There was a harsh reality check for Manchester United after they were dumped out of Europe by Sevilla on Sunday night.
Defeat for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side condemned them to another trophyless season, but there has still been promise within the way in which they progressed over the last eight months.
Although many fans were left disappointed by the anti-climactic finale to their extended season that in itself is credit to United for even giving supporters the right to dream of European triumph once again.
United’s failure was as much about wasted opportunity in front of goal as it was about their concentration lapses at the back, and it would be unfair to pin the defeat solely on any individual.
Solskjaer will have learnt a lot about his team in the recent weeks as different players have stood up to be counted and shown their immense value to the first-team squad. But cliché suggests absence makes the heart grow fonder, and Luke Shaw is proof of that.
It is no surprise to see United’s defensive standards dropped once Shaw was out of the first-team frame, following his injury they immediately squandered points against Southampton last month, and tasted defeat in the FA Cup semi-final as well as more dropped points at home to West Ham.
Brandon Williams started the away win at Leicester on the final day of the season which secured a return to the Champions League, but even that was somewhat of a misrepresentation given the opponents’ abysmal run of form following on from lockdown.
Academy sensation Williams has enjoyed a remarkable campaign at Old Trafford and deserves immense credit for the manner in which he has stayed level-headed following his rise from U18s football only a year ago.
Less than eleven months on from making his debut the 19-year-old has signed two new long-term professional contracts at United and even led the club to abandon their search for a new left-back late last year. The key now is for him to prove why that search doesn’t need to be rejuvenated anytime soon.
However, the harsh reality for United is that Williams isn’t quite ready to be relied upon as a first-choice option at left-back just yet, and when fully fit Shaw will surely regain his place in the starting line-up.
Of the 13 clean sheets United kept in the Premier League last season eight of those came with Shaw in the line-up, while there was only two when Williams replaced him.
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The teenager has excelled as a back-up option in his breakthrough season and it was his emergence which reignited the flame within Shaw, but now he needs to do it again if he is to ever become first-choice on merit.
Sunday night’s defeat in Cologne made many people re-evaluate their views on the current side under Solskjaer, and for Williams it was a ruthless education of what playing against a Champions League quality side is really like.
Next season it is a test United will need to become accustomed to on a much more regular basis and as things stand it is quite obvious Shaw deserves to regain his place in the starting line-up.