It was telling that even after a morale-boosting victory over Swansea City last weekend, José Mourinho still felt compelled to address what he believes to be the biggest problem at Manchester United. The Portuguese alluded to what he believes are “some cultural issues, influenced by a situation that has been going on for a few years,” before controversially singling out some members of his squad. Simply put, Mourinho feels that some players aren’t giving him enough.
Mourinho is famously demanding, yet he has also inspired devotion of a degree that only a select few managers can claim to equalled. Who can forget the sight of Marco Materazzi, a famously no-nonsense and often aggressive footballer, weeping like a child on the day Mourinho departed Inter Milan?
His sides have been built around some formidable characters, the likes of which have been conspicuously absent from Old Trafford in recent years. Not least since figureheads like Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand departed the club.
[blockquote who=”José Mourinho” cite=””]The players believe in me and I believe in the players. They were influenced by some culture issues that has been going on for a few years. There is a difference between the brave, who want to be there at any cost, and the ones for whom a little pain can make a difference.[/blockquote]
As such, the mentality at United since Sir Alex Ferguson retired has been woeful – an issue that his two immediate successors were unable to deal with. The problem manifested during David Moyes’ ill-fated stewardship, with a spate of dressing room leaks and reports of petty discontent among an underperforming squad. It permeated Louis Van Gaal’s tenure too.
Throughout both periods, however, there was a lack of accountability placed on the players. Moyes could not escape the fact that his inherited side had won the league just one year previously. Van Gaal was backed heavily in the transfer market, yet he could not inspire a sustained renaissance, despite winning the FA Cup.
Moyes was a disastrous appointment and Van Gaal simply did not do enough to justify keeping his job, but both men were undermined by their players almost every step of the way.
The popular consensus was that Mourinho was the man to finally extol success from a squad that had been poorly managed. The Portuguese began brightly enough, but his side’s recent nosedive has placed him under the same microscope as his doomed predecessors. The question is, at what point does this castigation shift from manager to players?
Mourinho’s open criticism of his squad in recent weeks has been dismissed by many as a man trying to relieve the pressure. This is understandable, given the parallels with Mourinho’s ignominious exit from Stamford Bridge last year, but for the small contention that, in principle, most of what he is saying is right. Aren’t these last three miserable years sufficient evidence of a dressing room culture badly in need of an overhaul?
The “situation” Mourinho spoke of has been apparent in a series of increasingly spineless displays, not just under Moyes, but also towards the end of Van Gaal’s time at the club. It’s no exaggeration to say that some United players have carried themselves in a manner that suggests they just don’t care all that much.
Van Gaal’s already tough task was made insurmountable by players’ unwillingness to give their all. The Dutchman’s style was polarising, but it is embarrassing that there was discontent at trivial issues such as having favourite drills removed from the training schedule.
Van Gaal unwittingly fashioned a rod for his own back by promoting his now infamous “philosophy” from day one and, as results failed to materialise, the players allowed him to fall on his sword. It became a theme that nobody could explain the Dutchman’s alleged philosophy, yet the scrutiny placed on the players was far from intense.
By December 2015 the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss was already a dead man walking, with performances from too many players in the second half of the season suggesting that they had little issue with Van Gaal’s upcoming dismissal. Van Gaal was not blameless for another mediocre season, but few players emerged with credit, let alone having given everything for the manager.
Furthermore, the Old Trafford treatment room has rarely been busier than it was under Van Gaal. Mourinho has spoken of the need for players to play through the pain barrier, as many of the club’s greats will have done over the years, yet it was something that few were prepared to do for Van Gaal. The Dutchman’s successor will not accept the same thing is happening to him.
The criticism Mourinho levelled at Chris Smalling may have come back to haunt him after the defender was ruled out for with a badly broken toe, but given the drastic decline in standards at United over the past few years it is difficult to disagree with the manager’s general disdain.
In the meantime some pundits have observed ‘the Special One’ looking “glum” – some have even accused him of losing his love for the game. Mourinho’s post-Swansea comments suggest a mood stemming from the state of a club of which he so openly desired to be part.
Mourinho has surely realised that while United continues to grow in a commercial sense, it is no longer the revered footballing institution he admired from afar. Fixing the mentality within the club is a path that the Portuguese coach must walk if he is to succeed.
It is also one fraught with danger. Criticising Luke Shaw, a young man who has hauled himself back from a horrific leg break, was not the way to get this particular point across.
It is in this respect that Mourinho must be careful. His ego has clearly taken a battering since an ugly exit from Chelsea last year. There will be further bad days to come. How the two-time Champions League winner handles further setbacks will be key to his fate. And United’s.
If Mourinho is to transform the club then he must keep himself in check in a way that has often proved difficult for a single-minded coach. He is absolutely correct in highlighting the “culture issues” at United, but courting chaos will not end well.
The players have had it too easy for too long; the fans have been let down one too many times. Something has to change. And yet, Mourinho must find a way to alter the situation without waging all-out war on his team. It is a thin line to walk.