There is one light amid the gloom: Luke Shaw is young and, although the events that led to the teenager’s broken leg on Tuesday night were far from innocent, it is probable that the left-back will return to the game without career-changing impediment. Shaw’s left leg snapped in two places, from the wildest of challenges, the teenager returned to Manchester on Friday following an operation in an Eindhoven hospital last week. It is the bitterest of ironies that the former Southampton player will miss United’s return to his old club on Sunday.
Shaw’s injury was caused, in large part, because of the force and lack of control demonstrated by his opponent. Reckless, dangerous, call it what you will, but Héctor Moreno’s lunging, two-footed, tackle was exactly the type that prompted referee’s union chief Mike Riley issue new Premier League guidance on reckless challenges in 2013. Odd, then, that rent-a-quote former referee Howard Webb sought to defend Nicola Rizzoli’s inaction over the incident on Tuesday; so too did Roy Keane.
The injury cast a long shadow over what proved to be a disastrous night for United on the club’s return to the Champions League proper, with PSV Eindhoven coming from a goal down to win 2-1 in the Philips Stadion. It was United’s second defeat in three games, although the impact of Shaw’s injury on the Reds’ performance in Eindhoven should not be lightly dismissed.
Still, Shaw’s bad break could have a galvanising effect on the team’s performance this weekend, says Louis van Gaal, with the manager boosted by Shaw’s post-injury resilience. Van Gaal called the player’s response to injury “strong” after a successful operation to fix two broken bones. The player now faces months of painful rehabilitation.
“There was a question in Eindhoven about the mental influence of such an injury and I said that I cannot prove that,” said the Dutchman on Friday. “You cannot see into the heads of the players. I have now read in some papers that some players said it had an influence. But maybe it will have a positive influence in the dressing room. When you see us playing and the spirit that we have, I don’t have any doubt.”
The incentive to win should also be strong with Manchester City losing at home on Saturday. Victory at Southampton will take Van Gaal’s side into second place, just two points behind the club’s cross-town neighbours. Not too shabby for a team supposedly in perpetual crisis.
Still, counting the points is a dangerous game with this United side, not least because that pair of defeats have both come on the road, where the Reds have secured wins at just Aston Villa and Club Brugge this season. Indeed, United has just six league victories away from Old Trafford’s comforts during Van Gaal’s reign as the club’s manager. Not good enough, some might say, for a team led by one of Europe’s most respected coaches.
Further criticism has come for United’s style of play under the 64-year-old Van Gaal. The cautious, often plodding, style may not be Van Gaal’s much-vaunted “philosophy” but it is the dominant approach, with an ailing Wayne Rooney supported by a cast of less-than-effervescent attackers.
And yet, at times last Tuesday, United’s attacking performance was the most vigorous of the campaign, with 19-year-old Anthony Martial demonstrating outstanding natural pace and a rare maturity for one so inexperienced. It is not a gross exaggeration to claim that Martial’s was the most dynamic performance by a United striker in the past 18 months. It is an early call, but Martial could well be the real deal.
It may well be with some regret that Martial is likely to drop to the bench against Southampton, with Rooney fit again following a minor calf strain picked up on international duty. The Scouser has not scored a Premier League goal since April, although he bagged three against Brugge in a Champions League qualifier and a brace of penalties for England earlier this month.
Van Gaal claims that Rooney’s long streak without a domestic goal is not concerning, although the striker’s subdued mobility, poor first touch and general lack of dynamism should be. In addition to Rooney’s lack of Premier League goals, he has no assists and just three shots on target all season, although he can score “a range of goals, like Mata, Memphis, Martial, Fellaini,” according to his manager.
Rooney needs one goal to equal Denis Law as joint-third top goalscorer in the club’s history with 171. “You can count all the goals he’s made. In my memory Rooney has scored a lot,” added Van Gaal.
Meanwhile, Ronald Koeman’s side has made something of a recovery, with four points from the past two games, after a difficult start to the campaign. The Saints have managed just two wins in the last 11 Premier League matches and failed to score in four of the last six.
Although Shaw is absent, former Southampton player Morgan Schneiderlin will make the trip south, albeit he is not guaranteed a start at St. Mary’s. Schneiderlin played seven seasons at Southampton – in League One, the Championship and the Premier League – but first requested a transfer away from the south coast in 2014 following Tottenham Hotspur’s interest. The Frenchman stayed for just one more campaign before joining United in a £25 million deal this summer.
“I hope the reaction to him is a positive one,” said Koemann. “He did everything for the club, he had a great time in Southampton, he was ready for the next step. We had a very good relationship after the difficult summer that we had at the club, his reaction was fantastic, he had a big part in a big season last year and it’s best for him and for the player, that’s the important thing.”
Team news and line-ups
Shaw is unlikely to feature for United again this season, with the most optimistic prognosis being a return in mid-to-late May 2016. Brian Oviedo, Aaron Ramsey and Eduardo – each of whom also suffered similar double breaks in recent years – sat out between 218 and 296 days of football. The youngster’s replacement is likely to be Marcos Rojo, who came on for the Englishman in Eindhoven. Rojo joined Chris Smalling in central defence, with Daley Blind moving to left-back.
“Shaw is the line-up player and I have already said that it is very difficult to replace him, certainly when he is in such good shape. But we have good replacements in Blind, Rojo and in Ashley Young,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
Rooney will come back into the side, with Martial likely to drop to the bench, while James Wilson could also feature as a substitute. The youngster travelled to Holland last week, although did not make the match day squad, but has not yet been loaned out with United’s striking resources so thin this season. Meanwhile, Van Gaal will choose between Michael Carrick and Schneiderlin to partner Bastian Schweinsteiger in central midfield.
Koeman will restore forward Sadio Mane to the Southampton line-up, although he is without Ryan Bertrand, Jordy Clasie, Fraser Forster and Florin Gardos and Gaston Ramirez.
Southampton subs from: Davis, Yoshida, Caulker, Martina, Romeu, Reed, Juanmi, Long, Rodriguez
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Carrick, Pereira, Fellaini, Valencia, Young, Wilson, Martial
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: S Beck, J Collin
Fourth Official: K Friend
Southampton 1-1 United
£1 bet club
Memphis Depay to score first @ 15/2
Match graphic by @cole007