Only seven Man United players are safe as Jose Mourinho considers summer clear-out
Within Old Trafford, they’d already noticed a wild swing in Jose Mourinho’s demeanour, and his outlook.
There was no gallows humour about denying Manchester City the party they wanted. There was no joking about their confirmation as the best team coming in the worst way. Mourinho has bigger concerns, and it could lead to big problems for some of United’s players.
The talk is that the Portuguese has had it with many of them, and very few are safe in the summer. Mourinho would be willing to consider the sale of pretty much any players bar David De Gea, Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic, Jesse Lingard, Ashley Young and Juan Mata. They are currently the only ones who have his full trust.
United sources are keen to point out that such swings have been a trend of Mourinho’s time so far, and that his moods have been greatly influenced by the most recent big results. That has led to transfer plans drastically changing from month to month - in a way that just wouldn’t happen at Manchester City now due to their approach - and it is possible that victory over Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup semi-final at the weekend could cause another reversion.
It’s just that this week’s swing stood out all the more because it was in-keeping with more intense extremes.
United went from the joyously rousing performance against City to the dismally flat display against West Brom. They went from beating the top team in the league to losing to the bottom team. They went from heroically denying Pep Guardiola’s side the title to so meekly handing it to them.
And, perhaps most pointedly, they went from looking so exciting against City to so exceedingly dull and lifeless against West Brom.
The deeper question is thereby not who Mourinho will buy or sell, but how they can so readily go through such extremes. How could they so quickly lose any verve from the City match, any spirit of optimism.
It is impossible not to think that much of the searing second half of that 3-2 win was circumstantial, as has been the case with pretty much all of United’s statement performances. While it was Mourinho’s pride stung before the Chelsea and Liverpool wins, it was the players’ pride stung at half-time of the City game. They were undeniably driven by that, and released by the nature of the game and the requirement to come back.
This is by no means to say that Mourinho had little effect, since the players did directly respond to his half-time words, and that did show that he has a hold over the team. There is currently no issue with his 'psychological' or 'emotional' management of the side, something that had been a fear.
There still may be a big issue with his management of the side’s attacking, though, something that has now gone beyond a fear before he got the job to a fully-fledged problem.
So many arguments have been made about this topic, and a lot of the same points about how Mourinho works have been repeated, so it is perhaps worth going into how the team actually works; just why it is that this happens.
Those who have worked with the Portuguese and know him well say he still is a “defensive genius”. The organisation there remains supreme.
The organisation beyond that area is not supreme, though, and this abstract talk about the lack of modern co-ordination has a concrete effect. It is also deeply linked to that defensive outlook.
Fundamentally, the requirements of a Mourinho backline mean that full-backs aren’t really allowed to attack in many matches, in a way that has become standard at the top level. This wouldn’t be a problem if the Portuguese played with proper wide men, but United don’t really do that, either.
The effect of this can be seen in a hugely frustrating pattern of play that is itself seen far too often when United play. It is when Antonio Valencia has the ball in a promising position in the opposition half.
The nature of the modern game means that happens quite a lot, but so does the following. Because of the way that United are set up, and because of that key lack of drilled attacking co-ordination, there is very little movement in front of Valencia. There certainly isn’t the “red arrows” co-ordination that Arsene Wenger’s best Arsenal sides used to such effect, unless it’s one of those days when United are properly revved up and it all seems to come off instinctively.
When that isn’t the case, and that now feels like it’s most games, Valencia is forced to go outside. He will then try drill a cross that is blocked, and the move will usually break down.
That isn’t such a problem if you have proper creators in the middle, who can create something out of nothing, and United do have that. The issue is that Mourinho doesn’t have the patience to indulge them. With players like that, there has to be a certain risk in the sense of allowing them to keep trying things, but it doesn’t seem like it’s in the Portuguese’s nature to allow that.
Either they do it relentlessly, or they’re hooked, and abruptly dropped.
At United alone, this has happened with Juan Mata, this has happened with Anthony Martial. this has happened with Henrikh Mkhitaryan… and it’s now happening with Paul Pogba.
The Pogba situation is all the more interesting, and all the more fraught, because of what it represents. Some who have worked with Mourinho say he primarily sees central midfielders as strong players to set up a beachhead, mainly there for tackles and aerial dominance. “He would play three Nemanja Matics if he could,” one source says.
There is however a feeling that Pogba was signed because Mourinho was actually specifically conscious of this, and wanted to break out of it. He wanted to evolve his midfield idea… but then can’t truly let himself go and reverts to type.
This is one reason why the Pogba situation has grown. These are many reasons why United keep swinging to such extremes.
It is the chaos of certain games against Mourinho’s sense of control.
Others around the Portuguese and the club argue that things would be different if he had two or three key players he requires. A stronger defence would allow them to push up higher and with more confidence, a midfield passer like a peak Michael Carrick - or a current Toni Kroos - would allow more fluidity, and a winger like Ivan Perisic would have allowed that play out wide that they require and that becomes so conspicuous by its absence.
Mourinho right now wants two central midfielders and another attacker, but that could drastically change again depending on how the season ends.
That itself will be dependent on the FA Cup semi-final, and who knows what that will bring. It would be in-keeping with the nature of the season to see another swing.
The underlying reasons for it, however, won’t change.
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