Manchester United-linked defender 'targeted by referees' - should van Gaal avoid him?

Stoke City assistant manager Mark Bowen believes centre back Ryan Shawcross is being targeted by referees.

Stoke City continued their inconsistent start to the season on Saturday with a 1-0 defeat to Southampton at St. Mary's Stadium, as Sadio Mane's first half goal condemned the Potters to a fourth defeat of the campaign.

Manager Mark Hughes doesn't appear to be under any immediate pressure, but one of the recent topics which has overshadowed Stoke's season is that of Ryan Shawcross.

Not only has their talismanic captain been linked with a move back to former club Manchester United as Louis van Gaal searches for a dominant centre back, but he's now become embroiled in an argument over shirt tugging in the penalty area.

Shawcross gave away a penalty in the recent 2-1 win over Swansea City for grappling with Wilfried Bony from a corner kick, and the Ivorian tucked away the ensuing penalty.

That has led to Stoke changing Shawcross' role on corners, though assistant manager Mark Bowen says he feels the 27-year-old is being targeted by referees due to his aggressive playing style. 

"The difficult thing for Ryan, in Saturday's game we tried to pull him out of the spotlight," said Bowen. "Instead of him actually marking from a corner, we put him in an area where he could just go and attack the ball, which is not his game, he's not been brought up on that."

"It comes to something when you've got to try to change your system of marking around because you're worried that the lad is getting targeted," he added.

Manchester United - the team reportedly interested in signing Shawcross in January - were also guilty of the same act, but Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling weren't penalised for virtually headlocking John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic during Sunday's game against Chelsea - which frustrates Bowen.

"You see it time and time again across the country and Europe as well and, when nothing does happen, it does hurt," he said.

Whilst some managers may be put off the idea of signing a player that referees are 'targeting', van Gaal's recent tactics from corners would suggest that Shawcross would fit in perfectly, so don't necessarily expect the Dutchman to cool his reported interest in him.

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