When PSV’s Hector Moreno charged into Luke Shaw, leaving him with a broken leg, Manchester United fans were horrified. Not just because of the image of the left-back holding his thigh while the rest of his leg dangled at an unnatural angle – although that sight alone was fairly harrowing – but also because he had been their side’s best player in the first few weeks of last season.
Revisionism is common after someone has died and, while Shaw has obviously not passed away (even if Manchester City players mourning Ilkay Gundogan’s injury might equate the two events), that setback in September 2015 marked the end of his season, if not the end of his career.
To say that a left-back had been United’s most important player may sound like a rewriting of the past, but it was true. Louis van Gaal’s team were awful to watch, but Shaw provided a rare flash of excitement at the start of last term. As well as being solid in his defensive duties, he was fantastic in attack, as demonstrated by the events which led to his injury. Shaw may well have scored against PSV had he not been taken out: the defender charged into the opposing area, beating two players on the way, and was set to be one-on-one with the goalkeeper before Moreno intervened with his leg-breaking challenge.
Shaw did not recover in time to play again in 2015/16, despite there being talk of him returning for the FA Cup final. Instead of being England’s first-choice left-back at the Euros, he had the summer off, which meant he had the opportunity to get himself into peak physical condition for new manager Jose Mourinho.
Shaw was Mourinho’s first-choice left-back, starting in the Community Shield and all of United’s early Premier League games, but was savaged by his boss following the 3-1 defeat by Watford in September.
“For the second goal, Amrabat receives the ball and our left-back is 25 metres from him instead of five,” Mourinho complained. “Even at 25 [metres] you have to jump and go and press. But no, we wait. This is a tactical but also a mental attitude.”
Shaw picked up a groin strain during that loss and, when he had recovered from that, Mourinho claimed he missed training because of illness. What really seemed to irreparably damage the relationship between player and manager, though, was Shaw’s decision to pull out of the trip to Swansea in November.
“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,” Mourinho said after the match.
“If I were to speak with the many great football people of this team, they will say they played many times without being 100 per cent. For the team you have to do anything. That is my way of seeing [things].”
Mourinho challenges his players. It feels as though he picks a few to target and unfairly gives them a hard time. Henrikh Mkhitaryan appeared to be one such player earlier this season and some might say Shaw is another.
However, Mourinho is not the first manager to pass comment on Shaw’s fitness and mentality. Shortly after the youngster signed for United, Van Gaal confirmed that he was training away from the rest of the squad because he was “not very fit”.
Roy Hodgson, the England manager at the time, supported the Dutchman’s claim, claiming that if Van Gaal consulted with Mauricio Pochettino, Shaw’s boss at Southampton, they would agree on the player’s problems.
“I think when he talks to Pochettino, then Pochettino will say to him, ‘What you were saying to Luke Shaw is what I was actually saying to him’,” Hodgson revealed. “He might have had it mentioned to him a couple of times during the World Cup when we were together by people like myself and [England physio] Gary Lewin.”
While Shaw has always defended himself against criticism of his fitness, he conceded in an interview with the Guardian last year that he “took it a little bit easy” at the beginning of Van Gaal’s first season because he did not realise that playing for United was going to be as “hard” as it was.
Mourinho’s recent comments about Shaw are the most damning of all, though. The left-back has now had the opportunity to change his ways under three different managers, but has seemingly spurned that chance on each occasion.
"I cannot compare the way he trains and commits, the focus, the ambition. He is a long way behind," the Portuguese said after Shaw did not even make the bench for the recent 0-0 draw with West Brom.
In Shaw, United have a player who has the ability to be first choice for club and country for the next decade, if only he applied himself properly. His situation is reminiscent of that of Ben Foster, who made several incredible saves to deny United in Saturday’s stalemate. During his time at Old Trafford, the goalkeeper was not prepared to make the sacrifices required to be the best, so has instead spent the peak years of his career at Watford, Birmingham and West Brom instead of United or another top club.
Shaw has two months to save his United career, otherwise his potential is likely to remain unfulfilled and he will probably be sold to a club who will not be able to offer him the same chance to win silverware. For a player of his undoubted talent that would be a huge shame, but Shaw would only have himself to blame.