“You know how many young players I promote to the first team from academies?” A stone-faced Jose Mourinho asked a packed Europa Suite at Old Trafford, as he was questioned about his youth integration record during his first Press Conference as the new manager of Manchester United. “You know how many young players I promote to the first team from academies? 49.” And so it was, arguably the biggest question mark atop the head of United’s new boss seemingly dispelled, if only in his mind. Manchester United’s storied history of “giving youth a chance” and Jose Mourinho’s perceived history of…well…not, had become one of the largest concerns among the Old Trafford faithful following the appointment of the Portuguese tactician. Given the positive impact the youth contingent had on a, let’s face it, dire Manchester United outfit last season, fans might be forgiven for expecting more responsibilities may be afforded to the potential future stars of Manchester United. “49” was an attempt by Jose to allay fears that he would abandon the academy set up, and that he was as good as anyone for giving opportunities to those looking to begin their careers in football. And, for a moment or two, it may have worked, although, what seemed like minutes later, news broke that Manchester United have opened talks with Juventus officials over the transfer of Paul Pogba, for a world record fee of £100 million. And, while cheers could be heard across the land, not all are unanimous in this celebration.
This is not an attack on Pogba, who, in his 4 years away from Manchester United, has broken into the first team, and has nailed down a first team spot, for both club and country. A signing of his calibre would certainly improve the team instantly, and would, once and for all, address an issue that has plagued this side since long before Sir Alex retired. My issue with this pursuit stems from a case of “old habits die hard” from the incoming manager.
49 players he claims to have successfully integrated into his first teams. A list was produced and waved, a la van Gaal’s famous “You take these to Big Sam” episode of 2015. A list was produced and waved with authority; Mourinho claimed he didn’t have the time to read every name out, and the list was put back into his pocket, never to see the light of day. Luckily for us, someone put that list together. The Telegraph has collated that very list, which you can read here. I won’t repeat it entirely, because it must have been painstaking to put together, but I will take choice cuts. This list includes Ben Sarhar; a highly touted Israeli centre forward who made all of 3 appearances In his time at Chelsea. It includes Alvaro Morata, who was swiftly banished to the B team and told to grow up by Mourinho. It even includes Dominic Solanke, who managed all of 17 minutes in a 6-0 walk over, before being kicked into touch. This is not a list of 49 successful integrations; this is a list of 49 random names who he has played, full stop. And herein lies Mourinho’s problem; it’s not that he is inherently against the use of Youth Team players, it’s that he doesn’t trust them to play more than a few moments. Enter Paul Pogba.
For those that aren’t familiar with the Paul Pogba/Manchester United story: Pogba joined the club in 2009, and made waves in the under-21s, however found it increasingly difficult to break into the first team. After a lowly 7 first team appearances in the 2011-12 season (y’know, the one Scholes came out of retirement to try and salvage), Pogba sought to cut ties and ply his trade on lands previously uncharted. A £800,000 fee was agreed between Juventus and United, and Pogba began his journey to the top.
That Manchester United are entertaining the notion of this transfer speaks volumes of the clubs current state, and Jose Mourinho is the culmination of the transition the club began to undergo the moment Ed Woodward stepped into his new office 3 years ago. The overall Madrid-ification of United began when United chased names such as Bale and Ronaldo, before conceding defeat and settling for Fabregas and Thiago…before accepting defeat again and landing Fellaini. Regardless of the outcome, the vision was clear; United are a big club and, as such, should be signing the biggest names. A season later, and success as King Louis attempts to assemble his Gaalacticos with journeymen and snakes in Falcao and di Maria. Big players with big reputations, and fees to match, who didn’t last more than a season. van Gaal grew tired of his big name players and shipped out many. He cobbled together a smaller side, so to allow the promotion of youth team players, he told the press. Players with little reputation, but players who felt closer to the club than any of the names preceding them. Regardless of the why and the how, young players have always been given the opportunity to create a positive impact on the team. And, in the case of last season, usurp the marquee signings.
Which brings us onto the point of this whole article: Manchester United’s central midfield. Since before Ferguson left the club, the centre of midfield has bee a particularly concerning area of the pitch, seemingly devoid of steel and verve since Paul Scholes retired. In an attempt to fix this area, Jose Mourinho appears to have opted for the easy route, with a pursuit of Pogba. At 23 years old, Pogba has the opportunity to slot into the centre of United’s midfield and own that spot for the next 10 years. A ready made solution to a self inflicted problem. But what if we already have the next Pogba among our ranks? And what if, by bringing him back in, we’re driving that man away, making the same mistake 4 years later. Pogba would indicate instant success, and all the riches that come with it; massive endorsements, shirt sales, yet another actor to put in whatever film 20th Century Fox need advertising next. You can put Pogba’s face on a mousemat and people will buy it. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for Sean Goss, for James Weir, or for, at the moment at least, Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Goss, likened to Michael Carrick, has taken the Under-21s by storm, as has current captain Weir. Unlike Goss, Weir has racked up first team minutes, making a cameo appearance under Louis van Gaal against Arsenal last season. And Tim Fosu-Mensah looks confident in just about any position you ask him to play. Any one of these three, even using these players as a committee central midfielder, could lead to the breaking out of wonderful talent. Instead, another path is being blocked off as they attempt to travel into the first team, this time with a Pogba shaped tree lying in the way.
And this is the point I’ve been trying to make over the last…1200 words. I am not slighting on Paul Pogba; he is a fine player and would make Manchester United better no end. But I am slighting on those who insist on making signings such as Pogba. I cannot fault Mourinho entirely; it is, of course, Ed Woodward who talks of how much money United have to spend every summer, and whose obsession with big names and blockbusters has led to more failures than smashes, but I can level a significant level of the blame at his doorstep. For Mourinho is perfect for Woodward. He doesn’t care for what could be, he only cares for what already is. Mourinho is a “win now” manager. Unconcerned at the level of improvement those lads might make, Mourinho will press ahead with that fourth signing, and complete his vision for the club for the next 12 months. And then next season, he will buy other players, likely huge names on huge salaries, because that’s how he plays the game.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We’ve spent 3 years making statements of intent, and it’s gotten us nowhere. A bigger statement would be to develop Sean Goss in to the Michael Carrick-a-like he’s so often touted to be, or continue the growth of Fosu-Mensah, in his more natural position as a holding midfielder. What a statement that would be; to create more first team players as well as competing. Though it’ll likely not happen, not under Mourinho. And there are at least 2 names that won’t add to the 49. Because Manchester United isn’t Manchester United anymore. Manchester United: Welcome to Jose Mourinho. Just be careful what you wished for.