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Jose Mourinho has got plenty right in his first season at Manchester United. He has already won silverware and is in with a chance of more when the Red Army march on Stockholm, Sweden, for the UEFA Europa League final. Later this week, we will be breaking down the hits in more detail.
But first, we need to acknowledge that there have been plenty of misses, too. It is mathematically confirmed that United will finish the season in sixth, fitting given how much of the campaign they spent occupying that spot. It somehow feels like home now, and that cannot be a good thing. The league is ending with a whimper, and that tells us that all has not gone to plan.
We spoke with football writers and United fans to see what they thought Mourinho’s biggest mistakes had been.
Carl Anka @Ankaman616
@UtdRantcast Freezing out the assist king from the Bundesliga. Then playing him as a wingback. Trying to break Martial. Too many minutes to Zlatan.
5/17/2017, 8:25:45 AM
Ryan Baldi @RyanBaldiFW
@UtdRantcast Misuse of Pogba. Overuse of key players. Bizarre subs. Treatment of Shaw/Martial/Mkhi while others got off lightly for poor performances.
5/17/2017, 9:08:36 AM
Mark Thompson @EveryTeam_Mark
@UtdRantcast Not giving Martial/Rashford(/someone on the left to replace them) a chance at striker earlier, so that he could rotate Zlatan
5/17/2017, 9:07:03 AM
Adam McKola @AdamMcKola
@UtdRantcast Squad management – feel he could’ve changed things up earlier in the season, utilised a few other players better. Martial.
5/17/2017, 8:43:43 AM
Broadly speaking, these criticisms come under the heading of player treatment and squad management.
Let us take the player treatment criticism first. Luke Shaw was a name frequently mentioned in response to the question. Indeed, Squawka feature writer Muhammad Butt said, “[Mourinho’s] successes this season have been marred by a nagging feeling that all those flaws which have ruined each job where he’s stayed more than two years are still there, waiting to come out. His handling of Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw has been reprehensibly archaic.”
Mourinho has taken a very “my way or the highway” approach, something he has always done and is not necessarily a mistake—after all, it can potentially build a strong core group that will be prepared to run through brick walls for their manager. But Sir Alex Ferguson realised that Nani needed to be treated differently than Roy Keane, and adapted to the player in question.
Mourinho seems to have done a lot less adapting. His public criticism of Shaw in particular has left a sour taste in the mouth given the serious injury the player suffered last season. Whatever the reason that Mourinho took his complaints into the public sphere, it has not had the desired effect.
And speaking of the desired effect, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s impact when he returned to the fold having been mostly frozen out for the first few months of the season was significant. Some were prepared to give Mourinho credit for his handling of the Armenian, but in truth United could have done with Mkhitaryan earlier in the season.
Mourinho also criticised Mkhitaryan’s performance against West Bromwich Albion on April 1, and stated that was the reason for dropping him in the subsequent Everton game, telling BT Sport (h/t the Mirror) “I am not happy with Mkhitaryan’s performance in the last match.”
Since then, the Armenian’s performances have suffered, with the Europa League quarter-final against Anderlecht serving as just about the only exception to that rule. Perhaps an arm round the shoulder would have been a better approach.
And then there is Martial, another player who has received public criticism. Watching the young Frenchman this season has been like watching a salmon swimming up stream. They can do it, you know they will get there in the end, and sometimes there are moments of profound grace and beauty along the way, but it all looks like a lot of hard work. Some of that might be second-season syndrome.
It is hard to think that some of it is not on Mourinho.
Then comes the other related criticism, squad management. Butt accused Mourinho of “overplaying star men Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba ’til they broke.” In Ibrahimovic’s case this is probably an overstatement given the nature of his injury, but when Pogba has struggled it is hard not to think the lack of rotation has been a big factor.
The height of this came in the Europa League, with United 3-0 up against Saint-Etienne from the home leg, with the League Cup final looming, Mourinho played a practically full-strength side.
@UtdRantcast Full strength team away at St etienne a few days before league cup final. Didn’t make sense then Doesn’t make sense now.
5/17/2017, 8:33:31 AM
The only explanation that makes sense is that he was so worried a more rotated side would collapse if they conceded a goal he felt it was necessary. But it was symptomatic of a more general approach.
Remington Moses @Remington_Moses
@UtdRantcast The public flogging of his own players, esp LS. Treatment of Basti. Hideous negativity against good teams. Air of gloom & constant whingeing
5/17/2017, 10:00:49 AM
Thariq Amir @LeFalseNumber12
@UtdRantcast Encouraging his team to close out games rather than kill them off. Seeing Utd sit deep & invite pressure was basically asking for trouble
5/17/2017, 8:25:04 AM
Anthony Boyd @CharlieBronze
@UtdRantcast Not instilling confidence in the squad so that they could go out and attack all opposition. Too many games are approached with hesitancy
5/17/2017, 9:19:05 AM
Here we see that the criticism of players is only one factor, albeit an important one. Football writer Conor Kelly echoed the above tweets, saying:
“Mourinho’s handling of some players was bizarre and counterproductive i.e alienating [Bastian] Schweinsteiger and the constant bullying of Luke Shaw. I think trimming his squad to 22 was a problem, as it led to over reliance on Ibra (despite him being one of the signings of the season) particularly as he’s 35.
“I think there were matches where he was overly conservative when in the lead, bringing on [Marouane] Fellaini. The Middlesbrough game sticks out for that, think he finished with six defenders on the pitch [this refers to United’s 3-1 win over Middlesbrough on March 19 at the Riverside].
“And writing off the last few weeks of league games has undoubtedly proved a missed opportunity. With the way Liverpool and City have stumbled, United could’ve easily slipped in. Also, his constant complaints over the fixture list and the number of games United have had to play. Manchester United are a massive club and their manager should be expecting a huge number of games. It’s basically [in] the job description.”
Ed Tyler @Tyleed05
@UtdRantcast His disdain for the last two games against Arsenal and Spurs. Top 4 may have been out of reach but pathetic to see us throw the towel in
5/17/2017, 9:49:47 AM
Ryan Shivashankar @Ryan_ms28
@UtdRantcast His approach against the rest of the top6 away too defensive which showed when we got only 1 goal away against them
5/17/2017, 9:57:23 AM
The notion that United had basically given up on the league season before the recent Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur away games barely justifies those performances, and, as Kelly said, United seemed to give up the fight for the top four too early. Mourinho could point to injuries in the squad as his reasoning for prioritising the Europa League as early as he did, but it is still a big risk, and we do not yet know if it will pay off.
And his handling of the games against the Premier League sides has been, frankly, something of an embarrassment for United fans. The lack of ambition on the road against the rest of the top six has seen him live up to the worst of his reputation.
Given that almost all of United’s biggest strengths are their attacking players, and given they have looked at their best by a huge margin when they have looked to press aggressively, seeing them retrench into a low block over and over again has been extremely frustrating. It also, very obviously, has not worked, with the exception of the Europa League semi-final second leg when, by the skin of their teeth, United squeezed past Celta Vigo having employed the same tactic.
Fans also spoke about Mourinho’s handling of the transfer market, particularly outgoings in January.
Brett Phipps @InverteBrett
@UtdRantcast @brfootball Selling players before bringing in cover. Quite clear we could have used Schweini and even Schneiderlin in the run-in.
5/17/2017, 8:20:51 AM
The departures of Morgan Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger in particular rankle when an ageing Michael Carrick and Fellaini are the only answers. It is hard to imagine Schneiderlin would have done much worse.
Ryan Coughlan @Lets_talk13
@UtdRantcast @brfootball Not re-signing evra? Dressing room presence may have made a difference (a la fergie keeping Anderson) and he’s been playing Darmian LB.
5/17/2017, 9:42:02 AM
Well, while Patrice Evra might have been good value, it seems a little unfair to single this one out.
Of course, some fans did not want to single one factor out…
I go by many names @thistimesurely
@UtdRantcast Apart from that, I’m loving every second.
5/17/2017, 10:29:59 AM
And Mourinho received some much-needed fashion tips, too.
Megan Atterbury @MegAtterbury
@UtdRantcast I didn’t really like the zip-up top under the jacket look. I see it is practical in Manchester, but it isn’t a good look overall.
5/17/2017, 8:20:52 AM
Finally, of course, while it is important to point out that Mourinho probably has cause to argue that he knows more than most about managing a football team, not everyone feels that way.
MIke Hat @mango_carrot
@UtdRantcast Not reading my tweets. I’m confident we’d have won the league if he had.
5/17/2017, 8:21:04 AM
It should be pointed out that Mike is joking here.
So, that’s the criticisms out of the way. If United win the Europa League some of these will be forgiven, but it has clearly been far from a universally positive first campaign. Some of it has gone right, of course, and we will cover the hits in more detail in the coming days. But there have been plenty of misses, too, and it is clear a lot of United fans feel that way.
All quotations obtained firsthand except where otherwise stated.