Full-backs are some of the most interesting players in the modern game because of the stylistic variation of the role – players aren’t necessarily expected to perform a holistic suite of duties, but instead have to specialise.
On any given weekend in the Premier League you’ll see Matt Doherty flinging himself forward with only a vague regard for the ‘back’ part of ‘wing-back’, Trent Alexander-Arnold metronomically flinging crosses into the box like a human tennis ball machine, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka flinging nothing at all as he dutifully and patiently locks up Manchester United’s right flank.
While it never hurts to have a bit of versatility, the quality of Alexander-Arnold’s final ball means that his lack of penetrative dribbling isn’t really a bad miss, and Doherty can (in a back three, José) get away with the space he leaves behind him because of how he functions as almost another attacker. And while the words ‘final ball’ and ‘attacker’ are not commonly used in conjunction with Wan-Bissaka’s name, his defensive instincts are so consistently excellent that it creates a tactical headache for opposing teams.
While Luke Shaw receives an awful lot of criticism, much of which is excessive, his issue is that he does not necessarily possess one single quality strong enough to make up for his shortcomings.
The former Southampton man is tidy and retains the ball well, but as an attacker is neither outstanding as a dribbler, nor a player who can create a team boatloads of chances from deeper positions with some tasty left-footed crosses.
As Manchester United’s defeat to Crystal Palace also indicated, he doesn’t, unlike his counterpart on the right Wan-Bissaka, possess the defensive nous which would atone for this lack of threat. While Victor Lindelof was undoubtedly the main culprit for United’s shock defeat to the Eagles, Shaw was culpable for Palace’s opener, failing to get in front of Jeff Schlupp’s cross to Andros Townsend.
Shaw has had his fair share of injury problems, and to be holding his own at one of the biggest clubs in the world having suffered a double leg fracture against PSV Eindhoven in 2015, which more than a few players would have found it difficult to come back from, is incredible.
Equally, Shaw’s lack of specialisation as a full-back does explain why Manchester United have been sniffing around some of Europe’s most exciting left-backs during the current transfer window, and why, according to Fabrizio Romano, the Red Devils are mulling over a bid for Porto’s Alex Telles.
To bring Telles’ qualities into sharper relief, it’s useful to compare him with not only Shaw but a very different player – Sergio Reguilón, who, as Romano corroborates, was chased by United, but ended up quietly signing for Spurs in the midst of the #BaleIsBack maelstrom.
First, let’s start off what we know Telles can do. Simply put, this guy makes being left-footed look like a superpower, and the quintessential Telles assist involves swinging in a deep and well-flighted cross a few yards away from the edge of the area, with the same Terminator-esque levels of accuracy that Alexander-Arnold possesses.
You ever thought that every single professional footballer makes the act of taking a corner or indirect free kick infuritatingly difficult? Not Telles, who has an uncanny level of control over his set-pieces, able to vary the line and length of his deliveries without compromising an accuracy, either to pick out the attacker at the near post or aim for a runner in a deeper position.
Unsurprisingly for a guy with such a trusty left peg he has an absolute thunderbolt or two in his locker, and one of the great joys when fans can attend matches again will be the collective cry of ‘shoooooot’ should he receive the ball on the edge of the box if he makes the move to England.
And the best news for United fans? Eight of his 11 goals last season were penalties!
It seems almost a waste of time to compare Telles (eight assists last season) with Shaw (z-e-r-o), but the underlying numbers are indeed in Telles’ favour – last season he made1.8 key passes per game, Shaw made 0.8 (via WhoScored). Clearly, United would be getting some kind of upgrade in creative terms.
It’s when you compare Telles to Reguilón that things start to get interesting and maybe a little puzzling. Though Telles was by far making the most key passes per game last season (Reguilón had 1.3), he made the least dribbles per game of the trio at 0.6 per game, where the electrifying Reguilón had 1.6.
This isn’t to say that this makes Reguilón ‘better’ than Telles, but United have made a very noticeable U-turn on the profile of full-back that they are interested in, moving from a byline-loving Hakimi-esque speed merchant in Reguilón to a technically-gifted, Lucas Digne-style creator who operates deeper.
Given that one of the biggest criticisms levelled at Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s United side is that they don’t seem to have much of a plan going forward when the going gets tough, their fans should be slightly concerned to see them veer from a dynamic left-back to a more relaxed, cerebral one. Is the Norwegian hoping to fill the side with quality and see what happens, and is this necessarily the most prudent move?
At the risk of sounding like a generic English pundit, the other question is whether that cerebral style is guaranteed to translate nicely into the Premier League. Porto’s league-winning campaign last season saw them average 60% possession, and across the campaign they conceded just 78 shots on target (via FBRef).
Clearly, Telles helped contribute to both of those successes, but they also explain why it seems as if he has plenty of time to deliver his pinpoint crosses. In a tightly-congested top six where he will have to play plenty of games on the back foot, he will find his defensive instincts tested, as well as his ability to produce varied crosses under pressure.
So Shaw may finally be ousted, and a player with demonstrable creative quality in Telles may be coming in. But beware Manchester United fans – if being a Premier League left-back was easy, everyone would do it.