Luke Shaw gives Erik ten Hag precisely what he wants to prompt Man Utd exits

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Luke Shaw in Manchester United action
Luke Shaw in Manchester United action

Erik ten Hag used Luke Shaw at centre-back again in the FA Cup on Friday night, a move that is far more than just an emergency measure and which inches both Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof that little bit closer to the Old Trafford exit door.

The Manchester United boss elected to start the England left-back alongside Raphael Varane at the heart of the Red Devils' defence in the third round victory over Everton. That was despite Lisandro Martinez, Lindelof and Maguire all being available, with all having to make do with spots on the substitutes' bench.

In explaining his decision, the Dutchman insisted using Shaw in the position in which he is becoming increasingly familiar in recent weeks, was a "tactical choice", having been extremely impressed with how Shaw has taken to the role since the World Cup.

"We take every game in every competition seriously, so also this one," Ten Hag told MUTV ahead of the game. "It's a tactical choice with him [Shaw] again.

"He worked very well in the centre-back position with Rapha [Varane], and also Tyrell Malacia, who played really strong. So I want to keep that.

Marcel Sabitzer completes Man Utd transfer after last-minute deadline day dash eridzriquhikeinvMarcel Sabitzer completes Man Utd transfer after last-minute deadline day dash

"Also with Ty [Malacia] and Diogo we have two full-backs who can come into midfield and make overlaps and underlaps. We need that dynamic in our build-up and our possession play."

Luke Shaw gives Erik ten Hag precisely what he wants to prompt Man Utd exitsLuke Shaw in action against Everton in the FA Cup third round

When United were short of centre-backs upon the resumption of the Premier League last month, it had been Shaw - arguably England's player of the tournament at the World Cup in Qatar - who had offered his services to Ten Hag to play at the heart of defence.

"We have to find solutions at this time," the Dutchman declared ahead of the win over Nottingham Forest on December 27. Shaw gave him that and much more.

He impressed that night and again in the 1-0 win at Wolves - standing up to the physicality of Diego Costa when required while also being positionally smart and showcasing his recovery speed when required - before being back at left-back in the 3-0 win over Bournemouth on January 3, scoring United's second.

With Martinez back after his World Cup heroics, plus Maguire and Lindelof both ready and available, from the outside looking in it seemed logical that Shaw's central stint would be brought to an end. But Ten Hag has been impressed with how the former Southampton man has adapted quickly to the different demands faced at centre-back and believes it has warranted an extended look.

Ten Hag, like his Manchester City counterpart Pep Guardiola and ex-United boss Louis van Gaal, is a big fan of having a centre-back pairing with a right-footer on the right and a left-footer on the left. All three believe it opens up more passing lanes and enables the transition from back to front to be quicker.

That desire was a big reason for ex-Ajax star Martinez's £55million arrival during the summer and why Maguire - who prefers playing on the left of a pairing, despite being right-footed - has failed to have anything like a sustained run in the side. His poor early season form and injury issues have played their part, but how and where he moves with the ball when in possession/passing have also been increasingly important as this United side has developed.

Ten Hag, emboldened by how Shaw has taken to his new role, is now increasingly secure with a combination of two from Shaw, Martinez and Malacia for the two left-sided defensive slots, despite Roy Keane's insistence that, in the central role, "he's going to get found out by any decent side." The former United skipper may have a point.

Luke Shaw gives Erik ten Hag precisely what he wants to prompt Man Utd exitsErik ten Hag applauds the Stretford End after United's win

Shaw's quality makes him United's first-choice left-back and his new-found flexibility has seen him pencilled in as Martinez's deputy; he's not as aggressive as the Argentine, nor is he as forceful in attempting to break opposing lines with his passing, but he's been working on the latter and is more similar to the World Cup winner in terms of how he interprets and looks in the role, more mobile than either Maguire or Lindelof too.

Varane remains the No.1 choice at right-sided centre-back, while Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are battling for the right-back berth. That leaves Maguire and Lindelof effectively vying to act as back-up to the France international and while United have quietly stated that neither are for sale this month, it’s going to be difficult for either to get anything like regular minutes in Manchester between now and the end of the season. Simply put, they won't all remain.

Man Utd deadline day live updates as Sabitzer completes loan moveMan Utd deadline day live updates as Sabitzer completes loan move

But Shaw, now 27 and fast approaching nine years since his United debut, won't be going anywhere. Increasingly mature, he's arguably better than ever and at a time when United have won seven on the spin, looks more comfortable within his own skin than ever before.

Alex Richards

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