“I think Luke Shaw’s must be a big injury,” said Jose Mourinho after Manchester United’s latest underwhelming result, a 1-1 draw against Swansea last Sunday. “To leave the pitch after 10 minutes I am expecting a very big injury.”
Depending on how you treat the context, you could view this as an expression of concern for a hurt player. But knowing what we know about the often prickly public relationship between Shaw and Mourinho, we can safely assume this was another example of the United manager’s passive-aggression towards a player he seems suspicious of. It was like an irked parent being called to collect a sick child from school and saying “We’ll, he’d better be ill…”
This is part of a pattern from Mourinho. “I prefer not to speak,” he said when asked after the game about the fitness of the injured Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. “I prefer to say brave guy (Juan) Mata trying everything to be available. I’m grateful for that.”
This was the fourth time Mourinho has either implicitly or directly criticised the pair recently. After the Europa League game against Anderlecht a couple of weeks ago, he said: “It’s time for Jones and Smalling to be brave.”
He then called them both “cautious” in their recoveries from injury last week, and for clarity he didn’t mean that as a compliment. And before the Manchester derby, he seemed to challenge their toughness: “If I was Smalling or Jones I would play on Thursday [against City].”
The implication is that Shaw, Jones and Smalling are all malingering, that their injuries are not sufficient to keep them out of the United team. At the end of March, Mourinho said both Jones and Smalling were suffering from “long-term” problems: Smalling until quite recently had his knee in a brace, and Jones has a suspected broken toe. It’s a little rough to describe both problems as “long-term” and then imply both men are shirking if they’re not back and bouncing four weeks later.
Part of the reason Mourinho is doing this is because of United’s injury problems, now officially graduated to a crisis. Shaw and Eric Bailly’s injuries, as well as Smalling and Jones, mean they will might be without a senior fit centre-back for the Europa League semifinal first-leg against Celta Vigo this Thursday.
Add them to Marcos Rojo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Tim Fosu-Mensah, with Mata and Paul Pogba feeling their way back after spells out. From that perspective, Mourinho’s frustration is understandable, but directing it at towards Shaw, Jones and Smalling is unfair.
Mourinho doesn’t even have to look far to find an example of a problems occurring after a player is rushed back from injury. Henrikh Mkhitaryan picked up an injury while on international duty with Armenia in September, was hurried into the team for the Manchester derby a week later but taken off at half-time and subsequently didn’t play for another two months. That time out was not entirely down to injury, but it certainly didn’t help that he had been rushed back.
A starker example elsewhere might be Aaron Ramsey, who started Arsenal’s first game of the season despite not being fit after Euro 2016, pulled a hamstring and didn’t play again until the end of October. Smalling played while not fully fit against Chelsea last October: he was a disaster and United lost 4-0. His and Jones’ careers have both been adversely impacted by injury, so it can’t be a surprise they might want to ensure they are fully fit before returning.
Mourinho has suggested that, were he in their position, he would play through the pain. Perhaps he was channelling his own idea of what he thinks a centre-back should be, having started out managing the likes of John Terry and Jorge Costa, grizzled old-school types who would glug down a cortisone and play with all sorts of ailments. Perhaps he regards any player with a vague sense of their own fitness and self-preservation as a bit soft. Perhaps he’s trying to foster that sort of “warrior” spirit among these United players: if so, insulting them in public is an interesting way of going about things.
But this all fits with a general theme this season of Mourinho, formerly the great defender of his players who would say outrageous things to take pressure off them and defend his men staunchly, continually throwing players under the bus. At various points this season Shaw, Mkhitaryan, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Smalling, Jones, Pogba and even Ibrahimovic have been publicly upbraided by their manager. The siege mentality is now less about the team, more Mourinho. It feels like he’s setting up an excuse, ready for if/when United don’t finish in the top four: “Hey, how could I qualify for the Champions League when I have this lot to deal with?”
Calling them out in public is unprofessional and probably counter-productive, plus Jones and Smalling have not faced significant questions about their attitude before. If they have changed since he arrived, might the problem not actually be with them?
Perhaps the main reason he is doing this is because he doesn’t particularly rate the players in question and needs a handy excuse to get rid of them come the summer. But by implying/directly saying they lack commitment, he’s traducing their reputations. Mourinho’s focus might be on the short-term with United, but he could be damaging the players in the long-term.
Rather than dealing with the situation in a mature and sensible way, Mourinho has resorted to pointless machismo, questioning the grittiness of three players who don’t feel, and are perhaps not physically ready to play.
Of all the things he has got wrong this season, this is up there with the worst.
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