Even now, 12 years after first arriving in England, Jose Mourinho still has the power to raise eyebrows. Not with the quality of his Manchester United team, or at least, not yet. But with the brutality of his public criticism of his own players, which sets a standard no-one else wants to match.
So it was again on Sunday, when Mourinho followed a 3-1 win at Swansea City, United’s first Premier League win since September, with another warning to Shaw about how far away he is from the standards Mourinho expects. “To compete you have to go to the limits,” Mourinho demanded, something that Shaw had clearly not done, by pulling out of the match.
It was not the first time since taking over that Mourinho has gone for Shaw like this. When United lost 3-1 at Watford in September, Mourinho blamed Shaw for Watford’s second goal, detailing in his press conference exactly what Shaw had done. “This is tactical,” he snarled, “but also a mental attitude”.
Perhaps it should be little surprise. Whenever Mourinho starts at a new job, he likes to test out his players, to see if they are as mentally strong as he needs them to be. So he drops them, criticises them, in public and in private, to see if they can handle it. It is part of what he calls “confrontational leadership”, the method that has won him so many trophies. “It is when you are ready to provoke your players,” he explained last year, “to try to create some conflict, with the intention to bring out the best from them”.
Mourinho has serious misgivings about Shaw, and doubts that he can be United’s long-term solution at left-back. Mourinho’s campaign of criticism against him may yet spark the improvement his manager is looking for. And if it does not, United can always go and buy a replacement, although the club want Mourinho to persist with a player they spent £30million on.
Shaw, at least, has still started 10 games for Mourinho this season. That is more than Anthony Martial (eight), Morgan Schneiderlin (three), Timothy Fosu-Mensah (two) or, strangest of all, Henrikh Mkhitaryan (just one). Mourinho decided on Sunday that the players to dig him out of the hole were the players who have been at Old Trafford longer than anyone else: Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Ashley Young and Phil Jones, four veterans of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, four senior players who still remember the heat of the famous old hairdryer. It might be that those four, plus a few others like them, can stabilise United’s season and, at the least, get them into the Champions League.
But this is precisely why the Shaw issue is so important and so instructive. Mourinho’s methods were honed with the last generation of players, players now nearing the end of their careers. Young players do not like him as much. That was proven first at Real Madrid and then back at Chelsea. In both jobs he lost the dressing room in his third season, when the younger players grew tired of his endless emotional games.
When Mourinho returned to Chelsea in 2013, he found a very talented set of young players waiting for him. He tried to push them but decided some could not handle it. Three years on, Kevin De Bruyne is the best player in the Premier League, a £55million bargain for Manchester City. Romelu Lukaku is the most prolific young striker in the country and will only leave Everton for something close to £70million. Even Victor Moses is flourishing in the Chelsea first team.
Mourinho could not unlock the potential of those players, but it was his failure, rather than theirs. Now, at Manchester United, he finds a new set of gifted youngsters he does not know quite what to do with. Shaw has got it in the neck twice now, already, and their relationship looks close to breaking point. But if it was not Shaw, it would be someone else, another youngster Mourinho would try his same old methods on, but without the same old successful results.
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