Perhaps, in private, José Mourinho will admit that Manchester United’s performance at Arsenal last Sunday was one of relentless mediocrity. In public, of course, he said something very different, defending his players and bemoaning a heavy schedule. Yet, United remained competitive against Arsenal for no more than 15 minutes at the Emirates. Then the home side took charge, with two quick goals securing the points for a beleaguered Arsene Wenger. It was a performance that should stimulate plenty of scrutiny about the manager’s approach this season – not least in his management of a squad that contains a mix of players too shattered to be effective and those too rusty to impress.
On Thursday night supporters will be afforded a rapid test of Mourinho’s strategy of resting players in recent Premier League fixtures, effectively ceding any chance of making it into the Champions League via domestic competition. The Reds should beat Celta Vigo at Old Trafford, but it is a ground where there have been too few performances worthy of a manager of Mourinho’s high repute, nor a squad that is the best paid in Europe – and most expensively assembled in the Premier League
Not that Mourinho is one for introspection. In the wake of United’s defeat at the Emirates Mourinho executed on a strategy of deflection and misrepresentation. It is truly his favourite course in times of added pressure.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Perhaps, in private, José Mourinho will admit that Manchester United’s performance at Arsenal last Sunday was one of relentless mediocrity. In public, of course, he said something very different.[/blockquote]
This season the former Real Madrid and Chelsea coach has blamed officials, pitches, his own players and fatigue. On Sunday Mourinho unveiled a new variant on a now hackneyed theme by overplaying United’s performance, crying wolf over fatigue, and bemoaning a small squad that he helped shape. In all three the manager must look inwards over the summer, if only to move forward from a season that may yet bring two trophies, but has offered too little improvement on the domestic front.
“I feared that the players could not play for 90 minutes,” Mourinho said in the aftermath of Sunday’s game. “I feared that instead of being to change Herrera and Mkhitaryan, players who played 90 minutes in Vigo, I would have to change Mata, Jones and Smalling. But they were fantastic, to play 90 minutes is fantastic.”
United’s season has certainly been lengthy, with preparations starting last July in the United States, while 59 games have now been completed during the season proper. Should United make the Europa League final in Stockholm, the squad will have played the same number of games – 64 – as Sir Alex Ferguson’s team managed in 1998/99.
Indeed, while comparisons across seasons is typically unfair – no two campaigns are the same – there is something intriguing about Ferguson’s use of his squad in United’s best campaign. In that famous season the Scot started five players in more than 50 games: Peter Schmeichel, Gary Neville, David Beckham, Roy Keane, and Jaap Stam. Another three made more than 50 appearances, including those from the bench, across all competitions, while an additional six made between 30 and 47 appearances over the season. The Scot used a tightknit rump of 14 players, occasionally augmented by Teddy Sherringham, Henning Berg and Wes Brown – and, in truth, few others.
In contrast, Mourinho has used a far larger group. Only Paul Pogba can reach 50 starts for the season, although it would be a surprise if the Frenchman did so, even if United makes the Europa final. In dead-rubbers against Tottenham Hotspur, Southampton and Crystal Palace, some of United’s star names will surely be rested.
Meanwhile, Ander Herrera, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and – probably – Antonio Valencia, will each exceed 40 starts for the season across all competitions. Another seven or eight players will probably breach 30 starts over the campaign. In contrast to Ferguson’s small group, Mourinho’s core squad is probably 22-strong, suggesting more frequent rotation than Ferguson employed in that dramatic season.
So has Mourinho rotated more, protecting his players, while bad luck and injuries have plagued the Portuguese coach during his début season at the club? Not quite. In fact when it comes to Pogba and Ibrahimovic the manager has barely offered the players a rest at all, aside from absences enforced by injury and suspension. Indeed, after both of Pogba’s injuries this season Mourinho blamed fatigue for the player’s affliction. Fatigue that he inflicted on the player. Zlatan would likely have played in every game from April onwards had he not suffered a serious knee injury.
In fact much of the manager’s heavy rotation has come later in the season, with Mourinho increasing both the number and frequency of changes as the campaign wore on. It is one approach to squad management, but perhaps not as ideal as spreading the load more evenly through the season. It is a strategy that has very directly impacted Mourinho’s justification for giving up on United’s Premier League position to focus on Europe’s second tier competition. Yet, it is also a notion Mourinho rejects, with the manager insisting, despite the data, that he has rotated less as the business end of the season came into view.
“I am proud because we have important injuries that have reduced the possibility of rotation, of turnover, of resting players, so the players are the ones that are present all the time since we have this problem,” the manager claimed on Wednesday.
“The situation is simple. Seventeen matches in seven weeks with 16 players is impossible. It’s not a gamble, it was a simple decision, based on common sense. In April and May, 17 matches with 16 players, is completely impossible. So, when we lost players it was an impossible job. It was not a gamble, just a consequence of our situation.”
The truth, of course, is more about expediency than workload. In the early part of the season, with Mourinho less familiar with his squad and less willing to trust those in whom he did not fundamentally believe, the manager changed his team infrequently. As the campaign has progressed and fatigue has become a factor – perhaps contributing to more injuries that Pogba’s alone – Mourinho has been forced to make more changes.
It was also Mourinho’s decision alone to jettison three players over the winter, even if he did not trust Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay or Bastian Schweinsteiger. The former pair brought very healthy transfer fees, but the transfers offered nothing to ease United’s workload.
Nor is Mourinho’s characterisation of United’s schedule completely accurate. The team played 14 matches across March and April, or 16 if calculated across April and May. Ferguson’s squad amassed 13 matches over March and April ’99 , and 14 in the April and May, including two Champions League semi-finals, the FA Cup final and that dramatic match against Bayern Munich at Camp Nou. Mourinho’s side will play two additional games at the back-end of the season, but Ferguson’s schedule was far more intense. The suspicion remains that the old Scot would have taken contemporary United just that little bit further.
United’s season will possibly conclude having secured England’s second tier Cup, alongside its European equal. Add the Community Shield victory over Leicester City back in August and United could complete a ‘wooden treble’ of which few at Old Trafford will brag. Mourinho is a master at amassing silverware, but his sights are surely set higher – and many supporters will view the campaign with some circumspection.
Whatever the season’s conclusion, there is unlikely to be a tickertape celebration in Manchester at the end of May. After all, it is in domestic competition on which United is judged first, and then the assault on the Champions League will come. The club has been far from the action for four painfully long seasons.
As it stands, the Reds’ Champions League future remains in doubt and it is unlikely that United will finisher higher than sixth – behind the worst Arsenal side in more than 20 years. This is not what Mourinho promised last summer. He will have to do better next year, no matter how many games the club must play.
Of course, Mourinho’s strategy could well be aimed at the long game. ‘Back me or sack me’ – over his career the Portuguese has normally secured the funds he wants to buy the players he trusts. He’ll get that again this summer. Then, there’ll be no more excuses.