Luke Shaw was earmarked for greatness from an early age. Having broken into the Southampton starting XI for the 2013/14 campaign at just 18 years old, he enjoyed a meteoric rise that culminated in being named in the PFA team of the season. Shaw was also selected in Roy Hodgson’s England squad for that summer’s World Cup in Brazil at the expense of Ashley Cole, a veteran of more than 100 caps. A £30 million switch to Manchester United soon followed, which made him the most expensive teenager in history. A golden career beckoned.
Old Trafford has been anything but the Theatre of Dreams for Shaw, however. The subsequent two-and-a-half years have been plagued by injuries and question marks over his general fitness. The sickening double fracture to his leg that he suffered in a Champions League encounter back in September 2015 derailed his progress, just when he had established himself for club and country. It was a setback from which he has failed to fully recover. Earlier this week, United boss Jose Mourinho offered a damning assessment of Shaw, citing his lack of commitment and motivation as reasons why the 21-year-old has made only nine Premier League appearances this term.
Mourinho’s stinging criticism has drawn fears that it could permanently damage Shaw’s mental state. To castigate a player publicly is always the last resort for a manager. Famously, it was a tactic Sir Alex Ferguson never employed. While he may have berated his troops in the private confines of the changing room, the Scot always supported them unequivocally in front of the media. Mourinho, of course, has previous in this respect. Shaw is not the first player to have incurred his wrath and won’t be the last. The Portuguese is a master puppeteer, capable of manipulating the Press to dance to his tune. He is calculated and savvy – nothing is said impulsively.
Many in football will sympathise with Shaw, particularly in light of his chequered injury record. But issues surrounding his fitness pre-date the incident in which he broke his leg. Louis van Gaal expressed similar concerns when Shaw moved to Manchester in 2014 – even enlisting him on a fitness programme specifically designed to get him into shape. Despite the enormous price-tag, it took more than a year for Shaw to become the club’s first-choice left-back.
There is no doubt Shaw possesses a huge amount of natural ability. Gary Neville, who worked with him during his spell as England’s assistant manager, often waxes lyrical about his former protege. Only this week Neville described him as a ‘sensational talent’. But talent can only take a footballer so far at the elite level. Without total dedication, it is meaningless. Mourinho is renowned as a hard taskmaster who demands 100 per cent commitment from each of his charges. That Shaw appears to have failed to meet these standards has led to an irretrievable breakdown in their relationship that has surely sealed his departure from Old Trafford this summer.
Mourinho’s treatment of Shaw may appear harsh, but his judgement should be trusted. After all, the Portuguese is still regarded as one of the finest managers in world football and observes Shaw every day in training. Such is the former Southampton star’s fall from grace that, for much of this season, he has been kept out of the match-day squad by players who are not even recognised left-backs. That alone should have been a wake-up call for Shaw, who is in danger of wasting his vast potential unless he heeds Mourinho’s words. There’s no time like the present.