As the end of the season nears and Manchester United are still alive in two competitions and battling for the only European trophy yet to grace their cabinet, and Champions League qualification for next season, the games come thick and fast. But so too do injuries.
At present, injuries to key players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Juan Mata and Marcos Rojo seem to have come at a terrible time for the club as they seek to challenge Manchester City and Liverpool for their top four spots, as well as win the Europa League for the first time in the club’s history.
Jose Mourinho has already asked Chris Smalling and Phil Jones to be brave and play through the pain barrier against Manchester City on Thursday evening. Needs must, clearly, though the last thing United need is to aggravate injuries or risk new ones by rushing players back into the first team.
Recently, Sky Sports assessed the number of days of injuries suffered by each of the clubs who have constantly been in the Premier League since the 2011/12 season. Whilst Arsenal were the team whose players spent the most time out injured, Manchester United came a close second.
Interestingly, for two and a half of those five years Sky analysed, Jose Mourinho was the manager of Chelsea, the team who come rock bottom of that list: their players were injured for well below half the time of Arsenal and United. That may be the biggest indicator of the overhaul Mourinho will undertake at the Old Trafford club. And whilst the manager’s attitude to injuries often verges on the tough love, you can see why he’d operate in such a way.
The Mourinho likes his players to be physically robust in every way. It’s obvious that he favours tall and imposing players all over the pitch, but the fact that he also tends to rotate his squad only sparingly puts extra physical demands on his team. Asking players to be brave and play through the pain is quite typically Mourinho, and his threshold for injury-prone players has always been quite low – just ask Arjen Robben, who once told the Guardian that Mourinho ‘doesn’t like players who are injured’.
His treatment of Luke Shaw could be another case in point: the left-back has found it hard to get himself back to his usual high level since his horror leg-break in 2015, but that hasn’t stopped Mourinho from becoming frustrated and singling out the England man for some scathing criticism in the press.
Sometimes injuries are down to the medical staff and the training regime that the club puts in place, or how they plan for the demanding schedules like United have at the moment. But sometimes it’s also down to the players themselves. Some players, like Robben, are just injury prone. Others, who would seem to be more ‘Mourinho’ players – like the ironically injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic – have gone most of their careers without injuries, and when they do eventually get them, they shrug them off and don’t relapse.
There’s nothing you can do about knee ligament damage or a broken leg, of course, but what Mourinho doesn’t like is when a player isn’t ready to play to the same level as before upon their stated date of return. And you get the feeling that Mourinho won’t have been thrilled that United have posted 66 injuries since the start of the August, according to PhysioRoom.com.
The fact that the number is so high – United currently find themselves nursing a squad with eight injuries, the highest in the Premier League at present – is perhaps down to Mourinho’s relentlessness, but may also be a sign that a summer clear-out is on its way. After all, the players United signed in the summer haven’t been of the injury prone types. New signings Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have both missed games through injury this season, neither have succumbed to numerous different layoffs: Bailly missed four games before Christmas before coming back into the team good as new, whilst Mkhitaryan has only missed one game, against Bournemouth in March, since his return to the team. He played in the Manchester derby, was subbed off and didn’t reappear until around Christmas: if he was injured during that period, it hardly seemed to matter anyway.
Manchester United’s hopes of winning another trophy this season as well as finishing in the top four – and perhaps pushing one of their big north west rivals out of the Champions League as an added bonus – could well rest on their players’ fitness rather than performances. You get the feeling that might well be Mourinho’s criteria for the hiring and firing of players this summer, too.