‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’
That old, often confused George Santayana quotation is so regularly applicable to top level football. Last Sunday afternoon, Jose Mourinho put on a charm offensive. He’d just witnessed his Manchester United side lose 1-0 to Newcastle United after a rudderless and lacklustre display, but the new zen-like Portuguese was at peace with the world. He even hugged old adversary Rafa Benitez at full-time affectionately.
“I think that’s a beautiful thing in football. “After a few defeats Sir Bobby (Robson) once told me: ‘Don’t feel so sad, think about the happiness of the other team,’” Mourinho remarked in his post-match press conference. “The god’s of football were on their side.”
Such feigned gracefulness was reminiscent of when Chelsea were dumped out of the FA Cup by Bradford in 2015 and Mourinho patronisingly claimed he could ‘find space’ to be happy for the League One side despite the humiliation suffered by his own team.
Another glance at the past would make for uncomfortable viewing for Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. United’s prodigiously gifted young attackers must have found themselves internally evaluating where they now stand at the club after the January signing of Alexis Sanchez. It’s early days, but those fears are already rearing their head given the way the Chilean’s first month at Old Trafford has progressed.
Despite trying out a system with three central defenders and wingbacks earlier in the season, Mourinho invariably favours a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation. In all four of his games so far, Sanchez has played on the left of the three behind Romelu Lukaku – the role usually occupied by Martial or Rashford. Jesse Lingard is seemingly assured of the central position, so that leaves only space on the right.
Martial is a centre-forward by trade, but has played much of his football for United on the left. In recent months he has excelled, scoring in each of the three games before Sanchez arrived. The Frenchman was shunted out to the right at the weekend and looked totally confused as to what exactly his job was.
Rashford has played just 19 minutes in the league since Sanchez’s signing. On Sky’s Monday night football, a question was put to Thierry Henry on the 20 year-old’s future. Henry was of the opinion that Rashford needed to go and play, a remark which was derided by United supporters on social media who pointed out that Rashford had played more than any other outfield footballer at the club this season. He hasn’t started a league match in 2018 yet though, and while a period of rest is no bad thing to prevent burnout in the long run, it’s hard to see a way he gets back a regular starting berth given Mourinho’s track record.
There are countless examples of Mourinho dispensing with younger, less developed players in favour of the finished article – the most prescient arguably being Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian recounts an incident during a training session at Chelsea where Mourinho summoned his attacking midfielders in a circle and read out their goals and assist – focussing on De Bruyne’s numbers unfavourably by comparison to Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian. Having only played in two matches, De Bruyne was rightly outraged.
“I have no statistics — two games, what do you want me to do? I had a feeling I wasn’t even going to play.”
De Bruyne went to Wolfsburg, was named Bundesliga player of the year and within eighteen months was back on British soil. At Manchester City, he is the centrepiece of a team breaking records and one which is designed towards his strengths. The argument some of have made is that neither he nor Mohamed Salah were ready for the top level when they were at Chelsea. But it’s difficult to decipher how ready a player is if they are given scant opportunities to show it.
Others who initially delivered for Mourinho such as Arjen Robben and Eden Hazard were eventually worn down. Mourinho tired of Robben’s apparently brittle body breaking down while Hazard’s productivity dropped significantly in those ill-fated final months at Stamford Bridge.
One commonality shared by Salah, De Bruyne, Robben and Hazard is that they improved markedly when they moved away from Mourinho and worked with coaches who understood how to get the best out of them. Considering Mourinho recently signed a new five-year deal at United, Rashford and Martial must be contemplating their future and analysing what’s best for their development. History suggests they may have to go elsewhere.