Roberto Carlos' new favourite left-back, Luke Shaw tells EURO2020.com he doesn't want these finals to end.
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"I couldn't believe it, to be honest," says Luke Shaw with a big smile.
"I didn't actually think it was him at first." The him in question is Roberto Carlos, the great Brazilian left-back, whose praise for Shaw's outstanding performance against Ukraine on Saturday – via a string of clapping-hands emojis on Instagram – was the icing on the cake of a special night in Rome for the England full-back.
Resuming the tale, Shaw says: "I clicked on it and saw he'd followed me and I sent it to my girlfriend and my friends and they were like 'You haven't even followed him back!'. It was just mad to see a massive legend like him … even following me was good, but to comment on my photo was even better."
Roberto Carlos is not the only one applauding the 25-year-old who has emerged in the knockout rounds of this EURO as a key player for Gareth Southgate. His assist for Raheem Sterling against Germany was followed by two more against Ukraine – one for Harry Maguire, the other for Harry Kane.
Maguire, his Manchester United colleague, spoke on Monday about the shift in Shaw's mental approach with "the demands he is putting on himself now to not just be a 6/10 in each and every game, not to play comfortable", and Shaw admits he and Maguire speak before each game about this: "He's always saying to me, 'Don't settle for anything less than the best player on the pitch.'"
It is obviously working. Shaw ended last season with a place in the Professional Footballers' Association's Premier League Team of the Year. Since this tournament began, no England player has created more than his eight chances, with his three assists the most by a Three Lions player at a EURO since David Beckham in 2000.
'The talent has always been there'
He says it is "a lot sweeter" for his two-year absence from the squad prior to his recall in March this year though, in a sense, it has been an even longer time coming for the former Southampton prodigy given his presence in the England squad at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, when he appeared in the goalless draw against Costa Rica with England already eliminated, That summer he joined Manchester United. A year later, in September 2015, came the double leg fracture in a UEFA Champions League match at PSV EIndhoven that stalled his progress.
John Peacock, who was Shaw's coach with England's Under-17s, says: "The talent has always been there. He's had his injury problems, which have been well documented, and it isn't easy to get momentum going. These last 18 months or two years he's been relatively free of injuries and that helps enormously."
Peacock remembers a young player who was "quite unassuming" off the pitch but on it "had a really good delivery of the ball with his left foot, in open play and in set plays". The improvement, he adds, has come in aspects of Shaw's defensive play, such as his positioning – "defending the area of the far post, when the ball is on the opposite side" – and "his ability to get up to people now and pressurise with a lot more intensity".
The attacking side is what comes easily. "When he is on the ball, he just seems quite composed," adds Peacock. "He gets himself out of difficult situations, he likes to join in, he loves the combination play and that gets him into advanced crossing positions where he is now excelling."
It was his combinations down the left with Sterling which impressed against Ukraine and Shaw himself is enjoying that flourishing partnership. "Before this tournament, I hadn't played with him much, but in the games now I just feel like it's normal. I understand his movements, where he's going to go, when he goes inside and when he stays outside."
As Shaw describes it, fitting in is easy on and off the pitch with this England team. Indeed, sitting in the EURO2020.com interview pagoda, his beaming smile is almost as eye-catching as the red slippers he is wearing (a gift from his girlfriend). This is, he says, already "probably one of my top months" as a footballer and "totally different" from his Brazil 2014 experience. "Now the group is together so much, I've been saying it's like a big family: everyone gets on really well, we all want the best for each other, we all push each other in training."
He goes on: "This experience has been the best and I don't want it to end. I want it to keep on going, and hopefully we can get that final push." There were "goosebumps" when England scored their goals in front of 40,000 against Germany and now for a semi-final against Denmark with 50% more inside the stadium – and the prize of a final place on Sunday for the winners.
"It would mean everything. I think I can speak on behalf of the whole squad that it would potentially be the best day of our lives and, obviously, that's what we want to push for. We know we've got one more hurdle left. It's obviously a very tough one but I feel like we're going to give everything that we've got to try and reach that final and make the country believe again."