Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderin, Henrikh Mkhitaryan: six players, almost £100 million in transfer fees, and one big falling out. For differing reasons each of the sextet could be headed out of the club, caught in José Mourinho’s demand for total commitment. Once again the Portuguese has demonstrated a single-minded drive to do things his way, one that will cost the club millions in depreciating player values. It had better be worth it.
Mourinho has been handed significant power at United, with the club eschewing any thought of bringing in a Director of Football to sit between the new manager and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. It is a gamble both on Mourinho and to not hedge on a more modern club structure.
Yet, doubts that Mourinho can succeed with his famously confrontation style stems from his eventual failure during a second spell at Chelsea. Mourinho took the west London club to the Premier League title in 2015, before Chelsea’s capitulation the following season. Mourinho was sacked after a series of disastrous results left the Blues in mid-table by Christmas.
Amid growing player angst, Mourinho’s approach bordered on self-destruction, leaving an alienated his squad, staff and club hierarchy. In the wake of Mourinho’s dismissal last December, Chelsea’s technical director, Michael Emenalo, told Chelsea TV, in a remarkably blunt interview, that the decision was “taken to protect the interests of the club.”
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The group has been caught out by José Mourinho’s demand for total commitment. It is a single-minded drive that will cost the club millions in lost transfer fees. It had better be worth it.[/blockquote]
Emenalo described a “palpable discord between manager and players,” and tellingly referred to Mourinho only as “the individual” in post-sacking interviews.
“Whilst there is huge sentiment for the individual who has done so much for the club, the fact of the matter remains that Chelsea football club is in trouble.”
Indeed, Mourinho’s final six months at Chelsea caused an inevitable reassessment of his record. Could a manager, who has won league titles in four countries and the European Cup twice, now find that his methods are out of step with the modern game? It’s a refrain familiar after Mourinho faced player rebellion not only at Chelsea last season, but at Real Madrid too.
Have lessons be learned? nPerhaps ot. Certainly, Mourinho waited little time to let some players know they would not be part of his United squad. Schweinsteiger was told that he would not be part of the first team squad last summer. Fair enough, but with United unable to move the German captain out of the club, Mourinho sent the player to train with the under-23 squad. It was a move roundly criticised in Germany and by FIFPro, the international players union.
“Schweinsteiger has been put in a situation where Manchester United are trying to force him to move on,” said Raymond Baard, the union’s chief executive. “Let him train with the first team. It doesn’t set a good example for other clubs around the world.”
It is, of course, far from the first time Mourinho has used hard-ball tactics over a player he does not want, or does not rate. Kevin De Bruyne, Juan Cuadrado, Kaka, Romelu Lukaku, Ricardo Quaresma, and Mohamed Salah can each attest to that observation.
Schweinsteiger is now featuring in first team training sessions, but is unlikely to play again before a January departure, possibly to MLS. The German has returned from the cold, it seems, simply to make up the numbers and put himself in the shop window.
“Schweinsteiger is back,” said Mourinho earlier this month. “It is a human and professional decision to bring him back to the team, and he will be much better prepared in case his future decision is to leave the club.
“It was based on the fact we are in this time of the season where it is hard to train with all the players. The group shrinks when people are injured or recovering.”
Elsewhere, Mourinho has been far less vocal about Mkhitaryan’s mysterious absence from the first team picture, although he challenged the Armenian to “do more” to earn a place in United’s first team.
Rumours that Mourinho does not believe that the former Borussia Dortmund midfielder is mentally tough enough have circulated for some time. Mkhitaryan has made just four appearances this season, although the player continues to say the right things. It may not be enough.
“There are no disappointments, just challenges,” said the 27-year-old in a recent interview with the Armenian FA’s website.
“I never stop or give up when I encounter obstacles in my way. Today I don’t have enough playing time, so I have to do all my best so the coaching staff gives me the chance to play. I know I can succeed at Manchester United and I want to show everyone that I deserve to be a key player in this team.”
With Mourinho seemingly retrenched into a position over the player it would surprise few if Mkhitaryan is sold next summer, with United liable to take a substantial hit on the €35 million fee paid.
Though the circumstances are different, Memphis and Schneiderin face similar challenges, having played just six and seven games under Mourinho. Memphis’ confidence, shattered by former boss Louis van Gaal, has never returned, and the former PSV Eindhoven player has started just one game for Mourinho, against Northampton Town in the League Cup.
Although the Dutchman has spoken of a positive future at the club, he may be offered a fresh start and a route out in January. Meanwhile, the club is thought to be actively seeking a buyer for Schneiderlin, although with few options in defensive midfield positions Mourinho may wish to enter the market first.
The circumstances surrounding Smalling and Shaw is more troubling still. Mourinho called out the England pair after United’s victory over Swansea City in the Premier League, hinting at his apparent irritation that neither was prepared to play in south Wales. There is no guarantee that either will feature against Arsenal next weekend even if fit.
“Smalling doesn’t feel that he can play 100 per cent with his pain,” noted the United manager. “Luke Shaw told me this morning that he was not in the condition to play so we had to build a defensive line.”
Smalling required pain-killing injections to feature in the Reds’ 4-0 defeat at Chelsea in late October, with the England player having suffered a broken toe. The dispute with Mourinho appears to centre on the severity of that break, and Smalling’s determination – or otherwise – to play through pain.
Former United defender Gary Neville, who worked with Smalling while England’s assistant manager, casts doubt on the narrative offered by the Reds’ manager that Smalling is somehow unwilling to go the extra mile.
“I find it difficult to believe he has ever been anything other than completely committed to wanting to get out on the training pitch every day,” said the Sky Sports pundit. “Having worked with him for four years he has always been incredibly trustworthy, someone I always felt would run through a brick wall.”
Shaw’s position is more complex still, with the player having returned this season after a year-long absence. The broken leg suffered in Eindhoven may still prey on a young players’ mind, although Shaw has only ever been intermittently fit during his spell in Manchester. Fitness and weight issues plagued Shaw under Van Gaal.
“I think Luke is a more complex character,” adds Neville. “He is young, has moved away from Southampton, and he needs to mature physically and mentally. He is such a huge talent but has had injury problems and is not over them from a mental point of view.”
Schweinsteiger aside, five of the six under Mourinho’s glare are players bought at both substantial expense, and with significant expectations. After all, United’s barren spell in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era has not been met with the parsimony imposed on the club during the Scot’s tenure.
Mourinho will have little time for financial considerations though. After dismissing two managers since 2013, the Portuguese has no wish to be the third to fall under Woodward’s axe.
Tellingly, Neville noted that “Manchester United doesn’t take prisoners” and that “Mourinho won’t either because it will be him or the players that are going to survive.” It is a truth that may cost United a substantial fortune; certainly more than replacing a manager.
It is a game Mourinho can play though. He has a bank of credit that is still strong just five months into his Old Trafford tenure. Yet, the calculation might just alter should United’s performances not pick up by next May.
Plus ça change when it comes to the millions spent, or lost, in the transfer market.