clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The strange case of Luke Shaw, the £30m fourth-choice full-back

We try to work out what's going on with Manchester United's missing prospect.

Manchester United v Wigan Athletic - The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The irritating thing about Jose Mourinho's exclusion-happy style of man-management is not that it's stupid. Everybody knows it's stupid. Indeed, its performative stupidness might even be part of the point: yes, Henrikh, a quick, dynamic, imaginative player is precisely what Manchester United need right now. Enjoy your weekend off. Think about what you've done. No, no need to watch. It'll be another draw.

No, the irritating thing is that it's stupid but it also, annoyingly, seems to work. Since he returned to the team after his long and mysterious exile, Mkhitaryan has established himself as first-choice. Not as good as having Mkhitaryan in the team all along, playing well, but better than, say, not working.

And now, after a month or so of being bounced around the substitute's bench, left out of squads, and generally made to feel surplus to requirements, Anthony Martial spent Thursday night slicing through Saint-Etienne's defence like it was 2015 all over again. He even smiled, occasionally, which will greatly please those pundits who enjoy looking at somebody's face and deciding that they don't fancy it.

Which brings us to the latest recipient of Mourinho's Patented Cold Shoulder Remedy: Luke Shaw.

The interesting thing about Luke Shaw is that he's had two managers at Manchester United, and both have felt the need to take fairly extreme measures. Louis van Gaal, forever a schoolteacher, put him on a special diet and fitness programme, and was rewarded with eight excellent games at the beginning of the 2015-16 season, before Héctor Moreno chopped his leg in half. Now Mourinho, forever Mourinho, has relegated him from consideration.

Working on the assumption that Mourinho isn't just ignoring Shaw because he thinks he's a pillock, we can probably assume that the manager's motivations come from a combination of (a) thinking that he isn't the right fit, in either form or function, for United as they are now, and (b) thinking that the player isn't quite right, whether in his head or his body, at the moment.

The latter is of course a matter for the training ground, of which we know nothing and can only infer, imperfectly, from team sheets and press conferences and the whispers of sources. The former, though, we can talk about. Shaw's games this season haven't been brilliant, and he was publicly castigated by his manager for losing his man against Watford. But there's also been a more general tendency in United's back four that works against him.

Shaw's strengths, as far as we've seen them, have come as an attacking full-back. But while Antonio Valencia has been doing plenty of overlapping this season, United's left-back — whether it's been Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian, Daley Blind or Shaw — has been playing a more reserved role. This, perhaps, is why Darmian's spent so much time on his weaker side: if the overlap is less important, so too is the left foot.

This may because Mourinho is a fundamentally cautious manager. Alternatively, it may be to compensate for asymmetry further forwards. Generally speaking, Mourinho has preferred to play a striker on the left wing (Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford) and a midfielder on the right (Juan Mata, Mkhitaryan), and the strikers tend to do much less tracking back. You can see why he might prefer not to have huge holes behind them.

None of which bodes particularly well for Shaw, at least not in the short term. His manager doesn't trust his performances and hasn't been picking him, his body has begun to let him down again, and his style isn't what the team is looking for. The chance of him reclaiming a first-team place before the end of the season, with at least three players in the queue in front of him, looks minimal.

Beyond that, it's an open question. The hope has to be that he can impress Mourinho enough in training to re-enter consideration. After all, the point of Shaw — of the giant transfer fee, and of the excitement that was cruelly abbreviated in Eindhoven — is that while he's young, he might just be good enough to build a team around. That's why Ed Woodward opened up the chequebook; that's why Van Gaal declared that 2015-16 would be "the season of Luke Shaw".

Despite both parties making all the right noises in public, there has to be a considerable chance that Shaw will not respond to Mourinho's weaponised contempt, and that Mourinho, as a result, will be supremely unbothered about keeping Shaw at the club. If so, then it'll be a shame. But it will also be a reminder that the success or failure of football players at a given club, at any given moment, is contingent on more than just talent.

Timing is crucial. Sometimes, footballers and managers just don't work together. The ur-example here is Brian Clough at Leeds: one of the finest managers in the world took over one of the best teams in the country, went in at completely the wrong angle, and lasted just 44 days. But had he done otherwise he wouldn't have been Brian Clough, and that likely wouldn't have worked either.

Mourinho is who he is, and that's why United appointed him. This is how he works, and that's how he became the person United appointed. And most of the players have responded positively, eventually. But no manager can reach every player, and at the moment it looks like Shaw — young, talented, raw, inconsistent — will turn out to be the one player at United who desperately needed Van Gaal to stay.