Should Luke Shaw ever write an autobiography, you’ll skip over the memories of his childhood, ignore the chapters in which he details life in the Southampton academy, and turn, instead, straight to his memories of Jose Mourinho. And the chances are that Shaw will have nothing to say; he’ll remember being ostracised from the Manchester United side and reading about his shortcomings in the national press, but whether he’ll ever be able to uncover the root of the treatment is another matter.
The watching world has made up its mind, though. Mourinho is a bully and this repetitive flogging is as cruel as it is dull. Within that consenus, though, there’s probably still the suspicion that Shaw is somehow to blame – that those photos of him looking slightly chubby in downtown Manchester are somehow relevant and that, in spite of what shows on the pitch, the player does have some hidden deficiency which, if ever exposed, would create a terminal flaw in Mourinho’s side.
Yes, that must be it in fact: the Portuguese is ever so smart, ever so careful. Maybe Shaw isn’t bright enough to comprehend his manager’s instructions? After all, Mourinho has won the European Cup twice, the Premier League three times, and owns a collection of medals which provide overwhelming testament of his brilliance.
But then you think of Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah. Of Pedro Leon, Lassana Diarra and Kaka. You also recall that Shaw did just fine under Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton and that Mourinho, at around about the same time, had just finished pretending that Fabio Coentrao was superior to Marcelo.
One of the happier interviews the Portuguese has given recently came after the 2-1 defeat of Liverpool at Old Trafford. He wasn’t happy per se, Mourinho never steps completely out of his Dark Jose costume, but there was no wild-eyed conspiracy this time. He was normal. Utterly miserable, joyless and dull, but still normal.
And then there was Paul Pogba! Walking past the interview at just the right time, publicly congratulating his manager (who had spent the preceding weeks chiseling away at his professional reputation). “All must be well between them, then”, we were all invited to think.
Strange, because such spontaneity doesn’t really tally with Mourinho’s known operating procedure. More than tactical control over his team, he craves authority over his football club. His desire to manipulate the media message during his time at Real Madrid, for instance, was so pronounced that – according to reports and also the sequence of events listed in Diego Torres’s fine book covering the period – the actual football became a secondary concern. What was actually happening was less important than what people thought was happening.
Viewed from that perspective, the Pogba encounter seems suspiciously like a PR construct – a plotted scenario which served everyone’s interest. Pogba was the model professional in that moment. He was unconcerned by his individual situation, properly invested in the fate of his team, and entirely supportive of his manager. For Mourinho, it restored a certain gleam: “the superstar and his ego are back in check” you and I thought, “Mourinho really can command elite players.”
Elite players. At this club… or maybe even another.
But maybe that’s too conspiratorial. Maybe it’s Ickeian to believe that Mourinho does absolutely nothing by accident and that he places as much importance on the newscycle as the score. Mourinho’s time at Chelsea and Real Madrid certainly documented his propensity to mishandle star players. So much so that, for a chief executive of any superpower club, employing him must now look like a huge risk. The recent sequence of events at United has restated that threat: Mkhitaryan has gone, Alexis Sanchez looks frustrated and moody, and Pogba’s shows of irritation are more frequent than his goals.
But, at just the right time, Pogba’s over it. Thank goodness. How reassuring… for that oil state mulling over their next shortlist.
The mistake with Mourinho, always, is to assess him with anything other than an abstract mind. As natural as it is to wonder about Luke Shaw’s shortcomings as a player or whether Pogba is at his best on the left of a midfield-three or at the tip of a diamond, those are purely footballing issues – and, as such, really beside the point. Mourinho’s objective is not silverware, nor winning games or entertaining fans. Instead, it’s employability: whether a team succeeds or fails, whether players like him or loathe him, his raison d’etre is to ensure that his time at a club is presented in the best possible light, that his assumed mastery of the sport is never in doubt, and that the world sees him in the way that he intends. When games are won, it’s because his players have followed his script. When games are lost, it’s because they’ve deviated from it or because some rogue stagehand has interfered. There is never any other outcome; mistakes are never acknowledged or accepted, smudges on the crystal are immediately polished away.
Luke Shaw, evidently, has fallen foul of that. He is scenery in this play. He’s part of the broader explanation – like the referees, the rates of spending, and the fixture schedule, he’s a fake tree to hide behind, a false moustache which can be hastily applied. Where there is Mourinho, there is always a cluttered stage and a narrow spotlight.