While many of the 2,000-plus crowd at Manchester United’s under-23 clash with Swansea City in Leigh on Monday would have been salivating at the prospect of seeing the England left-back go bursting endlessly down the left flank, it was in his reaction to an early crunch tackle that it was clear Shaw was back and raring to go.
As George Byers took a heavy touch on the ball and then overstretched and clattered into Luke Shaw, the United full-back simply got straight back to his feet with his head up and his focus on the attack beginning to develop in front of him.
Still less than two years on from a career-changing leg break, the 22-year-old’s psychological state has often been called into question since his comeback, including by manager Jose Mourinho.
His cameo on Monday came four months on from suffering ligament damage in his foot during the Premier League clash with Swansea in the dying embers of a frustrating 2016-17. But his 60 minutes of action with the second string tees him up for the opportunity to challenge for a first-team place once more, and Shaw can’t wait to make an impact.
“I’m feeling really good and I only push on from here,” he told MUTV after the game. “I’m looking for the first-team spot now. I’m going to keep pushing and when the manager needs me I’m going to be ready. Whenever that is, I’m really looking forward to it. I’d rather it was sooner rather than later, but I’m feeling good and whenever I’m called upon, I’m ready.”
And while United have got off to a flying start without him thanks to consecutive 4-0 wins over West Ham United and Swansea City, there are arguably still places up for grabs in the first XI. Chief among those is the left-back position Shaw has in his sights.
Daley Blind has filled the slot in the opening pair of fixtures, but both Shaw and Matteo Darmian remain options in that position. And the Dutchman has so far been effective rather than utterly convincing, continuing at times to look like a midfielder filling in as a full-back instead of appearing a natural for the slot. Add in Darmian’s greater comfort on the right, and Shaw is the prime candidate for the left-back spot longer term.
There have been various murmurs over the close season linking United with a move for a full-back to add further high-level competition on the left side of defence, but with the deadline nearing it is clear that Mourinho is content with the squad he has, save for the potential late addition of Ivan Perisic as another attacking option.
All that adds up to an open door for Shaw, and it is now up to him to make the most of it. When Mourinho threw down the gauntlet to the England man at various points last season he was rarely convinced by Shaw’s response. But the full-back’s insistence that he is ready right now to step up and deliver will cheer the Portuguese at a time when he is about to need greater depth and flexibility from his star-studded squad.
Thursday’s Champions League draw brings into focus a period of the season which will see United shift through the gears. After the international break which follows Saturday’s clash with Leicester City at Old Trafford comes the Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday flow of a true challenger’s campaign.
It is the kind of routine Shaw has barely known since arriving at Old Trafford as a £30 million teenager three years ago, but so long as he can stay fit and prove himself to his manager he has every chance of finally making the left-back spot his own for the foreseeable future.