As regular TOP FIVE readers will know, I am an optimistic sort, much more inclined to be cheery about Manchester United and their fortunes than miserable. And ultimately, that optimism extends to Jose Mourinho bringing his substantial managerial nous to bear on United over the coming years.
There has been plenty of evidence that things are moving in the right direction—big wins and big moments, the arrival of some of the world’s best players and a substantial improvement in some of the squad players, particularly defenders.
And yet…it is hard to shake off the nagging feeling that things could be even better than they are if Mourinho could just tweak a few things. It’s going okay, but it should be going a lot better and while we all hope—and most of us on balance seem to think—that consistent improvement is coming there are still a few causes for concern.
Which brings us to this month’s subject matter. Let’s get cracking.
Will he ever really take the bringing young players through thing seriously?
This is a pre-existing concern of course, rather than one which has emerged since he arrived, and the answer so far seems to be “sort of.” After all, Marcus Rashford has had plenty of first-team football, which is great and the 4-0 win over Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup saw debuts off the bench handed to Axel Tuanzebe and Joel Pereira and a start for Timothy Fosu-Mensah. So evidently he cares at least somewhat about this, or at least realises it is an unconditional requirement of the role.
But when push comes to shove, Mourinho’s habitual distrust of young players is presumably lurking somewhere under the surface. He is getting a passing grade, but he has not done enough quite yet to reassure this concern in the long run.
The conservatism still rears its head a little too often
He has done some things really, really well, and one of the best of all has been his decisive and straight forward demotion of Wayne Rooney from undroppable talisman to impact sub and squad player. That is exactly where Rooney should stand in the pecking order.
But Rooney’s arrivals into the game at half-time against Liverpool and Hull at home were both pretty questionable substitutions, an overly simplistic plan B that never seemed all that likely to work. They were not conservative substitutions in the sense of making the team more defensive, but they were conservative in terms of the level of creativity involved on Mourinho’s part. They represented a safe option rather than a bold gambit. There has been some of the latter, certainly, particularly when United were in their really good run in December, but that has eased off again lately.
Oh, and since this one doesn’t quite fit here but this is the closest it gets, it is a bit worrying that he almost literally never takes Zlatan Ibrahimovic off the pitch under any circumstance. It’s understandable given the Swedish Hero’s capacity to do something magical out of the blue, but it must surely be worth a go every now and then? Watford was a prime example of this.
What is going on with Luke Shaw?
If you were to look at United’s performances this season, you might say to yourself when thinking about the summer transfer market ahead; “You know, this squad is really good and doesn’t look too far off being great. They could really do with a purposeful, combative, quick, defensively sound left-back who can also offer a lot of drive going forward. They should buy one of those.”
But they’ve got one. Now, okay, perhaps behind the scenes Shaw is not doing what he needs to to get Mourinho to take him seriously, but this is about worries, not reality, and I’m worried that Mourinho is not doing enough to improve relations with the full-back, and improve Shaw’s situation. The kid suffered a terrible injury last season and was dropped at the first sign of trouble this.
Many would advocate only tough love for Shaw, but Fergie knew different players needed a different approach—shouting at Nani never made anything any better, so he didn’t do it.
Mourinho’s single-mindedness could really cost United if the player moves on and finds the best of himself again somewhere else.
No but really, seriously, what is going on with Anthony Martial?
With Shaw you can at least argue that his on-pitch performances have not merited a role in the first-team picture but Mourinho’s treatment of Martial is really hard to understand from the outside looking in. He was excellent against Middlesbrough, okay against Liverpool and then dropped, only to feature against Wigan in the FA Cup, wherein he provided two assists before being unceremoniously dropped again.
He was back against Watford, and showed why his absence was so very confusing. A goal and an assist were the obvious, tangible benefits but he also just looks exactly the right player to play that role in the side. It is all very confusing.
Martial showed last season, as he has in glimpses this, that he might just be a once-in-a-generation talent. If this turns out to be a Mourinho masterstroke and he comes back revitalised and vital to the team again then all will be forgiven, but for now, those doubts, while slightly offset by his start against the Hornets, are more-than creeping in.
Is it all going to be okay?
This is what it all comes down to really, isn’t it?
The minutiae of individual players and tweaks here and there will be what they will be, but really this is the big worry. After the exactly-what-anyone-paying-attention-would-have-expected of David Moyes and the great-big-let-down-which-really-probably-you-could-have-seen-coming of Louis van Gaal, if Mourinho doesn’t do at least a pretty decent job, United could be in big trouble for a long time and nobody wants that. Well, I mean, lots of people want that, but nobody reading this.
It all seemed like it was going to be okay when he arrived. There have been periods of this season where it all seemed like it was going to be okay again but not quite enough to remove the nagging concern.
I think, on balance, it probably is all going to be okay, but we are a long way from knowing from certain, one way or the other. While that remains the case, these kind of nagging doubts will remain.