Has Brandon Williams done enough to replace Luke Shaw?
Image: Ian Mcallister
At the season's start, Manchester United fans believed their defensive line was finally complete. With Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka introduced to intermingle with Luke Shaw and Victor Lindelof, the Red Devils appeared to be set. But, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's new signings hit the ground running, those plying their trade at left-back lagged behind.
When Luke Shaw wasn't sitting on the sidelines injured, the 24-year-old found himself unable to keep up with the Premier League's pace. His recurring hamstring problem already cost the former Southampton standout 10 league games. Ashley Young shifted over to provide cover but, although he is performing well for Internazionale now, Serie A's tempo isn't as hectic as the Premier League's. When healthy, Solskjaer only trusted Marcus Rojo in central defence. Rather than rely on the reckless Argentine, the Norwegian turned to his academy.
Like Rojo before him, Luke Shaw finds himself herded into a centre-half role when Ole deploys a back three. The reason is Brandon Williams. The 19-year-old combines Rojo's aggression with Marcus Rashford's pace. Worse for Shaw, Eric Bailly's imminent return may push him out of the starting XI altogether, a la Daley Blind. If the England international doesn't wish to become a bit-part player, he may choose this summer as an opportunity to cut his losses and move on.
Assuming Shaw leaves, United would face a depth issue on the left side in defence. A little shopping may be in order. Benfica's Alejandro Grimaldo and Juventus' Alex Sandro are quality options with whom the club is often linked. A premium player needn't be acquired provided Williams continues to prove he can handle the job. Big money would be more wisely spent on another creative midfielder and a centre forward. Still, United need a dependable option in case Williams suffers an injury or, given his aggressive nature, finds himself suspended for a red card or an accumulation of yellows. As well as the occasional shoulder barge to alert attacking players to his presence, the youngster loves to help opponents on their way when momentum carries them over the touchline.
Since his Carabao Cup debut against Rochdale in September, the 19-year-old's consistency made him United's first-choice left-back. Unlike Shaw, who learned to stay at home under Jose Mourinho, Williams loves to join the attack. Able to whip in a cross with his left foot, the youngster is actually right-footed and presents a real threat when cutting inside, as seen with his debut goal against Sheffield United. Shaw is exclusively left-footed. He hasn't registered a goal or assist this season.
Williams' aggression and positional sense stand out. He wins 0.5 more offsides calls per 90 than Shaw [WhoScored]. His willingness to operate in an advanced position on the left allowed Marcus Rashford to join Anthony Martial in the middle before his injury, resulting in the 22-year-old's career-high goal mark in the Premier League.
With Williams holding the touchline rather than hanging back like Shaw, United retain the necessary width to keep opposing defenders from playing too compactly.
So far, all indications point to Williams becoming Manchester United regular. Inevitably, there will be mistakes. Every player makes them, overconfident youngsters more frequently. When Williams finally takes his aggression too far, fans shouldn't turn on him. It's part of the process.