Jose Mourinho has been critical of Luke Shaw on several occasions this season. Following the 3-1 defeat away to Watford, Mourinho singled Shaw out for blame for the second goal, saying Shaw should have got tighter to his player. “This is a tactical but also a mental attitude,” Mourinho said.
After the Swansea game, when Shaw had been deemed fit to play and travelled with the team, only for him to tell the manager he didn’t think he should play, Mourinho again gave him a public dressing down.
“There is a difference between the brave, who want to play at any cost, and the ones for whom a little pain can make a difference,” he said.
This week, after Shaw didn’t even make the bench for our 0-0 draw with West Brom, Mourinho launched in to his most damning attack so far. With Axel Tuanzebe and Matty Willock selected ahead of him, Shaw must certainly be worrying about his future now.
“I cannot compare the way he trains and commits, the focus, the ambition. He is a long way behind,” the manager said.
Of course, this isn’t the first time in his career that Mourinho has singled out a player in such a way, leading some to believe Shaw is being victimised here. Although it’s probably worth remembering this isn’t the first time that questions have been asked over Shaw’s mentality either.
When Louis van Gaal first joined the club, he ordered Shaw to train alone from the rest of the team, designing an individual training programme for him because he wasn’t “very fit”. Despite defending himself at the time, Shaw later conceded that the Dutchman was probably right.
“Maybe I took it a little bit easy over my time off after the World Cup,” Shaw admitted last summer, ahead of his return from that horrible injury. “Maybe I didn’t think it was going to be as hard and as quick as it was. The stuff that happened, the injuries – it knocked my confidence a bit. Sometimes I didn’t feel right to play.”
Roy Hodgson, when he was England manager, supported Van Gaal’s claim. Hodgson went as far as saying Mauricio Pochettino criticised Shaw for the same things at Southampton, while England’s physio, Gary Lewin, had the same conversations with him when Shaw was on international duty.
There’s no denying Shaw has fantastic ability but, as fans, we can’t possibly comment on what happens at the training ground. Yet now Mourinho has become the fourth manager to discuss Shaw’s attitude, surely supporters should start to believe it’s true. We might not want to, given we know how good he can be and have sympathy for the season he missed because of that leg break against PSV. But the more I hear about Shaw, the more he reminds me of Ben Foster.
In 2009, Sir Alex Ferguson said that Foster was the best English goalkeeper. Foster had been at United for four years by this point, having signed for £1 million from Stoke, but had only played just over 20 games for us.
Foster was loaned out to Watford for a couple of seasons, unable to displace Edwin Van der Sar as United’s number one, but he was tipped to be the long-term successor to the Dutchman.
“Ben has got the best presence of all the English goalkeepers at the moment and he’s also the quickest,” said Ferguson. “I look at the abilities of the other English keepers in the Premier League and I don’t think they’re as good as Ben.”
Foster’s stock rose when he saved the first penalty in the League Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur in the shootout after the game finished 0-0 in 2009. At the start of the following season, Van der Sar broke two bones in his left hand, meaning Foster had a great opportunity to usurp the ageing goalkeeper.
In the big games, Foster was disappointing though. Against Arsenal, he allowed a long range effort from Andrey Arshavin to fly past him which he should have been able to get a hand to.
“He was disappointed with the Arsenal goal, we all were,” Eric Steele, the goalkeeping coach, said after the game.
Three weeks later we beat Manchester City 4-3 at Old Trafford thanks to a 96th minute winner from Michael Owen. While we wouldn’t change the way that game was won for the world, United should have wrapped up the three points so much earlier and would have done so if not for Foster.
A few minutes in to the game, Foster hesitated, allowing Carlos Tevez to block his clearance, which was an early indicator of what sort of day he was going to have. United took the lead three times and were pegged back every time. The first equaliser was an absolute horror show, with Foster waiting for the ball to come in to the area so he could pick it up instead of booting it clear. Tevez took it away from him and set up Gareth Barry.
There was nothing Foster could have done about the second, with Craig Bellamy curling the ball in to the top corner, but the third, which felt like it would be the final equaliser at the time, was shocking. After an awful mistake from Rio Ferdinand to concede possession, Foster stayed rooted to his goal line as Bellamy charged towards him, only to come out and belly flop, allowing the City striker to slot past him in the 90th minute.
All players make mistakes though and while Foster blew his chance to show he should start ahead of Edwin Van der Sar, there was the belief that with time, he would be well worthy of being United and England’s number one. He had allowed in some soft goals but had also made some incredible saves. If he had the opportunity to start week in week out, there was hope his confidence would develop and he would perform consistently well.
However, with Van der Sar still not ready to retire, Ferguson said his conscience meant he had to accept a bid from Birmingham City for Foster, knowing he wasn’t getting first team football here.
It was only after Foster’s departure that we were allowed to see what the goalkeeper was all about. Having been there for a few months, Foster gave an interview which gave us great insight in to his mentality.
I’m loving it here, I’ve never enjoyed my football more. I don’t wish I’d stuck around at all. This is the best time I’ve had. A club like United is cutthroat, win at all costs, whereas here, you know you’re not going to win every game but the players we’ve got bottle and don’t give anyone a second breath.
There is more pressure at United, without a doubt. Even if we drew there, it was the end of the world. I don’t keep up to date with what’s going on there, I look out for results but nothing more. I wouldn’t go back. I’m having more fun, that’s a huge part of football.
It’s tough at United and in training it’s very serious. I’m not saying it’s not professional at Birmingham and I don’t want to be professional – there is more of a relaxed atmosphere here. It’s up to me to show United what they’re missing.
We didn’t need a crystal ball then to know we would never be made to regret allowing Foster to leave. Making it at United, particularly during those peak years, required much more than ability. Foster may well have had the talent but when it came to attitude he came up short.
A few months later, Foster was at it again, with the goalkeeper almost puzzled by the way his United teammates behaved.
It gets out of hand, ridiculously so. You have to perform amazingly well in every single game. You could win and people would still say Manchester United should be doing better than that, should be winning by four or five goals. I just thought it was too much.
I see myself as a winner, I am competitive even if I am only playing a video game, but United is another step up the ladder of mental toughness and strength. There is not as much pressure even with England, where every little thing gets scrutinised. United have their own ethos that comes from within. Winning is all. Even practice matches were very intense, win at all costs. You’d see tackles flying in and little scuffles all the time, but that is what United are.
I don’t want to be accused of lacking ambition, I think every professional cares, but I can move on from a defeat pretty much as soon as I step off the pitch. I want to enjoy my football, then get home to my family, that’s what matters to me.
After winning the League Cup in 2009 and 2010, Foster admitted that he was confused about how little it seemed to matter to his teammates. At the time, United were challenging to win the league and Champions League, so the League Cup was small fry, which Foster couldn’t grasp.
There was no celebration. There was nothing. We were straight on the train home, then in for training the next day. There was a Champions League fixture coming up, the Carling Cup was over already. Everyone automatically moved on to the next game right away. I was thinking: ‘Jeez, we’ve won a cup, we should be celebrating,’ but I was probably alone in thinking that.
In the first month of last season, Shaw looked like he had a place in the first team for both club and country for the next 10 years. But his problems now don’t appear to be a result of coming back from the injury, but an issue that is deep-rooted in him and was present before the leg-break. What can you do to turn someone in to a winner? How can you make a player treat a training session like a cup final, as Foster’s team did?
Maybe Shaw just doesn’t have what it takes to make it at the top. There shouldn’t be questions asked of his ability but without the winning mentality, how can he hope to enjoy the career a player of his talent should?
With just two months remaining until the end of the season, Shaw is running out of time to prove Mourinho, Van Gaal, Hodgson and Pochettino wrong.