The Portuguese questioned the commitment of the pair after they declared themselves unfit, but they were both within their rights to pull out.
It is not the first time this season that Luke Shaw has come in for criticism from Jose Mourinho, but at least this time he is sharing the public spotlight with Chris Smalling after the pair’s commitment to the cause was called into question by the Manchester United manager on Sunday.
“Smalling doesn’t feel that he can play at 100 per cent with his pain. Shaw told me this morning that he was not able to play,” Mourinho claimed ahead of the 3-1 win over Swansea City. “For the team, you have to do anything.”
It was a clear broadside against the England pair, and it didn’t stop there as the Portuguese went on to claim the could easily have played had they had the mentality to do so.
“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. If I were to speak with the many great football people of this team, they will say they played many times without being 100%.”
His then blatantly compared the sensibilities of Shaw and Smalling with those of Phil Jones, who was playing his first senior game in 10 months, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose fifth yellow card of the season he put down to his 100% commitment to the cause.
It is easy to understand why Mourinho would feel disappointed by the absence of Smalling, in particular given his lack of centre-back options. Jones lined up alongside Marcos Rojo – a man who prefers to play centrally but the manager has constantly referred to as a left-back and would not consider in the heart of the defence in a best case scenario.
But his decision to castigate the duo in public has to be questioned, particularly in the case of Shaw. Not only did his claim that the former Southampton full-back had broken the news on the morning of the game when it appears Shaw had not even travelled with the team, but the scapegoating of a player still recovering physically, mentally and emotionally from a devastating broken leg deserves further scrutiny.
As written in the build-up to Sunday’s fixture, too much should not be expected of Shaw at this time as he becomes familiar with the demands of top football once again. United undoubtedly need more from the left-back position than Shaw has been able to give to this point, but to publicly undermine the player’s psychological recovery is seemingly a rather harsh route to take.
He has already attracted the wrath of Mourinho following the 3-1 loss to Watford due to his lack of positioning, and a second blast would appear no more likely to garner the desired results. Many players coming back from such a horrific injury talk of overcoming the mental barrier after a clattering challenge is overcome and the mind understands finally that the body is resilient. Perhaps this will be the case with Shaw too.
Smalling, meanwhile, has missed the last four matches with a niggling injury which saw him depart the 4-1 home win over Fenerbahce at half-time. Although he subsequently played in the 4-0 loss to Chelsea, his performance attracted significant criticism as he looked well short of sharpness and he has not played since.
He, too, can be forgiven for wanting to be better prepared for football before committing himself to the cause. Given his abysmal showing at Stamford Bridge, he probably believed he would be doing more for Manchester United by staying out of the firing line than throwing himself in too soon.
Mourinho’s subsequent criticism has apparently left both Smalling and Shaw scratching their heads, while their England manager Gareth Southgate has come out in defence of the pair.
“Chris hasn’t played for quite a while and Luke has played but we’ve known he’s had ongoing difficulties coming back from a very serious injury,” said the interim national boss.
“Our medical teams – as with all the clubs – have been liaising very closely throughout the week. The decision with Luke was a bit later but we’ve been aware both have been carrying injuries.
“There’s always a line for a player. I think players want to play, generally. In individual situations you need more information to be able to comment.
“It totally depends on what the injury is – what part of the body, what are the ramifications…it’s a very individual thing.”
Mourinho obviously wants to be able to field the best Manchester United side he can at every opportunity, but eyebrows have rightly been raised by his behaviour in this case. Supporters will have arrived at the Liberty Stadium fearing the worst due to the construction of their makeshift back line, but it would have surely done nobody any favours for Smalling and Shaw to claim to be ready when they were not.
Managers rightly have concerns about how they are going to gain results without their best players, but the athletes themselves have the wider picture more centrally in their minds. They have their careers and livelihoods to consider every time they choose whether or not to play through the pain barrier.