Abrasive Mourinho plays his own tune
It was bound to happen. Even the staunchest José Mourinho defendant understood that the Portuguese manager comes with a guarantee of friction in the dressing room. Some supporters were surprised that it happened so soon. Don’t be. It works.
When Mourinho walked into the club last summer Bastian Schweinsteiger was immediately cast aside despite having captained Germany to the World Cup just two years earlier. Summer signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan soon followed after a disgraceful performance against Manchester City, and Luke Shaw was publicly criticised for his autumn mistake against Watford. The left-back has featured only sporadically since. Even Antony Martial, last season’s hero, has received similar treatment having suffered dips in form for much of the season.
"Even the staunchest Mourinho defendant understood that the Portuguese manager comes with a guarantee of friction in the dressing room. Some supporters were surprised that it happened so soon. Don’t be. It works."
Mourinho views the approach as risk-free. If the player is unwilling to adjust to the manager’s ethics on work-rate and fitness then he is of little use. If, like Mkhitaryan, the player comes to terms with Mourinho’s demands then star and manager will get on just fine.
It is a little more complex for fans. The strategy is fraught with possible disappointment. Having been United’s best outfield player last season, what happens if Martial packs his bags and raises a metaphorical finger at José on the way out? The potential loss would be immeasurable.
Still, if there is one thing that Mourinho is better at than most, its player manipulation. Then there’s the social situation which Mourinho understands like few others. United is the best supported football club in the world, and the most covered. Inevitably it ups the pressure on players singled out for Mourinho’s treatment.
In signing Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimović, Mourinho now has two of the strongest personalities in world football in his dressing room. The duo hold a similar never say die attitude and understand the importance of the manager’s work. It creates an atmosphere of superiority around the club which, if manipulated correctly, will bring the best out of others too.
That is Mourinho’s gamble. It normally works.
Former Bayern Munich midfielder and eternal Fußballmeister Schweinsteiger was frozen out on José’s arrival and was even chalked off United’s asset list in the club’s September accounts – an ‘exceptional item’ written down at a cost of £5.9 million. Mourinho’s reasoning was that his squad was already too large and that he needed to filter out deadwood.
It had been reported that many United players had been underwhelmed by Bastian’s first season at the club. Mourinho was too. The message was that no man is safe from exile, not least because José picked on the most glorified player in United’s squad.
While Schwienstieger may have moaned indirectly through former teammates and his brother, Tobias, he personally remained silent. The former German skipper turned up to training and managed to force his way back into Mourinho’s plans, first making an appearance against West Ham United in the EFL Cup at the end of November. Having received a warm reception at Old Trafford, he started against Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup last month, grabbing a goal and an assist.
Although Bastian is a long way from Mourinho’s first choice team, his reintegration into the Europa League squad is reward for perceived good behaviour.
Meanwhile, Mkhitaryan, the Bundesliga player of the season of 2015/16, was welcomed as a quality addition to the Reds’ attacking options last summer. Life at Old Trafford did not begin so smoothly. In his first start, against Manchester City, Mkhitaryan suffered a shocking first 45 before being hauled off at half time. The Armenian was not seen for two months.
Echoes of the infamous #freekagawa hashtag were prominent on Twitter, but the 27-year-old, like Schweinsteiger, worked harder to be the player that Mourinho wanted. Two months of graft later and the Armenian was reinstated to the squad and put in a string of outstanding performances, which although have dipped of late, were enough to cement his place in José’s long-term plans.
The correlation between Schweinstieger and Mkhitaryan’s redemption is the apparent strong mentality and exemplary work-rate. Although it may have seemed like Mourinho was taking a gamble by isolating both, he seemingly understood the personalities in play. For the Portuguese it was no gamble at all.
Frenchman Martial, who was so important in United’s FA Cup triumph last season, has suffered a minor case of ‘second season syndrome’. Martial’s exile only came to light after Christmas when his agent used the medium of tabloid gossip to note that Martial was “unhappy at United” and keen on a “loan move to Valencia.”
Mourinho hit back at the rumours at the end of December by arguing that Martial is a”top talent” that needs”to listen to me, not his agent.” Since then, like Schweinsteiger and Mkhitaryan before him, Martial has sealed his lips and sat on the bench without public complaint.
Earlier this month Martial ended the rumours, Tweeting simply: “Don’t listen to the papers, it’s wrong, thanks. Come on United.” And while there is a modern tendency to dissect every word uttered on social media and to overemphasize the importance, Martial couldn’t have been clearer. He’s going nowhere and is prepared to work his way back into Mourinho’s plans. Indeed, he was involved in both goals against Watford and was superb in United’s victory over Saint-Etienne.
More delicate and seemingly still ongoing is Luke Shaw’s exile. The English youngster has been on the receiving end of Mourinho’s criticism this season, and from Louis van Gaal previously, for being overweight and unfit. Shaw went on to become one of the best full-backs in the Premier League before suffering a stomach-churning leg break against PSV in the Champions League more than a year ago.
While Shaw has been fit to play for much of this season, he has been relegated to the bench or the reserves for most of the campaign. Mourinho is seemingly unhappy at the youngster’s fitness and work ethic, and has rotated one of Daley Blind, Matteo Darmian and Marcos Rojo in the position. Shaw, it seems, must work harder or face a career away from the club.
The promising left-back is yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel, he must know exactly what Mourinho requires by now. The talent is there; all that is left is the work.
Yet, Mourinho’s abrasive and confrontational approach has not always worked. In the manager’s second spell at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho received a major backlash from influential first team squad members who has grown tired of his leadership. The alleged perpetrators, Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa, conspired to put in little effort into match performances with the aim of getting Mourinho sacked. In the previous season, Chelsea had raced to the Premier League title thanks to the three aforementioned players’ outstanding form.
The lesson is obvious: Mourinho remains a corrosive personality over long periods, however, his methods, if accepted, bring success. After all, the manager is a glory hunter; he seeks silverware relentlessly. Nothing and no one is more important to Mourinho than Mourinho’s methods.
This is nothing new. Sir Alex Ferguson famously discarded players when he perceived growing arrogance and falling performances. David Beckham was one, Wayne Rooney very nearly another. To bring that team ethos back at United Mourinho might have to play by his own rules.