It’s hard to know what is going through Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho’s mind.
Calling out Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw for withdrawing from United’s victory over Swansea City was harsh.
Both have been receiving pain-killing injections to play.
Sunday’s 3-1 win at Swansea was a timely boost for United ahead of the international break, albeit not one that entirely lifted the manager’s mood.
Mourinho explained before the match that England defenders Smalling and Shaw did not feel in a condition to play at the Liberty Stadium, making them the most likely targets of his barbed post match comments.
The United manager said there were those who are brave and “ones for whom a little pain can make a difference,” saying you have to “go to the limit” to compete.
The impact in the dressing room will extend far wider than the two players who were criticised.
The United squad are already questioning their manager’s level of engagement in training, and embarrassing those who have played through pain would raise more eyebrows.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe the United manager has 16 years of experience in the dugout and a clutch of trophies that include two Champions Leagues.
He has taken to saying and doing things that even a rookie coach would avoid.
It is hard to see things ending well at Old Trafford if it carries on like this.
England manager Gareth Southgate meantime, has no doubt that Smalling and Shaw were injured, despite Mourinho appearing to question the validity of the United defenders’ absence.
The questioning of the players’ pain threshold would suggest they were only suffering minor issues, so Smalling and Shaw were conspicuous by their absence when Southgate named his England squad later that day.
The interim Three Lions boss said it was a “club matter” yet has no doubt the duo are injured, ruling them out of the Scotland and Spain matches.
“They didn’t play [against Swansea], though, so there’s a medical issue,” Southgate said. “Chris hasn’t played for the last four games. We have really good relationships, medical-to-medical, with all clubs.
“I’ve got great trust in our medical team that they’ll make the right calls. Obviously it’s a difficult one because I don’t know the reason for the comments Jose’s made.”
Smalling has been dealing with a foot complaint of late, while Shaw has been suffering with discomfort in the leg that was so horrifically fractured in two places back in September 2015.
Such issues are understood to have flared up over the last week, causing the left-back a problem during Thursday’s 2-1 Europa League defeat at Fenerbahce.
ESPN reported that Mourinho, though, appeared irked to have been informed by Shaw of his unavailability on the morning of the Swansea match, yet Southgate says there was “obviously something wrong” with both players.
“I don’t know Chris well but that wouldn’t be my impression, having worked with him,” the interim boss said when asked if Smalling and Shaw were flaky characters.
“Luke I know well and Luke’s had a really tough injury. I think very often it’s easy to look from the outside or to make judgements on people without knowing them really, really well.
Smalling has 29 senior England caps to his name, whereas injuries have restricted Shaw to just six.
The 21-year-old spoke of his desire to be involved with England this time around and get another taste of the Scotland rivalry, having played in the 3-1 win at Celtic Park two years ago.
“If he wasn’t fit to play yesterday – and he was with us in September under Sam [Allardyce] and was feeling problems with the leg – there’s clearly something,” Southgate said of Shaw.
“After an injury as severe as that, we’ve got to handle that with care as well. It’s a difficult balance to find but that’s where we have to trust our medical teams.”
Asked if he has sympathy with Shaw given last year’s serious injury, the interim manager retorted: “Would that be a suggestion Jose hasn’t, if I say that?
“Look, I think it’s so difficult with any player. Every injury is different, every individual is different. I’ve not known players not play unless there’s something. I think, having been a player, that would be my view on it.
“All players have insecurities, all of them. All players have anxiety, and confidence issues at different times. I don’t care who they are, even the best in the world. All sportsmen, even Andy Murray, everybody has performance anxiety of some sort.
“How you then control that and are able to deal with that is probably the key to you being successful.”
While coy on Shaw and Smalling’s individual issues, the interim England boss does not believe either have any issues about representing their country – even if the shirt has sometimes weighed heavy on others.
“I think players want to play for England,” Southgate said. “I have not seen any player who didn’t want to play for England.
“But that does not mean that players that play for England don’t have some anxieties about performance.
“There have been players that haven’t played as much, when I was playing, that maybe playing for England was a bit too much for them.
“But Luke’s played with us right through, Chris has had a lot of games for England, so I don’t think that is the situation for them.
“I think that they have got a moment with their club where they are not fit, and that’s ruled them out for us this time.”