“I knew that was coming… Do you know how many young players I promote to the first team from academies? Forty-nine! If any one of you is interested I can give you [a list].”
Jose Mourinho came armed with notes when he first arrived at Old Trafford as Manchester United so clear was he that people were going to ask about his general refusal to give youngsters a chance. Whether at Chelsea, Inter or Real Madrid, he had failed to satiate the desire to promote youth despite delivering major trophies with regularity.
Academy players were perceived not to have been given a chance as the Portuguese’s short-term approach was given precedence over the need to give the club’s young assets the chance to show their worth. Millions were spent on the likes of Ricardo Carvalho, Hernan Crespo, Lucio and Diego Milito while a raft of fresher, cheaper options were available.
If your name is Timothy Fosu-Mensah or Marcus Rashford, you might need some persuading that things are about to change at United. The Dutch 19-year-old found his progression under Louis van Gaal stunted last season after the Portuguese arrived, while Rashford has seen two massive signings made in two summers in his position in 34-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic and now £75 million Romelu Lukaku.
But accusations of short-termism appear massively misplaced. Mourinho’s push for ready-made winners might well have thrust him regularly into the transfer market, but there is a notable percentage of signings over the manager’s career which have been made with time on the player’s side.
In his first summer as Chelsea boss in 2004 Mourinho oversaw the additions of 22-year-old Petr Cech, 20-year-old Arjen Robben and 23-year-old Tiago Mendes, and it is a trend he has continued elsewhere. When he arrived in Madrid, Sergio Canales, Angel di Maria, Pedro Leon, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil cost almost €65m between them but were also all 23 or younger.
Now at United he is showing that while the ready-made academy might not be filled with the kind of players he is after just yet, his desire is to provide for the club’s future. His first signing at the club last summer saw 22-year-old Eric Bailly added to the roster. The transfer saga of 2016 cost United a world-record £89.5m, but Paul Pogba was 23 and ready to dedicate his best years to the cause.
He has followed those up at the beginning of year two with similar additions. Victor Lindelof is still only 22, and Lukaku has only recently turned 24. It might have cost the United board millions of pounds they can afford, but Mourinho has given the first-team squad the kind of youthful look fans like to see.
The fact that Mourinho has yet to last beyond three years at a club has not helped him when warding off criticism regarding his attempts to build dynasties, but if given the opportunity to stick around at United he could yet show that string to his bow. The 54-year-old likes to develop trust in players, and that is not something which happens overnight.
In truth, he cannot be truly judged on his record with developing youth players until he has truly been given the time to do so. Even Sir Alex Ferguson’s famed ‘Class of 92’ graduated six years after he took the Manchester United job and only became the heart of his first team another three years on. Why do people expect Mourinho to be able to do the same in a third of the time?
United’s youth setup is currently struggling on a general level due to the impact of neighbours City cornering the market with their very modern approach to recruitment, and academy chief Nicky Butt has the unenviable task of bringing the club’s setup up to speed. Mourinho certainly has a role to play in helping to ensure the opportunities at the end of the process are there, but it is a long-term project which will take some years to resolve.
Shortly before leaving the club last autumn, under-23 boss Warren Joyce insisted that too many United youngsters expected easy passage into the senior ranks and were in need of a wake-up call. Making it that far should be the start of the journey rather than the time to relax and just expect to be given the opportunity. At Manchester United you must earn the right to be in the first team, not just be handed the privilege, and it is important that Mourinho brings back that ethos.
In the meantime, the first team squad is getting younger and better. When the likes of David de Gea, Luke Shaw, Jesse Lingard, Pogba, Lindelof, Bailly, Anthony Martial, Rashford and Lukaku are included in a United XI this season with an average age well shy of 25, Mourinho will have every right to re-raise the question of his tendency to give youth a chance.
The academy issue is one which will take some years to address, but the manager is going the right way about protecting United’s future in targeting the best young players the world has to offer.