Nothing in life is guaranteed. When Luke Shaw signed for Manchester United in summer 2014, by the newly appointed manager Louis Van Gaal, the club assumed it had purchased the best money could buy. The deal followed Shaw’s surprise inclusion in the England World Cup squad in preference to Ashley Cole, one of country’s finest left-back’s in the English game. Shaw’s 57 appearances for Southampton, some under Mauricio Pochettino, demonstrated enough potential to persuade United to spend £27 million on the left-back, making the 19-year-old the most expensive teenager in world football. It hasn’t worked out as hoped.
Amidst reported competition from Chelsea, the acquisition was viewed as something of a coup for United, especially with the team having failed to qualify for European football under David Moyes. With the talismanic, but ageing Patrice Evra ushered out of the club, it was widely believed that United’s heavy investment in a prodigious youngster meant the left-back position was locked down for the foreseeable future.
In three and a half seasons at United, Shaw has started just 35 games in all competitions, failing to complete 90 minutes in most of those games. The youngster’s first season was plagued by injuries, and a clear loss of confidence as he took time adjusting to life under the Old Trafford microscope. The mix of high expectations, unparalleled media coverage, and intense scrutiny took its toll. Yet, Shaw remained Van Gaal’s preferred option when fit, and he showed glimpses of the player that United wanted.
Better was to come the following season, but only for a brief period. Shaw’s emphatic start was brought to a shuddering halt when he sustained a compound leg fracture during United’s defeat at PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League. It appeared to have a profound effect on the squad, with the player ruled out for the remainder of the season. The timing and severity of the injury was cruel on Shaw most of all, bringing an abrupt end to a sense of growing momentum and his rising status within the squad. Shaw’s teammates were unanimous and vocal in their support, but the left side of United’s defence has been a problem ever since.
"In three and a half seasons at United, Shaw has started just 35 games in all competitions, failing to complete 90 minutes in most of those games."
On Shaw’s return to fitness for the 2016/17 season, José Mourinho had taken over at Old Trafford. He had reportedly sought to bring Shaw to Chelsea, but the player’s fitness, both in terms of injury and durability, has severely limited his first team opportunities. The heavy physique has also brought questions about the player’s weight, physical fitness, and professionalism off-the-field.
Yet, Shaw began life under Mourinho as the preferred option at left-back, but the cracks in their relationship appeared following a disappointing 3-1 defeat away to Watford in September 2016, when Mourinho publicly criticised the player for Watford’s second goal
“For the second goal, Amrabat receives the ball and our left back is 25 metres from him instead of 5 metres,” Mourinho noted. “But even at 25 metres, you have to jump and go and press, but no, we wait.”
It was the beginning of Mourinho’s tough-love regime, and Shaw has largely remained on the sidelines since.
Shaw’s raw ability has never been the core question. As a modern full-back, he possesses all of the physical attributes to perform at the highest level. On the rare occasions that he has been fully fit, he has exhibited pace and genuine attacking threat. Shaw can produce a quality delivery and possesses excellent technique.
The bigger query is the player’s mental strength. In journalist Gabriele Marcotti’s recently released book on Pochettino, the Argentine makes a telling point, noting that Shaw’s “head was not in the right place to make the sacrifices and decisions that are necessary at that age.”
Similar rumours have surfaced at United.
In writing an epilogue for the same book, Shaw noted of Pochettino that “he used to call me his son, that’s how good our relationship was. I’ve had lots of ups and downs, but when I was with Pochettino it was only ever up, up, up.”
“He made me feel that I was the best. He’d show me clips of my games and say ‘You should do this better’. Not in a horrible way. Not I could have done better, but I should have done better, because he knows I can be better.”
It provides a key insight into Shaw’s character and the man management approach that he responds to most. Indeed, Shaw played the best football of his career at Southampton. Although Pochettino clearly had doubts about the player’s mental strength and professional desire, he responded with the proverbial arm around the shoulder.
"Pochettino provides a key insight into Shaw’s character and the man management approach that the player responds to most."
Beyond Pochettino’s assessment, Shaw comes across as a timid, softly spoken, likeable young man. He clearly relished playing for his old manager because he felt valued and secure in his place. In his own words, Shaw was receptive to criticism because it was delivered in the right way by a man he admires and respects.
The range of personalities within any squad is nothing new though. Over the years, Sir Alex Ferguson was regarded as a master of adapting his approach to players, both as people, and in moving with the times. In a 2016 interview with Sky Sports, Ferguson notes that his job was to “get a positive attitude into that team, for them to express themselves, never give in and enjoy playing for the club. That is sacrosanct.”
Despite his fierce reputation, Ferguson adopted many roles in managing his players, ranging from a strict disciplinarian to fond father figure. This is a complex skill, and no doubt central to his prolonged success and entertaining brand of football.
Mourinho’s tough love
Since that mistake at Watford, Mourinho has been very public in his criticism – and Shaw has been used sparingly, even when fit. The player appears to hold a fragile grip on confidence, and there is little evidence to suggest that Mourinho’s treatment has been anything but detrimental. Yet, the Portuguese expects his players to be men; self-motivated and run through walls. It’s all or nothing.
Mourinho’s public criticism continued last season. After Shaw’s introduction as a second half substitute during United’s 1-1 draw at home to Everton in January, Mourinho told the BBC that Shaw “was in front of me and I was making every decision for him.
“He as to change his football brain. I cannot compare the way he trains and commits, the focus, the ambition to Young, Blind, Darmian. He is a long way behind.”
Mourinho’s exasperation with Shaw is clear and probably irredeemable. The barbed comments are either a case of workplace bullying, or an attempt to shame Shaw into a reaction. Over time, the policy appears to have damaged a valuable commodity.
More specifically, there appears to be only one type of personality that Mourinho is willing to tolerate, and it may mean he is not extracting the best, or indeed anything at all, out of potentially world-class talents, such as Shaw.
The situation may be different behind the scenes, but Shaw’s mild-mannered and non-confrontational style appears to clash badly with Mourinho’s brusque approach. Shaw does not react well to Mourinho’s alpha personality, and the manager does not have the patience or flexibility to develop the player in another way.
The modern full-back
In recent years the role of full-backs has become more important. Traditionally, teams set up in a 4-4-2 formation, where full-backs formed part of a rigid defensive line, wingers stayed wide, and centre forwards played through the middle, providing an attacking focal point. This is no longer so.
“Another point to note about these ‘wingers’ is that they seldom cross the ball,” notes writer Ken Early in the Irish Times. “Salah has seven times as many shots as crosses. The true wide players today are full backs.”
“They are the ones who are most comparable to the wingers of old, to the point where the word ‘full back’ should be retired as these ‘backs’ actually spend most of their time attacking. Twenty years ago it was often argued that 3-5-2 and its variants could not really work because the system demanded too much from the wing-backs, who had to cover the entire flank by themselves. Now the league is full of players who are fit enough to do this, freeing up ‘wingers’ to get inside and score goals.”
In fact, United no longer has any genuine attacking wide players. Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Henrykh Mkhitaryan all favour a central role. This is the same for each of England’s top sides. Moreover, full-backs or wing-backs have proven crucial to the most successful sides, as evidenced by the money invested in the position by Manchester City in the summer.
Shaw should be tailor-made for the role. Ashley Young has enjoyed an excellent rejuvenation in recent weeks, but history says that it is unlikely to last. Shaw offers a greater level of athleticism and balance in attack, being naturally left footed. He is susceptible to defensive lapses, but that will surely improve with experience.
Up to United’s Champions League dead rubber against CSKA Moscow last week it seemed unlikely that Shaw had a future at the club. There was nothing to suggest that Mourinho had anything but disdain for his young defender. Perhaps, though, green shoots of recovery were evident as Shaw not only completed the game, but he was named as man of the match in many media outlets.
Post-match, Mourinho noted that Shaw was “deserving that opportunity” and that he “is going to get more because his performance was really positive.”
“He had a great intensity in his game, it was no surprise that after minute 80 he was feeling the consequences of that intensity. It is normal for his first match of the season.”
It was an isolated moment of public praise, hinting that the relationship on the training ground is much healthier, and perhaps that Shaw’s attitude is more positive too.
Shaw’s injury record does not offer much hope for a sustained run in the side, nor does Mourinho’s ruthlessness in the past. Yet, the performance against CSKA represents some level of hope for a unlikely resurrection in a career that is still in its infancy.
Would it be refreshing if Mourinho now chooses to invest time and effort in developing a significant talent. The far easier option – possibly still the most likely – is for United to sell Shaw and bring in an expensive, experienced player, such as Tottenham’s Danny Rose.