Manchester United: Mourinho suffering the consequences of decisions by predecessors
Peter Schmeichel and Ryan Giggs were watching Manchester United vs Leicester City as pundits yesterday. United won the match against the foxes with a typical, gritty Jose Mourinho performance led by the irrepressible Paul Pogba and capped off by a surprisingly adept finish by Luke Shaw.
However, even as the doom and gloom over Old Trafford were lifted ever so slightly by the customary a United win, it was interesting to listen to the words of ex-United players. Schmeichel lamented the loss of “tradition.” Giggs talked about the importance of developing young players and expressed his surprise at the Mourinho’s mood on the United’s tour to the USA. He contrasted it with Guardiola’s upbeat comments about playing youngsters at City.
Both United legends were providing constructive criticism for the red side of Manchester. But, laying the blame on Jose Mourinho for the loss of traditions and non-development of young players is easy and opportunistic. It is also a black-and-white analysis of a grey situation.
Even Ed Woodward, despite his mixed results in the transfer window, is not fully responsible. The malaise at United dates back to the actions of David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal. Specifically with respect to the alienation of senior players under Moyes, the removal of the club’s character and spirit under Van Gaal and the false perception created by the Dutchman of a thriving United youth setup.
David Moyes came to United with the intention of being his own man. He wanted to bring about drastic changes at a club which had been consistently winning since the Premier League began. Furthermore, a key point forgotten is that, before Moyes, no matter what team United played, no matter what the skill or talent level of the players, the team always gave its all. The old school mentality at United was that irrespective of the quality of performance a player was having, he always gave his full effort. Even if the passes were not sticking, a United player was always trying. Scholes’s comeback from struggles during the 2002 season and Ferdinand’s Indian summer in the 2012-13 season were classic examples of players efforts being consistent despite inconsistent form.
The ‘putting in 100% effort 100% of the time’ mentality at United was a tradition that stemmed from Sir Alex Ferguson. It was part of the culture passed on to every generation of players through senior players. With the arrival of David Moyes, things changed drastically. The United coaching staff was wiped out, replaced by a team from Everton. Club stalwarts such as Ferdinand and Vidic were alienated by being asked to learn from Phil Jagielka. The consequence was the loss of the “100% effort” mentality as players, who were spreading that culture, were disgruntled.
Then in 2014, Moyes was replaced with Van Gaal. With all due respect to the Dutchman’s achievements, there are two couple of myths about his spell at United that need to be dispensed with.
Firstly, he is supposed to have made disastrous signings, which is an oversimplification. Van Gaal signed some brilliant players and some average ones. The problem was with the attitude of the players. Irrespective of their level of skill or talent, either they did not have that affinity to Manchester United football club, or were weighed down by expectations. In both cases, the “100% effort” was missing. For example, Bastian Schweinsteiger may have been on a downward trajectory as a footballer when he played for United, but, to the casual observer, the effort he put in while playing for United was nowhere near his efforts when he played for Bayern Munich or his national team. To compound it all, Van Gaal moved out the players who truly put in the hard yards such as Chicharito and Welbeck. The Dutchman accelerated the loss of “100% effort” mentality at the club.
Secondly, Louis Van Gaal is supposed to have championed the youth. This myth came about when he was giving debuts to many players from the youth team. Van Gaal was not giving opportunities to the likes of Rashford because he desired to. He gave opportunities because he was forced to. Against FC Midtjylland, Rashford was first drafted on the bench because the promising striker in the under-23s, Will Keane had suffered an injury. He then got his chance to play because Anthony Martial got injured in the warm-up. Rashford and many others were drafted into the team because of a raft of injuries that decimated an expensively assembled squad. Even Rene Meulensteen, Ferguson’s assistant opined that Van Gaal had been forced to play the youngsters.
The issue with Van Gaal’s supposed championing of youth is that it has created a perception of United having a brilliant set of young players who are not being ‘developed’ by Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese manager is painted as the guy who wants short-term fixes. United’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward is thinking more “long-term” and wants Mourinho to improve the players he already has. The issue with that thought-process is twofold.
Firstly, player improvement is not only due to the manager. Leaders and characters in the squad also play an important role in setting an example. Manchester City had Yaya Toure, Zabaleta and Kompany for a long period of time. Kompany is still there to inspire. Chelsea had Terry and Lampard. Liverpool had Gerrard and Carragher.
Secondly, some of the young players, at least according to Mourinho, are not good enough. When Mourinho is saying “not good enough”, he is talking about the combination of talent and attitude.
United fans have been divided over United’s perceived lack of support for their manager. According to this author, neither Mourinho and Woodward are to blame. Mourinho seems to be surprised by the “lack of mental strength” in some of his players. His perception of his current squad is the result of the actions of his predecessors. The lack of effort on part of the players can be traced back to decisions made by Moyes and Van Gaal. Except for Paul Pogba, he does not have vocal leaders in the team. His desire to sign a ready-made, world-class centre-back can be traced back to lack of leadership in United’s defense bring that old-fashioned “effort” back to his squad.
On the other hand, the club’s hierarchy has had their hands constantly burned by providing full backing to their managers. Thanks to backing given to Moyes and Van Gaal, United ended up losing loyal players such as Vidic, Evra, Ferdinand, Welbeck, Chicharito, Jonny Evans, Darren Fletcher. The club replaced them with players such as Rojo, Blind, Di Maria, Martial, Schneiderlin, et al. The replacements may have had greater talent in certain cases, but their commitment to the United cause was not the same. In some cases, they were encumbered by the weight of the United jersey. United needed to sign more players like Ander Herrera, who may be limited in ability but are proud to play for the club. Unfortunately, the majority of the signings ended up being more like Schweinsteiger, and less like Ander Herrera.
Furthermore, Van Gaal’s “encouragement” of younger players seems to have caused Ed Woodward to believe that United already have a lot of talent in the youth team. To give context, United’s under-23s were relegated. Mourinho was not moaning when he said that. He was giving a fact. Furthermore, except for the class of 92, United did not have a raft of young players being drafted into the squad every year. The youth system is strong because it produces one or two good prospects every season with the potential to break into the first team. Potential does not imply confirmation. Unfortunately, that is the myth that fans (and apparently Ed Woodward) have come to expect from United.
Jose Mourinho is disillusioned by the present and the future at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’, while Ed Woodward is scarred by the past. The result is a mess at England’s most decorated football club. David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal may be gone, but their decisions are still haunting Manchester United football club.