Given Jose Mourinho’s record of success and the illustrious signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, big things were expected of Mancheser United, at the very least challenging for the title, not the disappointing sixth placed finished they seemed destined for. One piece of silverware and potentially a second, with a return to the Champions League, is enough to tide him over into his second year, but the domestic campaign has been a disappointment, with the standout feature a comical 25-game unbeaten run. Every first season is a learning curve and there are a number of lessons Mourinho can take away from his year at Old Trafford, mistakes he shouldn’t be making again next year. Here are his biggest mistakes.
Treatment of key players
Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrived at Old Trafford after a £25m move from Borussia Dortmund and he was expected to be the gem in Mourinho’s United showpiece, but after no goals and no assists in his first four games, the Armenian quickly fell out of favour with his boss. A miserable performance in the first Manchester derby of the season saw him unceremoniously hauled off at halftime, preceding an eight-game absence in which speculation was rife. Had the duo had a falling out? Was Mkhitaryan unfit? Had he failed to settle in?
Regardless of reasoning, it was a regrettable decision to not play the Armenian more at the beginning of the season. In that time, the Red Devils won only two games and struggled for creativity. Ten goals scored is a poor record, whilst the 102 chances created could have been significantly higher with Mkhitaryan’s final third invention. In the succeeding ten games, of which Mkhitaryan played eight, United scored 16 goals and created 128 chances.
It’s a staple of Mourinho’s managerial style to alienate key players should they underperform, but I think this was the wrong way to handle the situation. Mkhitaryan needed experience and playing time, so to oust him for eight games was to the detriment of his development and the team as a whole.
The same can be said for Luke Shaw. Whilst not as important to the collective as Mkhitaryan, Mourinho’s incessant desire to publically criticise and ultimately humiliate the left-back was the wrong way to handle the situation. His confidence needed building, not shattering. Anthony Martial, too, has been a victim of Mourinho’s psychological games, on the receiving end of another spate of public criticism in April. He’s been in and out of the side, his confidence is low and the frustration is visible. Mourinho could have handled these players differently to get the best out of them after it became clear they weren’t responding too well to his chosen methods. It’s worth mentioning that he also massively mishandled the departure of footballing legend Bastian Schweinsteiger, ousting him from the first team squad. At least he realised this was a mistake.
Overplaying Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as expected, was a revelation in the Premier League, scoring 17 goals before a season-ending knee injury in the Europa League quarter-final ruled him out until early 2018. Perhaps it was age catching up to him, but it could also have been a case of Mourinho overplaying him. At 35, it’s unfeasible to expect the Swedish striker to be a part of every game, which became the case as United grew reliant on his goals.
However, this was to the detriment of Marcus Rashford, who hasn’t had the season many expected after his breakthrough at the end of last year. Mourinho’s defensive style requires quick counter-attackers and it’s clear that United are better as a unit with Rashford’s pace and energy leading the line, rather than Ibrahimovic’s lethargy slowing down the pace of their counters. Less reliance on Ibrahimovic and more chances given to Rashford could have made for a better season. The burgeoning reliance on Ibrahimovic was a mistake. He was Plan A, B and C, meaning Mourinho had no answer for this situation.
The damning statistic from Mourinho’s first year is that had failed to score in four away games against top six opposition, picking up a measly two points from goalless draws at Liverpool and Manchester City, managing just two shots on target in those 180 minutes. Wayne Rooney’s goal at White Hart Lane last week was their first against a side above them this season. It reflected the caution in his tactics, which is understandable for these big fixtures, but he was erring on the side of caution too much and there was no desire to go forwards in any of those games.
Often the likes of Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata were used as auxiliary fullbacks as part of a deep back six, leaving Martial, Rashford or Ibrahimovic completely isolated up front with little support if they were to receive the ball looking to counter-attack. It was clear Mourinho arrived playing for the draw, which is extremely disappointing for a club of Manchester United’s size and history.
Moreover, they’ve lacked the nous to really capitalise on their home advantage. They often seem lost and lacking invention in possession at Old Trafford, aimlessly recycling the ball, which is reflected by the ten home draws, including goalless draws against Burnley, Hull and West Brom. Simply, Mourinho’s tactics have been too defensive against these lesser sides. Shackled by their tactical rigidity, players are reluctant to make runs trying to break the lines, which has had an impact on Paul Pogba. The world-record signing hasn’t impressed as expected, but he’s harmed by a lack of forward runners. He’s always on the ball, eager to create, but there’s often nobody making a run for him. Hence, a lack of goals (52- the lowest in the top six).
Failure to nurture youth
Despite Mourinho’s exuberant pre-season claims that he’s been responsible for the development of 49 youth players through his managerial career, as expected, he hasn’t given many chances to Manchester United’s youngsters. Barring the last couple of games as United prepare for the Europa League final and disregard the Premier League, the likes of Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah have rarely featured.
Tuanzebe, a centre-back by trade, was a standout performer in the 2-0 defeat at the Emirates, playing at right back and keeping Alexis Sanchez in check for most of the game, which drew praise from his manager, even though Mourinho forgot his name during the post-match press conference. It begs the question, though, of why more opportunities weren’t given to these youngsters through the season. Even during the injury crisis that saw the unreliable Daley Blind drafted into the centre of defence, Tuanzebe was overlooked.
What mistakes has Mourinho made? What’s been the worst? Let us know in the comments section below.