As the saying goes you’re only as strong as your weakest link. It certainly applies in football. For all a team’s strengths, opponents will target and exploit any weakness. World’s best attack? There’s little point if the midfield can’t deliver the ball or the defence can’t keep opponents from scoring. This is the difficulty of team building, as José Mourinho is discovering.
Manchester United’s summer was nothing short of stunning and had fans dreaming of a return to the glory of years gone by. Sir Alex Ferguson worked wonders with the squads he was given, building teams that were more than the sum of their parts. The Scot has proven to be the exception, not the rule. It’s why he was the greatest manager to have graced the game. Those times and traditions are now gone.
Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly arrived to much excitement, Ed Woodward pulling off a summer of transfer redemption after successive failed windows. United’s top man capped it off by the hiring a manager of equal distinction in Mourinho. This was supposed to be the dawn of the new era, dark days left behind.
The new dawn hasn’t arrived smoothly. Despite a bright start in the Premier League, a disastrous week featuring derby defeat, Europa League embarrassment and the Vicarage Road thumping left pundits wondering whether Mourinho had lost his magic. After all, this time last week he had presided over 13 defeats in his last 31 matches as manager.
Amid the hype that United’s swaggering new signings brought also came the need for a clear out of the squad’s deadwood, including Paddy McNair, Donald Love, Will Keane, Victor Valdes, and Nick Powell. Meanwhile, several youngsters were offered regular first team football on loan elsewhere.
Yet, offloading first team players on huge salaries proved to be a huge stumbling block for the club. This is the downside of the vast money flowing through the Premier League. If an English club isn’t interested, United’s unwanted are out of reach for most of the continent’s élite – or the Reds must subsidise players’ salaries to make exits happen.
Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, Bastian Schweinsteiger and others were widely touted as available for transfer, but each earns between £70,000 and £240,000 per week. There are few rivals willing to match United’s wages. It leaves Jones, Rojo and perhaps others with another season to redeem themselves; and Schweinsteiger reportedly heading to the MLS, if a contract buyout with the club is arranged.
In this the ghosts of David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal haunt the club. The players bought or retained under their watch continues to have a residual negative impact on the first team.
The impact is stark as Mourinho rebuilds: Rojo’s inability to defend, Jones’ love’s of the treatment room, Marouane Fellaini’s evident limitations, and Wayne Rooney’s inevitable physical decline. Shiny new assets are well and good, but it’s the pieces around them that have haunted United in the club’s recent dark moments.
This endless cycle results in criticism from outside and in; and a sense of underlying mediocrity that will continue until weaknesses are removed from the team. If United’s summer acquisitions are the purring engine of an expensive car, it cannot function while the gearbox remains faulty.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]As the saying goes you’re only as strong as your weakest link. It certainly applies in football. For all a team’s strengths, opponents will target and exploit any weakness. Mourinho surgically removed two on Saturday and the outcome was good.[/blockquote]
It’s that question of weakest links again. Indeed, one economic theory declares that productive tasks must be executed proficiently together in order for any of them to be of high value. Or to put this another way, according to O-Ring theory, people with similar skill levels must work together positively. If one part of the process fails, all suffer as a result. The theory explains why rich countries out produce poorer countries, and why supposedly good football teams sometimes fail.
Still, Saturday brought renewed hope, as the ecstasy of attacking football and the sweet taste of victory returned to the red side of Manchester. United became the first side in Premier League history to put four goals past a defending Champion in a half of football.
At times Moruinho’s side was scintillating, offering both one-touch passing and brilliant set piece execution. Yet, the common theme of this performance was not who was present, but arguably who wasn’t after Rooney and Fellaini dropped out of the team. It enabled the execution of a higher tempo and swift counter-attacking football.
Paul Pogba thrived alongside the superb Ander Herrera, whose passing from deep was a joy to watch. Pogba dominated the space vacated by Fellaini and particularly Rooney, offering support to a supposition many already believed. The Frenchman capped off a fine display by opening his goalscoring account with a smart header.
United’s display against Leicester City has brought new hope to a fanbase who had started to believe that another false dawn was underway. While it will take more than one thumping victory to prove Mourinho’s evolution is working, this was a hugely positive development.
Dual home clashes against FC Zorya and Stoke City could prove the point and the theory once more. Will Mourinho retain both his squad selection and the team’s style? After all, United cannot forever remain ruled by the team’s weakest links. Mourinho surgically removed two on Saturday and the outcome was good.