Jose Mourinho trying to crush the belief he can't develop young talent as he eyes United role
When Jose Mourinho embarked on his first pre-season tour after returning as Chelsea manager in the summer of 2013, with a fresh surge of optimism at the club and brave plans for the future, there was one issue that nagged away at his patience every time it was raised.
It was the notion that when it came to young players, Mourinho was simply not interested in giving them their chance – a policy that conflicted with the stated intent of a club who had poured more resources than any other into their academy over the previous eight years.
What was the point of having the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Ryan Bertrand, Bertrand Traoré, Nathaniel Chalobah and Marco van Ginkel – all on that particular tour – if he was never going to use them?
He was asked about it before the team played in Jakarta, and his answer set the template for his response every time the same question was asked over the next 2½ seasons – Mourinho disagreed with the basic premise. “Any time I have had young players with the ability to become top players and play for the first team,” he said then, “any time I had that, I picked them. I did it everywhere I worked.”
Come this summer and Mourinho will hope that he is on tour somewhere else, refining a new club. It should be said that for the first time in 27 years in football his path is not clear, and while Manchester United look the most obvious destination they are yet to make a move that would give any clear indication they see Mourinho as Louis van Gaal’s successor.
There is an issue at play for Mourinho, and the understanding is that it has gone beyond an irritation to become something that he believes is damaging the reputation that he has nurtured since he took his first steps in football as a youth team coach at Vitoria de Setubal in 1989. That is the criticism he does not select, develop and integrate young players into his teams, and that it may yet cost him the United job.
Certainly, the issue has been considered serious enough that Mourinho’s old confidante from his Benfica days, Eladio Parames, a former press officer and journalist, wrote a defence of his friend’s record in the Daily Star last month. Parames, hardly trying to disguise his ultimate target, wrote: “Does anybody believe that [Marcus] Rashford would play if Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial and Marouane Fellaini weren’t also in the Carrington Hospital [sic]?”
Even Mourinho’s staunchest allies would not try to make the case that he developed any young talent during his second spell at the Chelsea, although it would be fair to say that the career of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, for instance, did not exactly sprout wings as soon as Guus Hiddink took over.
As for Mourinho, he has a very different view of what constitutes successful youth development at a club such as Chelsea or Real Madrid.
He would argue that Kurt Zouma, a £12 million signing from St Etienne, was his development success. The same for Raphaël Varane, signed by Real Madrid for £8 million, aged 18, from Lens, whom he championed, or his decision at Chelsea in 2004 to promote a 22-year-old Petr Cech, signed from that summer for £7 million from Rennes, ahead of Carlo Cudicini.
Counting against Mourinho were the decisions in his second spell at Chelsea to sanction the departures of De Bruyne and Lukaku in particular, as well as Bertrand, and three years on from that summer tour all three would be considerable additions to the current Chelsea squad.
At Real Madrid, he gave debuts to around 18 academy-produced players although it should be said that many of them would be able to walk down the Paseo de la Castellana untroubled by the locals. Such as the midfielder Álex Fernández, currently on loan at Reading, who made one substitute appearance in the league in 2011, or the goalkeeper Fernando Pacheco, currently at Alavés, who made one Copa del Rey appearance for Madrid.
On the flip side, Mourinho can say that he gave first starts to Casemiro and Jesé Rodriguez both of whom played against Wolfsburg in the Champions League on Tuesday. So too the defender Nacho, now a Spain international who was given his debut in Mourinho’s first season at the club. Álvaro Morata, now at Juventus and one of Europe’s leading strikers, was another Mourinho debutant.
There was no tokenism about his championing of Morata who, in March 2013, aged just 20, was selected to play against Barcelona. Others Mourinho picked, like Jose Rodriguez, 17 when he faced Ajax in 2012, and the youngest player the club have fielded in the Champions League, disappeared quickly. Mourinho will say he did what he could at a club who hardly prioritise the patient development of teenage talent and that 18 debuts is more than most Madrid coaches manage.
The further back you go in Mourinho’s career, the better his record at developing talent. At Inter Milan he played Davide Santon at 17 and there were other less successful attempts in his two seasons there to try young players. At Porto, it was different again where he selected the injury-prone teenager Bruno Moraes and then his fellow Brazilian Carlos Alberto, the latter of whom was just 19 when he scored in the 2004 Champions League final.
It is not a record that gets close to, say, that of Sir Alex Ferguson, or the great Barcelona home-grown generations, but the problem Mourinho has now is the perception he is dogmatically opposed to selecting young players. It follows him around relentlessly and a man who has cultivated his image in football as assiduously as Mourinho, he knows only too well the danger of being marked out as a manager with a blind spot for the promise of a young player.