Analyzing Luke Shaw’s 2020/21 Season – A Transcendent Left-Back has Arrived

I’ll admit it – I was quite sceptical of Luke Shaw’s recovery after he broke his leg against PSV Eindhoven 5 years ago. It was a gruesome injury and one that has left a lot of elite footballers struggling to regain their form.

And who can blame them? The recovery process takes almost 12 months of intense rehabilitation and mental strength. You work alone, you dine alone, you recover alone – all your time is spent in the gym trying to regain your previous conditioning, all the while you’re trying to re-learn how to walk again after your entire bone was repaired (or re-structured).

And I know I wasn’t alone in doubting Shaw – most experts had written him off as a “has been”. He had a lot of potential but clearly that was not going to be fulfilled. Even before his injury, he wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire under Louis van Gaal (but then again, who was?).

Then came the tumultuous reign of Jose Mourinho at Manchester United and Shaw’s career truly plummeted. He was singled out by Mourinho as his scapegoat – and was treated like an amateur footballer (Jose even said he was the “brains” behind Shaw – who couldn’t make a decision for himself). That looked to be the end of Shaw at United – and again, who would blame him?

And then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arrived, took Shaw under his wing, treated him like an adult (something Mourinho did not grasp), and allowed Shaw time and patience to recover his form.

Fast forward to 2020/21, and Luke Shaw has been in transcendent form for United, searing down the left flank as he burns the opposition with his incendiary pace and his intelligent overlapping runs. He’s arguably been Manchester United’s best player after Bruno Fernandes (a few feel he deserves the Player of the Year award outright).

So let’s look at his numbers and see how Shaw has progressed this season, especially going forward. Some of these numbers are eye-opening (at least for me) and showcase why there’s a case for Luke Shaw being the best full-back in the Premier League this season.

Let’s dive in!

As always, all the numbers I’ve taken are from fbref.com (powered by StatsBomb).

Luke Shaw’s Numbers over the Years

First, I wanted to see how Shaw has progressed over the last few seasons. As the saying goes, you aspire to become a better version of yourself. And Shaw has seemingly taken that to heart!

Here are the metrics we’ll look at to understand Shaw’s progression over the years:

  1. Expected Assists (xA)
  2. Key Passes
  3. Shot Creating Actions (SCA)
  4. Goal Creating Actions (GCA)

This is not an exhaustive list but it gives us an idea of how good Luke Shaw has been going forward this season (as compared to the last couple of seasons). Why only the last couple of seasons? That’s because Shaw has clocked over 20 games played in each of the last 3 seasons (including this one). Before that, he barely featured in more than 10 games for United due to injuries).

Expected Assists (xA) for Luke Shaw

What are expected assists (xA)? I’ll quote Opta on this:

“Expected assists (xA) measures the likelihood that a given pass will become a goal assist. It considers several factors including the type of pass, pass end-point and length of pass.

Adding up a player or team’s expected assists gives us an indication of how many assists a player of team should have had based on their build up and attacking play.” – Opta

Here’s how Shaw has done in the last 3 seasons:

Not really a surprise, is there? Shaw has been tearing up the left flank all season and has already racked up 5 assists in the Premier League (his career best). And he still has 8 games left!

His expected assists are also well ahead of his previous best. And when we scale it to look at xG per 90 minutes, it becomes even more impressive.

Key Passes by Luke Shaw

How do we define key passes? Well, we’ll keep it simple and calculate them as passes that lead directly to a shot. This is a simple metric but it gives us a good idea of how involved a player is in the team’s attacking system.

And again, Shaw’s numbers are far ahead of his previous career best. He’s much more involved in the United attack and his damaging runs are causing havoc in the opposition defence.

Shot Creating Actions (SCA) and Goal Creating Actions (GCA) – Luke Shaw

I’ve covered this in detail before but I’ll quickly recap what SCA and GCA are:

  • GCA: Any offensive action directly leading to a goal, such as passes dribbles and drawing fouls
  • SCA: Any offensive action directly leading to a shot, such as passes dribbles and drawing fouls

These two metrics fall under our “advanced analytics” section. Both GCA and SCA tell us how creative a player is in terms of all his actions on the pitch. We aren’t just looking at assists anymore – this is an amalgamation of all the things a player does that lead to a shot or a goal.

Wow! SCA and GCA really bring out how good Shaw has been this season. More importantly, this highlights SHaw’s incredible transformation from being an average full back to an elite one (more on that later).

If you’re just starting out with football analytics, I highly recommend checking out SCA and GCA in detail. These two metrics are used across the industry to understand the underlying attacking/creative output of players (which is great for scouting and recruitment).

Defending and Possession – How Has Luke Shaw Fared?

Wait, why are we looking at defensive numbers AFTER his attacking analysis?! Since Shaw is a full back and not a winger, doesn’t it make sense to see how he does defensively rather than anything else?

These are absolutely valid points. However, there are is a key reason why I’ve focused more on his attacking output in this article:

If you’ve been following my work, you’ll have noticed that I write primarily about attacking values. This is because it’s far easier to quantify attacking output than defensive output. In fact, most of the analysis you’ll see on other sites will be quite similar in terms of the metrics used (defensive metrics are not released to fans by the media and clubs).

With that out of the way, let’s work with what we do have.

In terms of his defensive numbers, there are three metrics that I managed to track:

  1. Number of successful tackles
  2. Number of pressures – how much pressure does Shaw apply on the opposition?
  3. Pressure Success % – How successful are his pressures?

Here’s what we have:

You know the drill by now – his career bests across the board. He’s not only applying more pressure, he’s doing it with a ridiculously high success rate (and we’ll compare that to other full backs in the next section).

And in terms of how good Shaw is with the ball at his feet:

We still have a third of the season left and Shaw’s touches in the attacking third are higher than ever. He’s going forward much more this season thanks to his renewed belief in himself (and of course, to Solskjaer’s freewheeling system).

What are carries and progressive distance, you ask?

  1. Carries – The number of times the player controlled the ball with their feet
  2. Progressive Distance – The total distance, in yards, a player moved the ball while controlling it with their feet towards the opposition’s goal

These two metrics help us understand how productive SHaw was with the ball. And boy, he has been quite productive for United. He is comfortable carrying the ball up field and often leads United’s counter attacks from the left (hence the high number for progressive distance).

Luke Shaw vs. the Rest – How Does Shaw Compare vs. Similar Full Backs?

Now that we understand Shaw’s performances over the years, how has he fared relative to his peers? This is an important question as it helps us understand where Shaw stands among the elite full backs across Europe.

For this analysis, I relied on StatsBomb’s similar players clustering algorithm. It’s a proprietary algorithm that clusters players according to the position and advanced metrics.

So here’s Shaw’s xA numbers compared to similar full backs:

Not bad, eh? Theo Hernandez is a force of nature and he’s one of the best attacking full backs in the world. Watch him play for AC Milan in any game and you’ll understand what I mean. Cancelo has also been superb for Manchester City this season and he’s often found in attacking areas thanks to Pep Guardiola’s system.

Shaw comes 3rd there along with Robertson (Liverpool) and Dubois (Lyon). Clearly, Shaw’s attacking throughout has been immense and we can see that reflected in his expected assists.

By the way, keep an eye out for Dubois next season. He’ll most likely be snapped up by one of the bigger clubs – he’s emerged as one for the most coveted full backs this season.

How about looking at Shaw’s successful pressure percentage?

Impressive! Not only does Shaw press a lot, he does so with incredible success (the best in Europe in terms of percentage points). Of course this relies a lot on a team’s system (Chelsea didn’t really press well under Frank Lampard) but this is an indication that Shaw is back to his best physically and mentally.

Finally, the advanced metrics!

Oh boy, Shaw is head and shoulders above everyone else on this list. With SCA on the X-axis and GCA on the Y-axis, we can clearly see that Shaw’s involvement in the attacking half is integral to Manchester United’s success. After Bruno Fernandes, Shaw is the most creative player for Solskjaer’s side and his interplay with Rashford is reaping huge dividends for the player and the club.

I would expected to see Dubois and Trent coming up this list next season.

Final Thoughts

Like I said, this is not an exhaustive list of metrics we can look at to see how well Shaw has done. I encourage you to dive deeper if you can and look at his defensive numbers.

His rise from Mourinho’s depths has been impressive and he continues to get better with each game. Barring another injury setback, we should expect to see Shaw among the elite full back list for a few years more.

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