“Football heritage.” The game’s lexicon has been expanded further in the past month thanks to Jose Mourinho’s spectacular broadside at the media following Manchester United’s exit from the Champions League.
The blame for the 2-1 home loss to Sevilla which had cast a pall over United’s season was largely ascribed to Mourinho and Mourinho alone, and the manager came out fighting.
But while his decision to shout back at some of the personal criticism only to then openly blast many of his players over a sensational two-day period hasn’t sat particularly well with most onlookers, it wasn’t all mad rambling that the Portuguese had to offer as a defence for his side’s European failure.
United’s stunted attacking approach appeared to be the most obvious reason for their defeat, yet Mourinho’s complaint regarding the squad he inherited is a salient point in his constant battle to get what he wants out of his players.
The underlying problem for the Portuguese is that this group has not been built in his vision. In truth, it has not been built in anyone’s vision. Disregarding youth-team products, Mourinho has 22 players at his disposal. Of those he has signed just seven, with the same number brought in by Louis van Gaal, two added by David Moyes and six still remaining from the Sir Alex Ferguson era.
While no manager would wish to throw out everyone and start again from scratch, bosses need to be given the opportunity to bring in players who can work within their strategy with little effort. But what Mourinho has instead is the most fractured squad in the top six.
Arsene Wenger has obviously signed every one of the current players at Arsenal, but even Antonio Conte, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola have had a bigger say in the current make-up of their respective squads than Mourinho has at United.
Many of Mourinho’s detractors point to the amount of money he has spent since arriving at Old Trafford in 2016, but the spend is of immaterial consequence compared to the true impact. Signings made by Ferguson and Van Gaal account for a staggering 59% of the United squad right now, and the playing styles of those two managers were very different indeed. Not to mention the job that Mourinho now wants to get out of them is itself from an alternative perspective.
Expensive purchases like Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku naturally court headlines, but they are still only one person in and of themselves. When it comes to their manager setting out a game plan, one individual can only do so much in making up for the shortcomings of others and that is why the injection of multiple players can make such a big difference when a boss wants to set foundations in place.
Even looking at Sir Alex’s record at United it is clear to see that the more players he was allowed to bring in whom he believed could best represent his ideas on the field, the closer they got to being a force. By the time United won their first league title under the legendary Scot in 1993, they had 15 of his transfer market swoops compared to just three of his predecessor Ron Atkinson. Suddenly, Mourinho’s seven looks even more minute.
Also in that time Ferguson had spent relatively big for that period. In bringing Mark Hughes back to the club from Barcelona in 1988 he broke the club’s transfer record by spending £1.8 million, and just a year later would hand over the second-highest fee in British football history to add Gary Pallister from Middlesbrough for £2.3m which was also the most paid for a defender.
In this context, Mourinho is still in the early part of his overhaul at Manchester United and needs to be handed some rope. Yes, some of his treatment of the players at his disposal has been questionable. Yes, his style of play is not going to win him too many new fans. But this need to judge him by his first major failure as United boss when he has been working with such a slapdash group of players is doing nobody any favours.
If the United squad looks like a group of individuals with no distinct game-plan, that is at least in part because that is exactly how they have been constructed. And when the board handed Mourinho the reins they did so in full knowledge of the need to rebuild while also picking up some silverware along the way. So far he has done exactly that.
When he said of Sevilla: “Do you think they didn’t have any players who could play in my team? In Sevilla, there are many players who would play in my team,” he wasn’t so much lauding their natural qualities over those of his own squad but more suggesting that they would be a better fit for the job he wants to get out of United. Thus far he has gained inconsistent results in such situations exactly because a large percentage of his group has not been signed with his type of football in mind.
Jose is undoubtedly stubborn, and if another situation like the Sevilla tie presents itself again during his United career he may well set his players out with exactly the same sort of approach. But maybe by then he will have had a greater say in which players he has in his squad, and as a consequence the result is more likely to be a favourable one.
Right now he has horses for four very different courses. This United is still a long way from being Mourinho’s United.