Luke Shaw decline a huge frustration for England, Manchester United
Here's a cruel irony: just as England have adopted a tactical setup that plays to Luke Shaw's best strengths, the defender finds himself at home for the summer.
Gareth Southgate has chosen to make England line up in a 3-5-2 formation, reminiscent of that which saw Glenn Hoddle's side play with such freedom at World Cup 1998, a strategy which would suit Shaw's natural desire to attack the final third.
This deployment, ahead of three highly attentive and ball-playing centre-backs, would also lessen the danger in Shaw's approach, which is to allow space in behind him when he pushes forward. This was a failing for which Jose Mourinho held him to task early in the Portuguese manager's time at Old Trafford, and in truth one from which he has never truly recovered. Instead, Danny Rose -- who would, in any case, be difficult to dislodge from the team -- and Ashley Young will represent England in Russia as the team's left wing-backs. Shaw, meanwhile, may continue to ask himself how it has come to this.
How, indeed? Shaw was once coveted as one of the best young full-backs in the world, and though he still has his youth -- he is 23 in July -- his career has lost its early and supremely thrilling momentum.
It is tempting to trace all of Shaw's problems back to that horrifying challenge he endured against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League, when his leg was so badly shattered that he was out for the rest of the season. Worse still, he had been in exceptional form, and was arguably his team's best player. He had to fight back from that awful moment, recovering himself both mentally and physically, and one wonders if he is still affected in the latter respect -- not in terms of fearing further injury, but frustrated at just how much further ahead he could and should be.
It is clear that the Shaw we see now is not the same one we saw before his injury, but there could be other factors at play. It is notable that both Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have at times been brutal in their assessment of the player's condition, with Van Gaal saying that Shaw needed a fitness regime to get him into shape. Mourinho has subsequently cast doubt on Shaw's professionalism, which leaves the question as to whether Shaw is ready for the ruthlessness of a club the size of Manchester United.
When at Chelsea, Mourinho previously had an issue with Shaw's salary demands, and so he may have been concerned on arriving at Old Trafford that the player had too much, too soon. However, one wonders whether Shaw could have produced better performances if a gentler touch had been employed. Whatever Mourinho is doing -- and however Shaw is reacting -- we are not seeing the best of one of English football's most exciting talents, and that is a great shame.
His loss, of course, is Young's gain. It is remarkable the veteran will play a starring role in Russia, and his career makes him one of the more durable and adaptable footballers in modern English football. He travels to this World Cup as an elder statesman and a survivor not only of a harrowing penalty shootout defeat (at Euro 2012) but as someone who has successfully reinvented himself as a defender. Southgate clearly trusts Young, and that is a significant achievement -- he brings not only tactical discipline but, judging by his half-time role in rallying United from two goals down to win the most recent Manchester derby, great leadership as well.
Over on United's other flank, the future is fortunately much brighter. Diogo Dalot looks to be a fine acquisition from Portugal and was recently the subject of a recent and anguished message from a lifelong Porto fan, who told me that he regarded Dalot as the best young right-back in the world.
The tone of the message was sufficiently wistful that there seemed to be plenty of weight behind it, but Dalot's time as a regular is probably a season or two away -- Antonio Valencia, who is ahead of him in the pecking order, is still in fine form, though Dalot may have greater ability in attack.
Dalot's acquisition is intriguing because, though he has only played a handful of games of professional football, he has an excellent pedigree as a youth international. Though promising youth stars do not always mature into superb senior professionals, it is not like Mourinho to get a bet on a young defender wildly wrong.
All the indications are that Dalot is a star in the making. This, incidentally, is a status that Shaw once had, and which he may rue, but to which -- crucially - he still has time to return.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.