Analysis: No trust and no patience, can Jose save the Man United dressing room from another 'Mourinho season'?
If there is still some debate about whether Jose Mourinho’s “bad third season” is a genuine problem or a mere product of coincidence, one thing is certain about the current situation at Manchester United. Everything that could possibly be put in place to set up that bad third season is there, as was so pointedly indicated by the Portuguese’s sour mood after the FA Cup final.
Mourinho doesn’t even have the positive of a second-season title, the previously customary victory that has always vindicated his “emotionally intense” managerial approach. That is why the FA Cup has developed even more importance in defeat. The hard edges of this trying season did not have a soft landing. They did not have the release of victory, that suddenly makes everything seem so much better. Existing issues always feel so much worse in such circumstances, and some of those have worsened here.
While there is not quite widespread disgruntlement in the squad, there is disquiet, with the majority of the players constantly on edge because of the mood a regularly surly Mourinho creates.
He has naturally been in surlier mood since Wembley, and barely spoke to his squad or United employees after the game, having done the bare minimum in a prickly post-game press conference.
And this is the main thing. It is not that the players are feeling mutinous, as has been the case at Real Madrid and Chelsea. It is that Mourinho doesn’t completely trust so many of them.
This is where the potential for problems most lies, and this is best indicated by his current attitude to some of the players who have been proper soldiers for him; who he had so talked up.
Along with Nemanja Matic and David De Gea, for example, Romelu Lukaku had been one of United’s best performers and one of those Mourinho was most happy with over the long last eight months. In the space of a mere two weeks, though, the Portuguese has become irritated by how the Belgian was not ready for the FA Cup final. The unsaid suspicion lingers that Lukaku was too conscious of ensuring he was right for the World Cup.
Eric Bailly has previously been described by Mourinho as a centre-half with the talent to soon be the best in the world, but that belief hasn’t stopped him being frozen out over the last few weeks. Even the other United players have been puzzled, particularly given the manager claimed it was to allow his other defenders to make their World Cup squad. Club sources say Mourinho has become fed up at how often he can’t pick Bailly, for a variety of reasons. The United boss is said to have become so annoyed that he wouldn’t be against selling the Ivorian this summer, as he targets Tottenham Hotspur’s Toby Alderweireld in his place.
There was then someone he lionised in last season’s Europa League run in Marcus Rashford. Mourinho is losing patience. He is said to just be frustrated that, given his talent, Rashford is not closer to a fully-formed centre-forward.
That is naturally difficult for a youngster of that age, but not as difficult as it is to escape the fact that so many of these problems come back to core themes of Mourinho’s career, core arguments for why those bad third seasons happen.
It is so often said that the Portuguese doesn’t trust in youth, doesn’t properly build or plan for the medium to long term, because his question of what players can do for him “now” ultimately overtakes all. This is why it is the case that so many talented attackers are drummed out after one bad game, with little time to breathe, only to be abruptly put in just as quickly. There is little patience.
There is then his evident lack of patience for these fitness issues.
The word most commonly used in Mourinho’s transfer discussions is “warriors”. He wants a much stronger mentality, in a squad he feels is much more psychologically weak than he would like. He wants those players who are willing to play through the pain, of the type he had his greatest successes with at Porto, Internazionale and his first Chelsea side.
There is a fair debate to be had over whether that type of player really exists to anything like the same degree. Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have had many differences, but this is one thing they might greatly agree on. After one of his last Arsenal games, Wenger was having a drink with colleagues, and spoke of his frustration at how difficult it is to get a response out of modern players. He just feels they’re so different to his first few squads at Arsenal, and require more indulging… a different approach.
The problem for these giants of the 2004-05 is that, in 2018, managers like Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino don’t seem to have such difficulties in getting those responses. It might be down to something as simple as these are the personality types Guardiola and Pochettino first came across as managers, so this is just what they’re accustomed to, but it has created complications for Wenger and Mourinho.
For everything that happened with Dr Eva Carneiro at Chelsea, the departure of Mourinho's great warrior Didier Drogba that same summer was said to be just as significant. The Ivorian knew Mourinho well, and loved him, but also knew that he needed to explain to the younger players how the Portuguese worked. Drogba knew he needed to let some of them know that, if the boss castigated them, it wasn’t necessarily the end-of-days judgement on them they thought. He was a key buffer.
The very popular Rui Faria was said to serve a similar role at United, and he is going now too. This is one other reason why Mourinho’s lack of trust in players could have much more consequence in 2018-19.
New assistant Michael Carrick could feasibly fill that role, but he is not part of Mourinho’s circle. He is someone admired by the club in general.
That is not to say it will lead to other problems, but Carrick can’t possibly be expected to do what Drogba or Faria did, given he has only worked with the Portuguese for two years.
The blunt reality is that those two years at Old Trafford have left Mourinho no closer to anything he sees like an ideal team.
He still wants those four or five or final signings - except that was very much the message last summer, and in 2016. The squad has not been moulded to his image. In that regard, the bottom line is that there are already more fault-lines in this squad than there was in Chelsea 2006, Real Madrid 2012 or Chelsea 2015.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they will give way to fissures, and Mourinho’s current mood will of course gradually give way to readiness for next season. This sourness won't last. Take Lukaku. Those who know the situation well say this FA Cup final issue will be forgotten, and that his specific qualities have made him far too important to Mourinho’s system. They also point to how it was very similar with Eden Hazard in 2014, only for the Belgian to them fire him to the title.
United are not expected to do that, and there is now an acceptance around the club that City are so far ahead as a side, but Mourinho is expected to get four to five main signings in. They will likely be Alderweireld, Willian, Fred and/or Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and one of Kieran Tierney or Alex Sandro.
Those purchases would greatly bring up the average age of the squad, and maybe bring it up to the level of competitiveness Mourinho would like.
Whether it can finally represent a third way for the Portuguese in a third season remains to be seen.
The United squad looks as much set up for one of those campaigns, as it does for a proper title challenge.
Independent News Service