Scouting Manchester United backup for Luke Shaw: Sanchez, Gutierrez, Bard?


Luke Shaw is a doubt for Manchester United’s away game against Luton Town on Sunday following his half-time substitution against Aston Villa last weekend.

Manager Erik ten Hag said Shaw was only brought off as a “precaution” but the issue is clearly of some significance, given that the 28-year-old’s selection at Kenilworth Road is far from certain.

Keeping Shaw fit is important for the remainder of United’s season. The England left-back is not only their best defender in wide areas, he is also vital to how Ten Hag’s team progress the ball between the two penalty boxes. Shaw’s left-footedness is essential to Ten Hag’s tactics and the Dutchman values the passing angles and defensive orientation this brings.

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What’s more, several United players benefit from Shaw being in the team. Before facing Villa, Ten Hag said that his presence makes Harry Maguire a more viable option at left centre-back. When sharing the left flank with Shaw, Marcus Rashford’s attacking game is also much improved. Rasmus Hojlund is another, with the Dane enjoying the low crosses Shaw plays into the penalty area. 

Unfortunately, Shaw’s patchy injury record means his presence in the side sometimes feels more like a bonus than a guarantee. A player signed from Southampton in the summer of 2014 is still yet to play more than 2,000 Premier League minutes (out of a possible 3,420) in consecutive seasons for United.

Luke Shaw’s Premier League minutes

Season Appearances Minutes

2014-15

16

1127

2015-16

5

450

2016-17

11

688

2017-18

11

788

2018-19

29

2592

2019-20

24

1735

2020-21

32

2655

2021-22

20

1605

2022-23

31

2555

2023-24

11

918… and counting

If Shaw were to be out for several games at this point in the season, it would be a major blow for United. Tyrell Malacia is still recovering from the knee injury that has kept him out since the summer, and cannot match Shaw’s defensive prowess or quality going forward when he does play. Diogo Dalot, Victor Lindelof and Sofyan Amrabat are — at best — square pegs in round holes when filling in at left-back.

So, in the same style as our piece on United centre-back Lisandro Martinez last week, here is a thought experiment: what left-backs could the club look at signing this summer if they wanted either a deputy to or a successor for Shaw?


How do we find players similar to Shaw?

First, here is a smarterscout profile of Shaw’s performances at left-back last season.

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pizza luke shaw LB 2022 23 2

Here are some of Shaw’s standout traits:

  • He is very good when defending one-v-one, can be physically dominant and is more technically adept than many left-backs. Shaw is also fast enough to keep up with some of the quickest wingers in the Premier League and strong enough to bully opposition players off the ball. He times his tackles well and makes proper interceptions (as shown by his ball recoveries and interceptions rating of 83 out of 99) rather than giving away fouls. 
  • Shaw’s playing relationships with the likes of Rashford, Martinez and Bruno Fernandes mean he is involved in a lot of United’s build-up play. Above-average smarterscout scores for link-up play and ball retention tell us he is a player team-mates trust with the ball. 
  • His carry and dribble volume and progressive passing numbers are low, but compare them to his above-average scores in expected goals from both ball progression and shot creation. Shaw is not a left-back who constantly shuttles between the thirds but when he does decide to get the ball from point A to point B, he makes sure it is the start of something meaningful.
  • At 6ft 1in (185cm), Shaw is pretty handy in the air as well (aerial duels quantity: 69 out of 99) and he is the best full-back on United’s books when it comes to making defensive headers.

The Athletic has looked for players who started this season aged 22 or younger with a skill set similar to Shaw’s. We wanted athletic left-backs who can be trusted to do the defensive leg work and also help progress the ball between the penalty areas.

Top of our list is a surprising and probably unfamiliar name: Manu Sanchez, of Celta Vigo.

The 23-year-old emerged from Atletico Madrid’s academy before being sold to Celta, currently struggling in La Liga’s bottom four, last summer. He has since made 19 league appearances including 14 starts (totalling 1,328 minutes) and registered three assists.

Sanchez is a rough diamond who has come out at the head of our list from a limited sample size of games, so we recommend placing him behind some of the others close to him on the list below.

luke shaw 2023 24 similarity

Ten Hag is likely to be pleased with our shortlist as several players on it are based in his native Netherlands. Quilindschy Hartman has enjoyed a fruitful season so far with Eredivisie champions Feyenoord and the 22-year-old is expected to feature in Ronald Koeman’s plans for the Dutch national team at this summer’s European Championship. 

Paris Saint-Germain academy graduate Arthur Zagre (22) joins Djevencio van der Kust (22), Souffian El Karouani (23) and David Moller Wolfe (21) as players on this list who are on the cusp of establishing themselves in the Dutch top flight. These players would need closer monitoring before one can confidently say they could make the jump to a top team in Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues, but they certainly have potential.

Before we leave the Netherlands, the USMNT’s Sergino Dest may be a familiar name, given his years at Barcelona and AC Milan. Now on loan to runaway Eredivisie leaders PSV Eindhoven, the 23-year-old remains a rapid attacking full-back — not too dissimilar to Brentford’s Tottenham Hotspur loanee Sergio Reguilon — but perhaps not the best defensively for clubs with ambitions of winning the Champions League.

Josko Gvardiol (22), Alphonso Davies (23), Destiny Udogie (21) and Levi Colwill (20) are well-known talents on this list but are unlikely to be prised away from their current clubs in the coming seasons.

Returning to La Liga, Girona’s Miguel Gutierrez is another player with a lot of promise, and is a more realistic target were United to dip into the market.

The 22-year-old is a tactical marvel, adept at making overlapping and underlapping attacking runs, and knows when to invert into midfield and involve himself in his side’s smart attacking rotations. He has thrived in recent games when trusted with a role at left wing-back and has shown himself to be a difference-maker in both penalty areas. 

pizza miguel gutierrez LB 2023 24

Gutierrez has been integral to his club’s unexpected climb up the league table.

Unfortunately, Girona’s partnership with the City Football Group would make any move difficult for United, while Real Madrid are also interested in re-signing the academy graduate they sold to Girona in summer 2022 and have an option to do so this summer for just €8million (£6.8m; $8.6m) — way below his release clause for other clubs of €35m.

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One player on the shortlist who could be playing in the Premier League next season is Victor Kristiansen, who was loaned to Bologna in the summer following Leicester City’s relegation to the Championship. The 21-year-old Denmark international has two assists in 20 Serie A appearances for a team on pace to qualify for next season’s Europa League. Kristiansen found his start to life in the Premier League difficult, joining Leicester in January last year as they slid towards the drop. Bologna have an option to make the loan permanent at the end of the season. If they choose not to use it, Kristiansen could be an asset to Leicester manager Enzo Maresca come August. 

Benfica’s versatile Morato is another interesting result. The 22-year-old had played mostly at centre-back until this season, when the Portuguese side’s manager Roger Schmidt has started using him at left-back to fill the void left by the summer sale of Alex Grimaldo to Bayer Leverkusen.

Morato is not the buccaneering ball progressor and assists machine Grimaldo was and is proving to be again in Germany, but he’s technically adept and defensively solid. At 6ft 3in, the Brazilian is a robust defender who could be on a career trajectory similar to Gvardiol’s. A smart passer rather than a runner, he has an outside chance of making the Brazil squad for this summer’s Copa America. 

With that in mind, one player The Athletic would like to highlight is Melvin Bard (23), who currently plays for INEOS-owned Nice in France’s top flight.

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The Frenchman is a clever, athletic full-back who could slot nicely into Ten Hag’s squad and offer various tactical options.

pizza melvin bard LB 2023 24

His combination play with winger Jeremie Boga and central midfielder Khephren Thuram (look at his score for link-up play) have helped take Nice to second place in the French top flight.

Bard can be relied upon to shut down opposition attacks before they get too dangerous when called upon, (as shown by his defending impact score of 82). If he further improves his progressive passing and his ability to carry the ball, then he could he may gain the attention of Didier Deschamps and the France national team. The 23-year-old is a promising full-back with the potential to be a brilliant one in the correct set -up.

United still have Brandon Williams and Alvaro Fernandez out on loan, but the former is right-footed and lacks Shaw’s defensive ability and passing range in the final third. He could be seeking a new club this summer. Fernandez’s case is more interesting. Benfica have a clause in his loan deal which ensures a permanent sale if he plays a minimum amount of matches for them in the coming months.

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Alvaro Fernandez (right) is on loan at Benfica from United (Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images)

United hold both a buyback option and a sell-on clause, should Benfica purchase the 20-year-old and then move him on to another club in the future. It is still the early days of Fernandez’s time in Lisbon as he battles with Morato for playing time at left-back. The Athletic will report back on his progress later in the season. 


Think of this shortlist as a precautionary measure.

When Shaw is fit and in peak form, he is one of the best left-backs in Europe. United would have to spend a lot of time and a pile of money to buy a superior player — or even find someone who can deputise and ensure they don’t suffer a noticeable drop in quality at the position.

Shaw is vital to so many of the good things United do and their fans will have their fingers crossed he will be fit for the remainder of the season.

However, the club may have to start looking for similar players soon — to help fill the sizeable void when the Englishman is absent.

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(Top photos: left to right, Melvin Bard, Luke Shaw and Miguel Gutierrez; Getty Images)





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