Wingers are, by nature, inconsistent. They attempt the inventive, the unorthodox and the unusual, but only for the absolute very best does it nearly always pay off.
That’s why Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi emerged as the best players in the world on opposing flanks on either side of the El Clasico rivalry. Less talented and more predictable wingers are exactly that – easier to predict, and therefore stop, for opposition defenders.
Thus, the winger trade-off is as simple as it is obvious. Their moments of magic and individual brilliance can often decide matches, but expecting them to do it every week without fail is unrealistic. The inconsistency is inevitable; the gorgeous football wouldn’t happen without the occasional abject performance. In other words, to quote the cliched adage, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.
Most managers in world football appear largely accepting of that compromise, as well as the fact most wingers are confidence players who therefore not only need to be kept in high morale to produce their best form but also left off the leash as much as possible, in roles that allow their natural attacking instincts to thrive.
Jose Mourinho, however, has toiled with that notion for much of his career. His attempts to find some consistency in inevitably inconsistent players has created quite the winger graveyard, but the wide-men who’ve perished in their bids to find some acceptance from the Special One haven’t stayed dead; they’re coming back to life, Liverpool transfer target and Birthday Boy Mohamed Salah emerging as the latest resurrection – and potentially the most detrimental yet to Mourinho.
After arriving from FC Basel in January 2014, Salah’s Chelsea career lasted just one year and 19 games. He was officially on the books for another 18 months, but spent the entirety of that time on loan in Serie A.
To say Salah wasn’t given much of a chance in west London would be a bit of an understatement; despite scoring twice in a cameo berth during his first six months with the Blues, he made just 10 starts and clocked up a miserly total of 879 minutes overall – hardly enough time for a then-21-year-old to make his mark on a title-winning side.
Perhaps Mourinho simply thought Salah wasn’t good enough for Chelsea at that time; perhaps he thought he didn’t have the attitude to be affluent under his tutelage.
But Salah’s subsequent successes in Serie A strongly suggest otherwise, notching up 35 goals and 20 assists in 81 appearances during his two-and-a-half years with Fiorentina and Roma, and the Egypt international’s disappointing spell at Chelsea fits perfectly into a correlation of talented wingers being misused and underappreciated by Mourinho.
Indeed, alongside Salah in Mourinho’s undead winger graveyard are some very interesting names; Juan Mata, who has ironically become one of Mourinho’s most important players at Manchester United, Andre Schurrle, who was sold by Chelsea just six months after scoring twice in a World Cup semi-final, Juan Cuadrado, who was hardly given the chance to integrate himself into the team before becoming a key player for Juventus during a two-term loan spell, and Kevin De Bruyne, who was given three outings on the wing at the start of the 2013/14 season before being dropped and sold to Wolfsburg, where he established himself as one of the best creative midfielders in world football.
Of course, all of those were involved in Mourinho’s second spell at Chelsea, where his seeming distaste for wingers hit its peak. Schurrle believes that was largely due to Eden Hazard’s status as the Blues’ most valuable player, meaning five or six wingers were battling it out for a spot on the right flank that would require them to put in extra mileage to compensate for the Belgian playmaker’s limited industriousness.
“It’s difficult for young players at Chelsea because they’re a big team with big stars. It’s even harder for the wingers as there are only two in the team and Eden plays always, as he’s the best player in the league. So you have one position on the right wing which was between Willian, Oscar, myself, sometimes Mata, occasionally De Bruyne.
“The other thing is that Eden is given more freedom so the other winger has to work even harder. You have to work for that freedom, and Eden deserves it as he creates everything up front. He scores goals and makes assists so it’s right he should have that freedom.
“It’s a bit different for the right winger. You have to work back a little bit more. When one player gets more freedom the rest of the team has to adjust, but makes it a little bit more difficult to play on the other side.”
But Mourinho’s distrust of wingers spans further back than that. His FC Porto side claimed their shock Champions League title in 2004 using a diamond midfield with Pedro Mendes an Maniche at its widest points, whilst the Inter Milan outfit that achieved the same feat under the Portuguese had Goran Pandev and most unusually Samuel Eto’o, one of the greatest strikers of his generation, as the wide-men in a 4-3-3, committing to an almost unhealthy amount of tracking back.
Likewise, even when Mourinho had one of the best wingers in the world at his disposal in the form of Hazard, the then-Chelsea gaffer focused more on ensuring the Belgian did his bit defensively than how to reap the full benefits of his world-class quality in the final third. It paid off as Chelsea won the title, but came back to bite him the campaign after as the form of a worn-out and apathetic Hazard sensationally tanked and Mourinho lost his job.
That epitomises Mourinho’s relationship with wingers perfectly. Even the very, very best are asked to contribute defensively, whilst those more typically inconsistent are expected to find consistency elsewhere by practically running themselves into the ground – which is exactly why Willian was quickly favoured over Mata, De Bruyne, Cuadrado, Schurrle and Salah to claim the role of Hazard’s balancing act on the opposing flank.
Whilst every manager has their preferences and tastes, you have to wonder how realistic Mourinho’s actually are. After all, wingers with Willian’s industry are an exceptionally rare breed and although there has been a heavy sway in recent years towards the notion that attacking players must make a difference out of possession as well, the tracking back duties Mourinho places on his wingers are often too demanding.
Indeed, whereas much of the footballing world has focused on pressing from the front, which requires a huge physical shift from wingers but at least leaves them in advanced positions should they win the ball back, Mourinho still takes the stand-off, safety-in-numbers approach, often asking Manchester United’s wide-men last season to tuck in almost as second full-backs and invite the opposition onto them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the Red Devils finished up with the most draws of any Premier League side, just 16 of their top flight goals came from wide players and 68% of their shots came from central positions – the fifth highest rate throughout the entire division.
Making a few enemies of wide-men won’t mean much to Mourinho as long as his sides continue to lift silverware – even during a largely underwhelming campaign at Old Trafford, he still picked up three trophies when including the Community Shield. But the problem now is that the ghosts of the some of the wingers he laid to rest, often disposing of them in the most ruthless fashion possible, are coming back to haunt him.
Cuadrado and Schurrle have been kept at a safe distance in Serie A and the Bundesliga respectively, but De Bruyne is now the star player for Mourinho’s biggest rivals at a professional and personal level – Manchester City and Pep Guardiola. Likewise, Mourinho ironically spent much of last season almost completely dependent on Mata to provide some magic from midfield and now, perhaps most troublingly, Salah has been tipped to return to the Premier League with Liverpool.
It’s not just the Northwest derby that should concern Mourinho, as the Reds look to reach an agreement over a transfer fee with Roma, but also how Salah is seemingly so perfect for the way Jurgen Klopp wants his side to play. In terms of positioning, explosiveness and netting prowess, he’s almost a carbon copy of Sadio Mane; the idea of both being part of the same attacking line-up borders upon frightening.
On top of that, there’s the inevitable sub-plot of Salah looking to show up the manager who took just twelve months to deem him surplus to requirements, not to mention the fact it’s United who have to catch up with their old rivals after finishing sixth last season.
And there’s another concern for United fans too; what becomes of the wide-men currently in their ranks? Mourinho already doesn’t trust Henrikh Mkhitaryan to the level you’d expect of such an obviously talented winger, his alliance with Mata always feels like it’s on a knife-edge and perhaps most worryingly, Anthony Martial just doesn’t fit that mantra of hardworking wide-man at all.
That’s three fine talents who could all fall by the wayside over the next few years – and in Martial’s case, another who could later come back to bite the Special One.