naming his England squad for the forthcoming World Cup Qualifiers.
“After two years of being out of the squad, I am extremely happy and proud to be back.”
Shaw is only 25, but the seventh anniversary of his England debut has come and gone. His fellow left-backs in that squad, Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines, are both retired. Several of the others are now managers. “I feel really old now,” he says with a smile.
“The England team is massively different to the one I was involved with. The talent is unbelievable and everyone is at the perfect age with players who are in their twenties who have been playing at the top for a long time. It is a really exciting time to be an England fan.
The talent we have got is scary and the team Gareth is building has a massive opportunity to win the Euros this year. Hopefully, I can show Gareth that I can be a big part of the squad.”
Shaw never gave up hope during his two years away. He takes much of the blame himself. “Sometimes my form was just not good enough.”
But the tournament’s delay has brought opportunity. “I am pretty certain if the Euros had gone ahead last year I would not have been involved so I am quite lucky it was delayed. Now I have a chance to be involved. Even just to be in the squad would be a great achievement.”
It was his goal at the start of the season.
“I had a sit down with my girlfriend in the summer where we discussed what my ambitions were for the season ahead. One of them, of course, was to get back into the England fold. I was determined that I was going to do everything I could to get back in the England squad.”
That target is achieved, but there are others.
Hopes for the future
“I also want to win a trophy with United. I haven’t won one yet where I was actually playing as I was injured. The only one is the Community Shield but it is not really the one that you want to win. Hopefully, this season, we might be able to win the Europa League.”
And if that happens, Shaw will be wearing his lucky socks.
“I am quite superstitious like that. I will have to keep them going until something happens. We will see at the end of the season but hopefully everything carries on going well.
“I do feel like things are going well with the socks.”