Defeats in pre-season mean nothing. Even 4-1 defeats for Manchester United against Liverpool in pre-season mean nothing. Stood alone, friendly results have little lasting effect so long as you don’t allow them to.
But Jose Mourinho took the setback in Ann Arbor on Saturday and ran with it. He saw it as a chance to strengthen his hand in his battle to coax a more robust transfer campaign out of his Old Trafford superiors. The problem was that he ran far too hard and far too fast, catching everybody who wasn’t a recognised member of his first-team squad in the crossfire.
Most glaringly, he belittled the efforts of the many young players he has called up for United’s US tour. When given the opportunity to laud some of the talented class of youngsters coming through the club’s system he instead used them as cannon fodder in a bid to make a point.
“This is not our team, this is not our squad,” he fired when asked about the need for reinforcements. “We start the game with… almost half the players are not even going to belong to our squad on August 9, many of them are not going to be here. So this is not our squad.
“This is not my squad, this is not even half of my squad. This is not even 30 per cent of my squad.”
Of course, the biggest gripe here is that United are shorn of countless first-team members due to late holidays caused by their World Cup successes, as well as some who are missing as a result of injury. It is an issue which has seen United call up seven members of the youth set-up who have never previously started a senior game.
In truth, Mourinho has barely given the youngsters he brought with him on tour the opportunity to impress. Instead of handing extended minutes to the likes of Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong, Jimmy Garner, Ethan Hamilton, Mason Greenwood, Josh Bohui and Ro-Shaun Williams, the manager has instead asked those senior players who have made the trip to play the vast majority of games.
Those seven young players have totalled two starts and 219 minutes between them on the tour so far, and in the two International Champions Cup fixtures against AC Milan and Liverpool have combined for just 47 minutes of action. By contrast, the senior members have been stretched too far.
In midfield, Ander Herrera has played every minute of United’s four games to this point while Andreas Pereira has featured for the entirety save for seven minutes at the end of the draw with San Jose Earthquakes. And further up, Alexis Sanchez has played all but nine minutes of the two ICC matches due to Mourinho’s reluctance to give the younger members of the squad a decent run-out.
“Look, do you want [Sanchez] to be very happy with the players he has around him?” blasted Mourinho after the Liverpool loss. “We are not playing here to improve the team or to improve our dynamic or to improve our routines, we are playing here just to try to survive and to have some not very ugly results.
“And Alexis is the only attacking player that we have. And the poor man is there trying his best, with the frustration of somebody that wants more.”
Sanchez is not the only attacking player Mourinho has with him, but apparently he does not consider Bohui or Greenwood to be worthy or so much as recognition of their existence.
If anything, Mourinho should be allowing the youngsters the chance to offer more support rather than blaming them for their inability to provide exactly that. He has referred to them as though they are a group of kids pulled off a Los Angeles street corner rather than some of the most promising young men currently coming through United’s system.
The Portuguese is famed for his tendency to build an ‘us v them’ culture, but he should never apply that thinking to his first team versus the academy. When he talks of not having “our squad”, he is denigrating the abilities of players who are very much a part of Manchester United and should be a key element of his wider vision. Sure, they are not all ready to pull on the shirt against Leicester on the opening weekend of the Premier League season but they are all capable of doing the badge a service in pre-season fixtures.
But rather than revel in the opportunity to get a better look at what else he has available to him beyond his regular players, Mourinho has painted it as a huge inconvenience at a time when he’d much prefer to be surrounding himself with his chosen few. And, given his broadside regarding the likelihood of the club failing to recruit all the targets he identified in the transfer market, not even the board are part of the inner circle he depends on so tightly.
When singling out players for praise after Liverpool, it was all his regulars he chose for ‘sparing’ the youngsters the opportunity of playing in front of 101,000 fans. He even gave Eric Bailly special mention for standing in at the last minute for Chris Smalling and asserting that “it was not fair for Alexis, Mata and Herrera” to be playing with a bunch of kids.
“For me, Alexis, Mata, Pereira, Herrera, Darmian, Eric: these guys, for me, phenomenal. Phenomenal attitude, lots of respect for the club, and really pleased with them and their attitude.”
Some managers take every opportunity they can to protect their players from outside pressures, and particularly so with emerging talents. An inexperienced youngster can easily take criticism, whether direct or indirect, as a crushing blow.
But when Mourinho has a point to prove and difficulties to overcome he will seemingly find whoever and whatever he can to blame for the malaise. Even young players are not off limits, and using them more as a political tool in press conferences than he does as capable, trustworthy footballers out on the field is just not on.