Adam Davy
new approach

Luke Shaw's struggle a microcosm of relentless changes at Man United over last two years

With a distinct lack of long-term thinking, the club’s new approach means players are collateral damage.

IN THE SUMMER of 2014, Manchester United had their fourth different manager in the space of twelve months.

When Louis van Gaal was appointed, there quickly followed a massive outlay on new players. Angel di Maria arrived for a British record of £59.7m. Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind and 18-year-old Luke Shaw were signed too.

The latter’s price was £27m – making him one of the world’s most expensive teenagers.

When he made his competitive debut for the club in a 2-1 win over West Ham in late-September, the United squad looked like this:

David de Gea, Anders Lindegaard, Rafael, Antonio Valencia, Marcos Rojo, Paddy McNair, Tom Thorpe, Luke Shaw, Daley Blind, Darren Fletcher, Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Angel di Maria, Andreas Pereira, Adnan Januzaj, Wayne Rooney, Radamel Falcao, Robin van Persie.

Eight of that 18-man group are no longer at the club.

Two players (Pereira and Januzaj) are currently out on loan and unlikely to get back in the first-team picture. Rooney is no longer a guaranteed starter. Despite a decent run of games, there continues to be doubts regarding Rojo’s future. And despite his agent saying otherwise, Shaw is reported to be on his way of the club in the summer.

Shaw isn’t the only one to suffer from the relentless chopping and changing. Chris Smalling was a standout during Van Gaal’s time in charge but has watched the majority of the current campaign from the bench. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford – the two brightest sparks in the side last season – have found minutes and goals hard to come by.

Of course, with a fifth different manager in three years stepping into Old Trafford last May, a new personality was certain to bring about some tweaks to the playing staff.

But what does it say about the decisions at the very top? Well, this week we probably got our answer as United replaced Real Madrid as the world’s richest club.

Spain Soccer Champions League Francisco Seco Francisco Seco

That news was preceded by reports suggesting Antoine Griezmann could become the world’s most expensive player by moving to United in the summer.

What this says about the future of Martial, who cost over £40m less than 18 months ago, and an electrifying homegrown product like Rashford remains a mystery.

Shaw was signed as an 18-year-old. It was an investment in talent that probably wouldn’t come to fruition for five years. Martial was 19 when he arrived, the massive fee a reflection on what he could become. Rashford, at the club since he was seven, was 18 when he burst onto the scene against Midtjylland.

But given United’s way of handling things in recent years – hashtags, world records and global noodle partners – they care little for the understated. 

The acquisitions of Mourinho, Ibrahimovic and Pogba sent the club’s commercial department into overdrive. There’s nothing glitzy about a young player who’s made the grade and quietly gone about their job. How can you do a Snapchat story about that?

When Mourinho took over as boss, it coincided with him joining Instagram. His first post was a picture of the front page of his United contract. Ever since, there’s been some images of him at work and play and a litany of promotional content for Adidas – both his and the club’s sponsor – and Heineken – who he is a ‘global football ambassador’ for.

Acutely aware of the worth of his brand, he’s the perfect figurehead for the modern-day United.

As much as there’s been a litany of personnel changes at Old Trafford over the last two years, perhaps the most monumental shift has been in where the club’s priorities now rest.

It seems that superstar signings and marketing savvy matter more than the development of players and the cultivating of expensively-acquired youngsters.

Ultimately, going by the process over the last 30 months, the players – with the exception of a handful of high-profile elites – are increasingly becoming rather faceless, disposable objects. The price tags and contracts and recruitment drives ultimately mean nothing as the players are quickly turned around and pushed out the door.

Manchester United v Middlesbrough - Premier League - Old Trafford Anthony Martial, like Shaw and Marcus Ashford, has struggled for minutes this season. Martin Rickett Martin Rickett

When Shaw was signed, he said he wanted to progress. Ryan Giggs, United’s assistant coach at the time (and another figure who has vanished) said he had great potential. Inevitably, it was all very tentative stuff – what you’d expect for a raw teen.

After a difficult start, he experienced the trauma of a horrific injury, something that set him back physically and mentally. And yet, after getting back to the first-team and with no other specialist left-back in the squad, he now curiously finds himself on the periphery – like a host of other young players.

Are they unlucky? Or, did the club’s recruitment department get it wrong? After all that money was spent, are they just below-par? When he was appointed, Mourinho’s history of short-termism was referenced quite a bit.

But is this down to Mourinho? Probably not. Because it seems that his employers had already changed their approach to things before he arrived.

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