Enduring Luke Shaw plays his own game to eclipse Cancelo
So, Pep, shall we talk about attacking full backs then? All things must pass and for Manchester City 21 did not become 22 in the Manchester derby, a local detail that will add a little extra sting to this 2-0 defeat, City’s first since November.
If there is any genuine cause for concern for Pep Guardiola, it might be in the way Manchester United were able not just to beat but to disturb, disrupt and unsettle this brilliant City team.
At which point, enter the enduring, likeable figure of Luke Shaw. United’s left-back is an old-school kind of full-back, a defender first, seven years at Old Trafford and playing surely the best football of his career right now.
Guardiola also loves his full-backs. But they tend to be more expansive, polyvalent figures, in a position he uses as a creative muster point, a place for innovation, incision, overloads.
Not so here. Instead United closed those avenues, won the flanks, and were aggressively present whenever a blue shirt received the ball. Crucially Shaw was dominant on the same flank as João Cancelo, such a profound influence in City’s team, but seen leaving the field on 65 minutes here after a bruising, draining, largely blank afternoon during which he was forced to play Shaw’s game instead.
And make no mistake, this was a tactical triumph for Ole Gunnar Solskjær. United’s hard fearless pressing on the flanks, the compact, close lines between midfield and defence, and constant aggression without the ball made this wonderfully grooved City team – injury free and in an imperious run – look frantic, leggy, drained.
This is an imposing group of United players and they asserted that physicality in areas City like to build. Two pieces of Peak Shaw embodied this process.
Shaw moment No 1 was the obvious one. Five minutes after half-time. With United 1-0 up, Shaw took the ball deep in his own half, saw space in front of him, and just kept on running. Shaw is deceptively quick. He runs with presence and purpose.
Here, as he surged away from Kevin De Bruyne, there was a sense of some gathering force, an irresistible object in motion, like the kind of giant doom-laden rock of destiny that comes barrelling down its chute in pursuit of a terrified Indiana Jones.
Except Shaw stopped at just the right moment, lurked in a pocket of space, took the ball back from Marcus Rashford, then shot low through a gaggle of sky blue shirts to all but kill the game.
There was an obvious oddity to this. Shaw came to the Etihad with one league goal in his entire seven-year career. But he deserved this, a well-earned adornment to a fearless, assertive performance in exactly the same channels City look to dominate these games.
Two minutes later that second Shaw moment arrived. It was equally to the point. Riyad Mahrez looked to dribble around United’s left-back close to the touchline. Mahrez is of course a stark physical contrast, a dainty figure, so gracefully slender you half expect to look down and notice he’s playing in patent leather spats.
Shaw is in good shape these days, but he is also a man built to run walk through heavier gravity. Shaw stood his ground.
Mahrez didn’t go down or lose his balance. He literally bounced off, twanging back like a cartoon coyote propelled by giant acme company spring.
Shaw was booked, correctly, his ninth yellow card of a bruising season. But this was United’s performance in miniature. Solskjær has been criticised for the stodginess of his approach against stronger teams. Here he got the balance just right as United went for the throat advisedly, and in surges, the first of which arrived after 35 seconds, helped by a brainless piece of defending.
Anthony Martial veered across the edge of the City area, surrounded by five blue shirts. Gabriel Jesus decided it was vital to step on Martial’s heel. Bruno Fernandes buried the penalty kick.
And so it went on. United were ravenous early on. And for a while City had nothing, no rhythm, no foothold, no pattern.
There was even a kind of triumph in Solskjær’s selection. With Dan James and Marcus Rashford wide on their flanks United had speed and direct running in those areas City like to dominate. No opponent had quite managed to do this, to probe the space behind the roving full-back. If Cancelo is in midfield, well, he’s not at right-back.
To exploit that space requires boldness, timing, the right movement at just the right time. But it was a gamble that made sense. Here is a footballing machine that seems eerily serene, undisturbed, regal in its progress. How do you counter this? Energy, counter-pressure, running at the danger.
As ever Solskjær will not have long to dwell on this victory, or on the success of his own plan. Guardiola, meanwhile, will have one or two small problems to solve as a result.
A key stat: in the opening 20 minutes Kevin De Bruyne completed three passes. Three!
It has been a slightly fretful return for De Bruyne and here he was terrible in patches, pushing too hard, playing from the start like it was the 88th minute, and he was required to carry this team on his back. No doubt City will roll on. But for United and for Shaw, in particular, this was a performance, and a tactical plan that found its mark.