It feels entirely erroneous to describe a 31-cap England international and recent club captain as ‘deadwood’ but that is precisely what Chris Smalling has become under Jose Mourinho.
The same thinking can be applied to Luke Shaw, a full-back once destined to enjoy a long and distinguished international career and who would be heralded as a bright star for Manchester United’s present and future under another manager. For Mourinho he is surplus to requirements.
Yet such has been the twists and turns of United’s summer it is not inconceivable that both will feature for the Reds once again this coming season as they challenge on four fronts and look to fully utilise their squad. Smalling is currently the subject of serious interest from a number of Premier League clubs and an initial glance at Mourinho’s defensive options reveals an impressive array of alternatives should he depart.
Yet assuming Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof are the rocks from which 2017/18 will be founded on that leaves Rojo who is expected to be out until the winter, an injury cursed Phil Jones, and a player in Daley Blind who is routinely targeted by opponents for his lack of pace.
Even factoring in Mourinho’s annoyance last term at Smalling’s ‘cautious’ recovery from a knee problem that suggests when push comes to shove, and the fixtures mount up, it is to the 27-year-old where he’ll turn.
A similar accommodation might be required regarding Luke Shaw, a player who made just 13 appearances last season and seemingly all of them followed by a jibe of some form from Mourinho’s waspish tongue. With that in mind many expected the young left-back to be drummed out of Old Trafford this summer as part of a much needed overhaul down the defensive left flank and it’s a genuine surprise that the position has been untouched despite lavish spending elsewhere.
That though is a matter for another piece for another day; what is pertinent here is that Shaw will stay and Shaw will – for ten-plus games at the very least – play. As will talented teens Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe, whose highly promising developments have now reached the stage of put-up-or-shut-up for United.
Either they are further afforded first team action this year or loaned out otherwise run the risk of stagnation and acutely aware of this clubs such as Watford and Crystal Palace are circling for the imposing Fosu-Mensah, while the latter has only enhanced his reputation further on United’s summer tours.
Should both remain in Manchester past September 1st we can expect more game-time for each as they become assimilated into the first team squad.
Any mention of Mourinho’s distrust of youth prompts a yawn from even his biggest critics but factual evidence lies behind the cliché and in Fosu-Mensah and Tuanzebe, the Portuguese coach now stands at a crossroads with a road to Damascus one way and a well-trodden path the other. At this point in time it is looking more and more likely – perhaps out of necessity – he will choose the former.
Which offers the intriguing proposition of a coach infamously single-minded compromising on ideals that have been honed to stone throughout a managerial career that spans two decades. With Jose Mourinho there are several things that can be taken as gospel and two of them are that he distrusts the imperfections of youth and once he loses faith in individuals their future lies elsewhere. By next May these truths may need to be reassessed.
In Smalling and Shaw compromise may be needed and Mourinho really doesn’t do compromise. In his two nineteen year old prospects trust in their ability is required and Mourinho is hardly a man who gambles on his instincts.
They say you can’t teach an old man new tricks. We may very well see that axiom disproven at Old Trafford in the months ahead.