It’s autumn 2013 and Kevin De Bruyne has been constantly overlooked by Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, who had persuaded the midfielder the previous summer not to leave for Borussia Dortmund. The 22-year-old is being told by Mourinho through the media that he needs to work harder to earn a place in the Blues’ lineup.
“Kevin hasn’t convinced me against Swindon [in the League Cup], so he’s out of the squad,” Mourinho explained in a press conference. “Kevin has to understand that Chelsea aren’t Werder Bremen. You have to fight for your spot every single training session and every single game. The next time he plays, and he will play, he has to understand he plays for his next game.”
But the ostracism continues, and De Bruyne finds himself begging Mourinho to let him go, explaining in his autobiography ‘Keep it Simple’: “I started training harder. I lost three kilos and two per cent of my fat. But my situation never changed. That’s why I asked him in a friendly way: please let me go! At the beginning Mourinho opposed a transfer. He wanted me to fight for my place. But I told him I had a feeling I would never get a fair chance. That’s when the club started looking at a transfer too.”
Wind forward to the summer of 2015 and Mourinho is being asked about his plans for Mohamed Salah in the forthcoming season after the Egyptian had cut short his 18-month loan spell at Fiorentina just four months in.
“I see his future elsewhere, either as a loan or an offer that we are happy to accept,” the boss told Chelsea TV . “We have five players for these positions [on the wing]. It is better not to have so many.”
Salah eventually leaves Stamford Bridge on a one-year loan deal with Roma before signing a permanent contract with the Giallorossi the following summer.
Back to the present day, and De Bruyne and Salah have been tearing it up all season long. The former’s magnificent performances have led Manchester City to previously-untouched heights in the Premier League, while Salah’s 43 goals in 49 games for Liverpool have marched the Merseysiders to the brink of Champions League glory.
Yet Mourinho, the man who decided that neither had the material he was looking for at Chelsea, might be about to make the same mistake again with Anthony Martial at Manchester United.
The French forward has grown disgruntled at his lack of opportunities at Old Trafford and United fans have been left fearing that history will repeat itself, with Martial having given the go-ahead for his agent to look for interested clubs. To many, the 22-year-old is primed to excel elsewhere if given the chance to thrive more often.
“It is just football, we cannot have just 11 players,” Mourinho said in a recent press conference when pushed on the paucity of chances Martial and Marcus Rashford have had since Alexis Sanchez arrived at the club in January.
“At every club and every level, from the top of the world to the amateur football clubs, you need more than 11 players and only 11 can start. It is as simple as that. There’s nothing I can do.”
It is easy to see why some think history might be about to repeat itself.
Mourinho remains as stubborn as ever, both in his ‘no can do’ response to questions regarding players missing out on starting selection and in the insistence that they play within the rigid framework that has made his name.
“The same way I know the players better now, the players they should know me much better now,” Mourinho said in relation to Martial in spring 2017.
“The same way I know what the players like, I think the players also know what I like. The same way I have to go in the direction of the players, they also have to come in my direction and that is the point.
“Is Anthony a player with great potential? Yes. Can he play for success with me? Yes, but he needs to give things for me that I like.”
But it would seem that Martial is still not meeting that requirement, having started just twice in United’s last 10 matches heading into the trip to Brighton on Friday and made the first XI only 46% of the time since Mourinho became his manager in 2016. For a player who scored 17 goals in a debut campaign during which he started 85% of games under Louis van Gaal, it is a tremendous fall from grace.
Such is the way with some of the young flair players who find themselves playing under Mourinho, the evidence suggests. But while the 55-year-old has asked multiple of his charges to show they are willing to learn, the man himself appears not to be heeding the lesson which history has taught him.
To Mourinho the end so often justifies the means, and if United capture a title win under his stewardship then he will consider himself to have done what he was brought in to do whatever the financial or stylistic cost.
Yet it will not be enough for Manchester United supporters who have grown up with thrilling attacking football and see the potential Martial possesses for the manager to simply wave around talk of hardware should they have to sit and watch the Frenchman fulfil his promise away from Old Trafford over the longer term.
Martial has undoubtedly been massively inconsistent at times during his United career, but what youngster isn’t? He has done a lot of growing up since arriving in England at the age of 19 with a language barrier and a fractured home life to deal with.
But just as De Bruyne wasn’t to be judged on a game at Swindon alone, and Salah deserved an opportunity to climb above the likes of Juan Cuadrado, Victor Moses and Bertrand Traore in the pecking order of wingers at Chelsea, Martial has not been given the space to thrive at United.
This was always the concern for some United fans when Mourinho was appointed. The stifling of supreme talent for the sake of winning in whatever way it comes was never going to be a trade they would snap your hand off for.
And in his dealings with Martial they are seeing the representation of what their club should not be. Manchester United ought to be nurturing and developing young, expressive talent, not closing its doors to it. The fact that this episode coincides with the sensational seasons being enjoyed by a pair of Mourinho rejects in De Bruyne and Salah only heightens the fear among the Stretford Enders that should Martial leave they will be made to regret it over the long term.