Testing players by removing them from the first team picture for extended eperiods has become a theme in Jose Mourinho’s time at United. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial are acutely aware of their manager’s demanding methods, having both been excluded for periods of several months. The Portuguese, by his own admission, tends to rule with the ‘stick’, challenging individuals to respond to his treatment of them by working harder to adopt the demands he places on them on and off the pitch. Whether or not this approach has been successful this season is difficult to say. Both have played well since their respective returns, but it is impossible to know how their season would have panned out had they simply been allowed to play their way into form. However, United’s performances and results have improved significantly since the dire nadir that was the 4-0 defeat by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and Mourinho can quite reasonably use this to prove that his methods have been effective.
Whilst Martial and Mkhitaryan have surfaced from their prolonged exclusions, Luke Shaw has not, and the longer he is out of sight the greater the fear that Mourinho has lost faith in him will be. After the thrashing in West London the manager was critical of both Shaw and Chris Smalling for withdrawing late from the squad with injuries, making it clear that he expected players to push through discomfort at times for the sake of the team. Shaw’s case is complicated by the horrific injury he suffered in Eindhoven last season, a leg break so devastating that it can end or significantly inhibit careers. Not only did the player need to heal physically to return to his best, but also psychologically. For a young international, with fears of a career curtailed before it has really begun, this must have been and continues to be a huge mental challenge.
Shaw seemed to be unaffected by the injury in pre-season and was a regular at left back in the early weeks of the season, but his form was poor and it was no surprise that he was dropped. What has been of note is the fact that he has not yet resurfaced, bar a rare appearance against Wigan in the FA Cup, and Mourinho has made it clear that the the player has been fit for some time. Reports have suggested that whilst he has not yet fully given up on Shaw he may be open to a sale in the summer. That would be a terrific disappointment for United fans, who felt that they had a long-term replacement for Patrice Evra who could make the left back spot his own for a decade or more. The club had to pay a record sum for a teenager and blow Mourinho’s Chelsea out of the water wage wise to acquire the Southampton full back.
The Portuguese was asked this week whether he would be open to a sale of the player and his answer was an emphatic no:
“He knows what I like in a defender, he knows that I like stability, that I don’t like mistakes, that for me it is to trust a player totally and he has to work to get it…… no, he will be here (next season) for sure.”
Many United fans took this as evidence that a sale is out of the question, but where player departures are concerned it is best to take Mourinho’s pronouncements with a pinch of salt. At Chelsea he repeatedly responded to reports that he was willing to sell Juan Mata and David Luiz by flatly denying any such intention. His tactics are always the same with players he does not rate, as we have recently witnessed with the sales of Memphis and Morgan Schneiderlin. He excludes the player, denying them game time, making their professional lives unpalatable and driving them towards a request to leave. Mourinho said prior to the sales of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Juan Mata at Chelsea that he did not want to lose them but that the players asked to leave and he does not stand in the way of those who want to step ashore, an approach which has the added bonus of saving his club money in the form of loyalty payments.
He has not yet said that of Shaw and the player now has three months in which to demonstrate that he can make the changes demanded of him. When asked why the left back was again excluded from the squad for this week’s game in France against St Etienne Mourinho said:
“Why has Luke Shaw stayed behind in Manchester? Because I am playing with Daley Blind, with Marcos Rojo, with Matteo Darmian and all of them are playing the way I like a full-back to play.
Luke has to wait for his chance. He has to work better and better knowing that I give nothing for free. When I give something to the players it’s expensive for them, it’s not cheap, it is expensive, they have to work really hard every day. They have to play well, so he has to wait. In this moment he is behind the others.”
As with Martial and Mkhitaryan, Mourinho’s logic does not always make sense when viewed from the outside. Both the Frenchman and the Armenian were excluded at a time when others were under-performing in their positions, and Shaw must wonder what Matteo Darmian is offering at left back that he can’t. Shaw is clearly frustrated and whilst he has not spoken, some of his family members have been publicly vocal on the matter, something which will not have impressed his manager. Martial’s agent sounding off about possible moves for his client clearly irked Mourinho and drew a stinging rebuke.
Ultimately time will tell, but one wonders whether Shaw has the sort of personality that responds well to the ‘stick’. He is quiet and grounded and those who have met him describe him as a laid back, polite and engaging young man. The same could be said of Mkhitaryan, but one wonders whether he might respond better to another approach. Sir Alex always said that every player needs to be treated differently. On the Red Voices podcast, Chief Football Writer at the Independent Miguel Delaney, who has closely followed Mourinho’s career, suggested to me that he only has one way of managing, to punish and provoke certain players in an attempt to get them to respond to his methods, discarding, excluding and ultimately selling those who do not comply or rise to the challenge. He believes that it goes some way to explaining his limited time at previous clubs, where his combative type of management eventually alienated too many players in the dressing room. This was unquestionably the case at Real Madrid and his second spell at Chelsea. Several journalists have suggested that other players in the United dressing room have been unimpressed with the treatment of Shaw and have become extremely protective of him.
Of course, managers have to trust their players and are required to constantly make difficult and unpopular decisions. Players being unhappy with a certain course of action does not necessarily make it wrong. Mourinho will point to Martial and Mkhitaryan as examples of the success of his approach, but others have failed to respond in the past at his previous clubs and have been swiftly despatched. Unlike his now restored teammates, Shaw has a far smaller body of work to point to in an effort to demonstrate that his early season performances were far below his best. His situation is also complicated by his awful leg break, and the fear must be that he cannot fully overcome it. The longer that Shaw is out the greater the chances are that he will be another example of a player challenged by the now-United manager who is unable to respond in the way that is demanded of him. Mourinho’s denial of stories linking the player with a move should be treated with caution. Shaw still has time to turn things around and make the left back spot his own, particularly as none of the alternatives used this season have performed exceptionally, and United fans and the club are both willing him to develop into the player they believed he could become after his hugely expensive acquisition. To that end, perhaps a different approach would produce better results: An arm around his shoulder, the ‘carrot’. But Jose Mourinho does not believe in the ‘carrot’, so if Shaw is to survive the summer he will have to do it the hard way.