Manchester United’s bench on Saturday against West Brom was something to behold. Only Wayne Rooney was used in the second half as they searched for a crucial goal in the 0-0 draw, with an otherwise defensive look to the substitution options leaving Jose Mourinho with little to offer.
Besides sub keeper Sergio Romero there was utility back Daley Blind, full-backs Matteo Darmian and Timo Fosu-Mensah, and youth-teamers Axel Tuanzebe and Matty Willock. Every other first-team body was either in the starting XI or unavailable.
All except Luke Shaw, that is.
Shaw was among a group of non-starting squad members sent out for an impromptu post-game training session on the Old Trafford turf, and it was hard not to wonder whether this was the last time he would be seen in the arena wearing Manchester United colours given the press conference Mourinho had held just moments before.
In throwing ahead to Tuesday’s Premier League clash with Everton, the manager fired his latest public warning to the 21-year-old.
“It’s difficult for him to be on the bench because I cannot compare him with Ashley Young, with Darmian, with Blind,” Mourinho said. “I cannot compare the way he trains, the way he commits, the focus, the ambition. I cannot compare. He is a long way behind.”
There is simply no good news for Shaw these days. Even when Mourinho proclaimed him as potentially United’s best full-back in March his words carried a sly dig.
“I think the one that should be in a couple of years the best of all, because potentially he should have all the conditions to be the best of all, is Luke Shaw.
“By age, by physicality, by intensity, by being aggressive going forward, he should be the best. But to be the best you need to work hard. It's what he's trying to do.”
That followed an earlier statement that the youngster’s effort in training was part of the problem.
“Luke has to wait for his chance. He has to work better and better knowing that I give nothing for free.
“When I give something to the players it’s expensive for them, it's not cheap it is expensive they have to work really hard every day. They have to play well, so he has to wait.
“In this moment he is behind the others.”
It has fast become the outstanding sub-plot of a season in which both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial have previously felt the effect of not doing things the way Mourinho wants. The manager has set the bar for inclusion in his plans, but Shaw continues to fall short.
Speaking to people close to events on the training ground, it is easy to see why Shaw might be finding it difficult to step up to the task. Some have questioned his attitude, others wonder whether he is completely concentrated on the job at hand. There is a school of thought, though, that it is the player’s tendency to take things to heart that has affected him in his attempts to respond to the challenge laid down by the manager.
But what of Mourinho’s man-management in all of this? Why is an experienced football manager – and moreover a middle-aged man of some authority – making things so difficult for a young man who is clearly finding things difficult? Surely it would be in the best interests of both United and Mourinho for him to go easy on Shaw if he is of a persuasion not to respond so well to the tough love he is currently receiving?
It is little over 18 months since Shaw suffered a horrific leg break in the United cause, and while his body has largely recovered, his mind clearly has not. Mourinho’s inability to help Shaw get back to the level which prompted United to spend £30 million on him in 2014 says as much about the manager as it does the player.
Mourinho tried a public declaration in the autumn to coax a response out of Shaw and it didn’t work. He gave it another go in February and the result was the same. So what is the use in continuing with the very open assault on a young man struggling to gain confidence and belief in his game?
The left-back has undoubtedly fallen short on the pitch, and by all accounts the same is true on the training field. But Mourinho is not reaching the required mark as a manager if his unnecessarily outspoken view on Shaw’s travails only push the player further and further away from the level he once played at.
Shaw could well end up asking to be offloaded this summer, and if he does it will be a huge failure on Mourinho’s part.