Luke Shaw & Chris Smalling: Manchester United’s defensive rocks

Luke Shaw & Chris Smalling: Manchester United’s defensive rocks

Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw have brought solidity to the Manchester United defence and the England internationals could be vital to the club’s success this season.

Manchester United’s search for a new league title could be on track this season with Jose Mourinho’s return to the Premier League likely to provide trophies. The former Chelsea boss has been given the task of taking the Reds from a transition period to title contenders and he’s had a busy summer preparing the squad ahead of the new season.

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As well as the big money signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, Mourinho has also secured the services of Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan who will be sure to add quality to the Manchester United side.

However, not only has Mourinho strengthened the squad by making transfers from oversees, there’s a return to fitness for Luke Shaw who suffered a serious leg break last year and was forced to miss almost the entire season. The young English left-back has proven his worth in the Premier League and completed a £27m switch from Southampton to Manchester United in June 2014 after making 60 first team league appearances for the Saints and earning himself an international call-up to the England World Cup squad.

Shaw looked bright and composed in the opening five league fixtures he performed in at the start of last season before he was injured and his loss was clear to be seen. He was crucial in maintaining the Reds victories against Tottenham and Liverpool before he was injured in the Champions League clash against PSV Eindhoven in September. Manchester United had to settle for Ashley Young and Marcus Rojo as replacements in the left-back role for the remainder of the campaign but Shaw’s return has sparked excitement amongst Reds’ fans who believe he has strengthened the starting XI even further.

The 21 year-old emerged from the Southampton academy to make his first team debut in an FA Cup clash against Millwall at the age of seventeen and was crucial to his side’s climb into the English top flight. He impressed whilst with the Saints and quickly became one of the Premier League’s hottest left-backs. Manchester United splashed the cash to bring him to Old Trafford and despite criticism from Louis Van Gaal on his lack of fitness at the start of the 2015-16 campaign; he made a good early impression on Reds’ fans.

The full-back lines up in the Manchester United defence alongside centre-back Chris Smalling who was one of England’s strongest players at the European Championship. Throughout the 2015-16 campaign, Manchester United’s defence looked shaky. There were times when teams were able to exploit space in behind the Reds’ backline and it appeared to be too easy to breakthrough Van Gaal’s side. The squad looked a shadow of the one which delivered Sir Alex Ferguson his final Premier League title.

However, amongst a weak defence, Chris Smalling shone and he quickly became an important senior player for United. The centre-back worked well alongside Daley Blind and provided consistency, solidity and confidence in front of David De Gea. Smalling was once criticised for his decision making and poor positional play but he seems to have developed well in recent seasons and is now considered as one of the strongest defenders in the league.

Alongside Shaw, keeping Smalling fit will be vital if Manchester United hope to lift the league title at the end of the 2016-17 Premier league season. The English centre-back has made his position in the squad irreplaceable and should he be forced to miss out, the United defence looks much weaker without him in the side.

Statistically, he was impressive last season. He averaged nine defensive actions a game, putting in more tackles than any of his Manchester United team-mates and averaging a better performance score than the rest of the squad. His passing accuracy averaged at 82% with the majority of those being long-distance balls through to midfield. The 26 year-old controlled the defence, led from the back and will be an ever-present again in Mourinho’s side this year.

It’s rare that two Englishmen should be relied upon to deliver the goods in the Premier League but with United’s attack looking unbeatable, it’s up to Smalling and Shaw to make sure the Reds’ defence stays strong. Liverpool proved in the 2013-14 season that attacking threat is not enough to win the league and a leaky defence could be United’s downfall this year.

It’s the area of weakness in Mourinho’s squad but with Smalling and Shaw amongst the four at the back, United’s defence looks strong enough and with a bit of tweaking and some time to develop, Bailly and Smalling could be the perfect centre-back pairing to help guide United to another Premier League title. Shaw provides exquisite cover at left-back and with Valencia on the right, United could have built solidity at the back going into the 2016-17 season.