José Mourinho arrived to a hero’s welcome in Rome on Friday afternoon, hundreds of Roma supporters gathering at Ciampino airport to hail him. Yet the Italian capital did not belong to Roma’s new manager at 9pm on Saturday night. England were in town, ready for their Euro 2020 quarter-final against Ukraine, and a face from Mourinho’s past was about to run riot at the Stadio Olimpico.
Step forward Luke Shaw, who must have relished producing one of the finest performances of his international career on Mourinho’s new patch. Shaw was impeccable on and off the ball as England set up a semi-final against Denmark with a devastatingly assured 4-0 victory against Ukraine and it was particularly sweet for the left-back to come up with assists for Harry Kane and Harry Maguire after the recent criticism regarding his set-piece delivery from a man apparently struggling to put old differences to one side.
The barb, of course, came from Mourinho after Shaw’s performance in England’s group‑stage win against the Czech Republic. The Portuguese had offered a withering assessment of his former player’s corners, calling them “dramatically bad”, which left Shaw deeply unimpressed. After all, the 25-year-old has not forgotten how Mourinho treated him during their time together at Manchester United. The sniping was constant back then and it was telling that Shaw was more than ready to have a go back last week, questioning why Mourinho remains so obsessed with criticising him.
It is not often you hear a player that willing to take on an old boss in public. Yet Shaw had decided enough was enough. He remembered Mourinho saying: “It was his body with my brain,” after the former Southampton defender played well for United in a 1-1 draw with Everton in 2017. There was always something to pick at and it hardly spoke well of Mourinho when he observed that Shaw is a player “who cannot walk from the bed to the toilet without breaking a leg”.
Put it this way: there are probably better ways to talk about a young person whose career was in peril after a double fracture of his right leg during a Champions League game against PSV Eindhoven in September 2015. The injury understandably had a huge impact on Shaw, physically and psychologically, and it is not a surprise that he struggled to regain his best form after returning to action. It should not have taken much to realise that Shaw needed an arm round the shoulder rather than someone getting in his face all the time.
Yet Mourinho chose the aggressive approach and it was only when Ole Gunnar Solskjær stepped in at Old Trafford that Shaw began to relax. The Norwegian’s brand of man-management was more sympathetic, more human. It has had a liberating effect on Shaw, who soon had a spring in his step, giving him the confidence to start fulfilling the vast potential that convinced United to sign him in 2014.
The transformation is remarkable. Shaw was one of United’s most impressive players last season, locking down the left flank, and his performances convinced Gareth Southgate to bring him back into the England squad for their World Cup qualifiers in March.
Shaw, who had not been capped since the 2-1 defeat against Spain in September 2018, was making up for lost time. He was fitter, sharper and lighter, and he soon settled. “He hadn’t been with us for a few years,” Southgate said on Saturday. “You often play in those games trying not to make mistake instead of going and flourishing. He feels comfortable in the environment now. He knows he fits in. He feels comfortable with that.”
Southgate went on to praise Shaw’s piercing deliveries against Ukraine. It was an outstanding display, made all the more impressive by the fact that Shaw was not even a guaranteed pick for England at the start of the tournament.
The competition for places is fierce. Ben Chilwell won the Champions League with Chelsea in May and there was surprise when the right-footed Kieran Trippier started at left-back in England’s opening game against Croatia. Since then, though, Shaw has gradually made himself undroppable. Although he had a disappointing game against Scotland, he earned a second chance when Chilwell was forced into self-isolation before the win against the Czechs and he was brilliant as a wing-back in the last‑16 triumph against Germany.
Shaw has improved with each game. His level rose against Germany, his confidence growing as he began to dominate Joshua Kimmich, and he was involved in both England’s goals. He provided the cross for Raheem Sterling’s opener and combined with Jack Grealish for Kane’s clincher.
Those bursts have given England an extra dimension in attack. Shaw, whose defending has been quick and aggressive, was relentless against Ukraine. He powered up the left flank, his understanding with Sterling superb, and he was unfortunate that his low deliveries did not result in any goals in the first half.
No bother: the second half was a minute old when Shaw made his point to Mourinho, swinging in a lovely ball for Maguire to make it 2-0. It was an excellent free-kick and he was as prominent four minutes later, running on to Sterling’s glorious flick and crossing for Kane to head home.
This was a player operating at the peak of his powers. After years of self-doubt, Shaw believes in himself again. He should savour the moment.