Jose Mourinho is not a man who likes change. The Portuguese manager took over the Red Devils’ hot seat with a plan, and so far he has stuck to his guns; should Paul Pogba have been available for the opening day clash with Bournemouth, the chances are we would have seen identical line ups for the three initial fixtures – something of a rarity during the whirlwind era of Louis Van Gaal. Consistency of selection is something the United fanbase should expect to see therefore throughout the season, with Mourinho rather using cup campaigns as an opportunity to rest key players.
Coming into the new campaign, defensive selection seemed a significant issue for the coaching team, though for the time being at least, fears seem to have subsided; both Daily Blind and Antonio Valencia have settled in extremely well in the new regime, and Eric Bailly has ensured Chris Smalling has had to make do with a place on the bench. Smalling will no doubt be given a chance at some point in the coming weeks, especially considering the Ivory Coast international Bailly has the African Nations Cup looming at the turn of the year. Daily Blind would have seemed the more likely to be replaced just a few weeks ago when he was seemingly destined for the exit door. He has been a revelation under Mourinho though, and seems to be the natural ball playing defender that many clubs have been trying to find over the past couple of seasons. One would expect therefore for this area of the pitch to remain unchanged for the time being at least.
In front of them, the issue is in finding both a partner and a formation that will get the best out of the record signing Paul Pogba. Marouane Fellaini has been given the nod so far, but this again will more then likely change depending on the opposition; a home tie against Burnley for example would be crying out for the passing ability of say Michael Carrick, rather then the physicality of the Belgian. This is the position we will perhaps see the most amount of change as the season progresses, as Mourinho may also fancy a three man midfield against tougher opposition. It is in a formation such as this that cases could be made for the inclusion of either Ander Herrera or Morgan Schneiderlin.
The front four positions then are what most interest the Red Devils fanbase, and no-one can be sure exactly how Mourinho is planning on accommodating a depth of talent we have not seen since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson.
The number nine seems to be a simple choice as things stand. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has walked into the league as if he has always belonged here, showing that despite his ageing legs he still holds the ability to go up against the toughest of defences and comes out on top. What is perhaps most notable about his early season contributions is the variety of the 4 goals he has scored; not only have we seen how lethal he is in the box, but the big Swede was also able to create a goal out of nothing with a spectacular drive from distance against Bournemouth. His influence in the side is further reflected by the fact he stood up and took the penalty against Southampton, demoting captain Wayne Rooney from his previous duties.
This is not to say however that Jose has settled on his one man strike force. He will know better then any that the 34-year-old needs careful managing, resulting in a four day break for Zlatan as players leave for international duties, rather then the two as is custom. Mourinho will also be careful in the style of play demanded of his former job at Inter Milan, instructing him to drop deep for prolonged periods of the game, allowing younger, fresher legs to cause much of the damage to the opposition.
It is my belief it is with this that Mourinho will look to make the most of last year’s sensation Marcus Rashford. I have written previously that the public are wrong to criticise the Manchester United coaching staff for letting the young international spend periods on the bench. At eighteen years old, the Mancunian’s talent undoubtedly ranks amongst the very best in European football at the moment. Mourinho though will urge caution on two parts: firstly, the physical demands of modern day football mean a player still reaching physical maturity should not be exposed on a weekly basis. The current situation of Jack Wilshire at Arsenal is particularly relevant when considering this. Pep Guardiola commentated in March 2011 on the now-Bournemouth player, pointing out that at Barcelona, the team would never rely so heavily on a youngster in such a position. He is often misquoted on this, as people claim he criticised the playing level of the then 19 year old – the truth is he labelled him a fantastic player, only stating that he would possibly risk burn-out.
In hindsight, the now Manchester City manager was correct in his observation, as Jack Wilshere played half the amount of games in his breakthrough 2010-2011 season (49), as he has done in the subsequent three combined (91). At 19, Wilshere then was a year older then Rashford, yet one of the top managers in world football warned of burnout. Wilshere is not a unique example either – both Wayne Rooney and Cesc Fabregas, whilst no doubt being among the elite of world football, are perhaps feeling the strain of participating at such a high level of the professional game for such a prolonged period of time.
Secondly, and away from fitness concerns in years ahead, Mourinho will also be wary of the possible consequences of a bad spell of form, which all young players experience at one stage or another. A few consecutive bad games, or a run of fixtures without scoring, could result in loss of confidence for a player who has so far taken all before him in his stride. Alongside a loss of confidence could be intense media scrutiny, as Rashford could see himself suspect to the sort of media attention experienced by the likes of Rooney in the past – the now England captain is undoubtedly strong enough to continue amidst the storm, as others such as David Beckham have been before, yet there are also cases of players unable to handle the pressure, and faltering underneath it. One only has to wind back six months, and see how Raheem Sterling struggled under the weight of expectation, and experienced a torrid first campaign at the Etihad, as well as the disaster of the European Championship in France. Yes, he does seem revitalised under the Pep Guardiola regime, but we are yet to see what another bad period does to the player.
Mourinho then will be hesitant to put Rashford in his regular starting eleven, though I would expect him to see more action then many are suggesting. The fixture against Hull City showed exactly what he can offer to the Red Devils, as he punished a defence tired from 75 minutes of backs to the wall defending. I would though be surprised to see him in from the off against Manchester City in the opening derby game of the season, as Jose Mourinho is too savvy to drop Wayne Rooney for such a sizeable fixture, and I would expect to see a change elsewhere in the line-up.
Pressing for a start then will be Henrikh Mkhitaryan, when the Armenian returns from injury. Although it was Rashford who ultimately stole the headlines in the win over Hull with his dramatic injury time winner, it was perhaps Mkhitaryan who more then anyone changed the course of the game with his second half substitute appearance. In his 30 minute cameo, he provided a much needed spark to an otherwise uninspired front line, not least when picking the ball up just behind the half way line, taking on the defence before being brought down for a free kick. It is this sort of football that the Stretford end have had in short supply in recent seasons, going back to the days of Cristiano Ronaldo or a younger Wayne Rooney. Mourinho was keen to drop him in against a Manchester City defence that is still acclimatising as a unit, as on last season’s evidence there is perhaps no better player in the league at combining the range of passing he possesses with a not inconsiderable turn of foot.
Juan Mata would be the logical choice to remove from the line up at this stage of the season. The Spaniard has been welcomed by the Old Trafford faithful as one of their own since his arrival during the tumultuous rein of David Moyes. Both his style of play and professionalism have endeared him to the crowd, and it will be a relief to many that Mourinho shelved any plans to sell him during the summer. A large part of Mata’s stay of execution may well result partly due to the fact that United could not find a suitable buyer, though his manager will not doubt be impressed by his willingness to both improve his work rate, and the defensive side of the game that the Portuguese values so highly. In starting the opening three games ahead of perhaps more ‘Mourinho’ type players, it is testimony to his displays in both games, and no doubt in training as well.
Despite this though, Mata remains the likely casualty of the Armenian’s eventual introduction, as the dynamism Mourinho craves is not something Mata will be able to learn at this stage of his career. In a heated game such as the derby, the ex-Chelsea man was always just going to be seen as the ‘luxury’ player Mourinho can displace. Mata instead provides mostly an option off the bench; if United are in a position to close a game out in the final stages of the match, the Spaniard remains a player who can dictate the tempo, and ensure United have an option to retain the ball with his short passes.
The big question as we went into the international break surrounds the world’s most expensive teenager, Antony Martial. French manager Didier Deschamps has spoken about his young star over the international break, saying “He must push himself a little harder sometimes. It’s a state of mind. He’s like that, so he needs to battle a little with himself. He needs to get stronger to maintain his level in the long run.” This certainly does seem to be case as he enters his second season in the famous red shirt, though we must consider at this point there may be extenuating circumstances for his loss of form.
Over a period that will mark a year since the French youngster exploded onto the scene with his debut goal against Liverpool, the player has yet to experience the level of criticism in the press as he currently is. Undoubtedly for the attacking player, the international break has come at an ideal moment; away with the France squad, it will provide and opportunity for the youngster to assess the situation regarding his private life. His ex-partner, and mother of their child, Samantha Jacqueline, has recently dubbed Martial as ‘disgusting’, coinciding with pictures of the United star with new girlfriend Melanie Da Cruz have emerging for the first time. The row has gone viral, with English paper The Sun publishing interviews the stricken Samantha, whilst both have also taken various social media platforms. Whilst affairs such as these undoubtedly occur more often then we as the general public are aware, this one has hit the headlines, and seems to have taken its toll on a player who provided a rare glimpse of light in an otherwise dour campaign.
Despite off-the-field activity, Mourinho will be encouraged by the combination of Martial with Pogba for his goal against Italy recently. He remains one of the few genuine game changers in the United squad, as is arguably the best dribbler in the team with the ball at his feet. His ability to weave his way through both midfield and defence should give him a stay of execution within the team, albeit in the knowledge that Mourinho will not hesitate to replace him should he continue in the form shown agains Hull in particular. Should Mourinho look to make the change, he knows he has the aforementioned Rashford in his ranks, though he also may turn to Memphis Depay, the Dutch player who arrived with no lack of fanfare just over twelve months ago.
Depay is an unusual case, and he himself has undoubtedly had to take his share of criticism from the British press since his mega-money move from PSV. Whether it be due to his perceived playboy lifestyle, or a self-confidence that is often interpreted as arrogance, the Dutchman has failed to win the faith of either the coaching staff or the fans. The frustration then stems from the fact that we know the talent is there; whether it be when leading PSV to the Dutch championship, or being a shining light with the Holland side that reached the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup, Depay deserved the acclaim that came his way. Truth be told, he has also looked good in stages whilst playing for United, with games agains Club Brugges and Middlesborough coming to mind. There is a feeling perhaps that the player lost focus of what it is physically needed to be a pacy winger, bulking up to the extent that he began to overly rely on his strength. He has certainly come back looking leaner pre-season however, and will be desperate to show his new manager what he is able to bring to his side. Mourinho though is only likely to give him one chance, and one can be pretty certain it will be in a Europa League clash, rather then a potentially pivotal league game. Should he continue to frustrate however, expect him to be next out the revolving door as the next case of a player who was unable to handle the expectations of Old Trafford.
A major point of contention therefore remains for Jose Mourinho and the Manchester United hierarchy: what to do with Wayne Rooney? As stated, the England and United captain is more then likely to retain his place in the team in the short-term, and despite what some said, Mourinho would have been careless to remove him from the team for their fixture against City. The player most at loss from Rooney’s continued inclusion is likely to be Marcus Rashford for the time being, with Mkhitaryan being shifted to the right wing position that in the long term is likely to be taken by one of more dynamic players in the squad. Rooney though embodies much of what is required from a Mourinho side however, not to mention that he possesses the experience and temperament to keep his head when others may lose it. This is perhaps the one area where Rooney has developed in the last couple of seasons with his more senior responsibilities, and Mourinho will be quick to recognise this quality.
Rooney himself will acknowledge his days as a starter are coming to an end, and the recent declaration that he will retire from International Football following the 2018 World Cup is testament to this fact. A player though who continues to split opinion perhaps more then any other in English football right now will continue to play a role though in Mourinho’s line up, making it a case of minor tweaks for the time being; a continued evolution in the ultimate revolution.