Mistakes in player recruitment can be accepted if they are occasional. But repeating the same mistakes, in any walk of life, is unacceptable. It is the pattern of someone who does not learn and who cannot self-evaluate, someone who does not think clearly. These are all failings of people who tend not to succeed, whether that be as a football manager or an accountant: learning from mistakes and doing so quickly makes the best who they are.
Jose Mourinho has been one of the best managers in the world for over a decade, and for many of those years, he was the very best. He had an unrivalled ability to win wherever he went, to fix flaws and turn strengths into the basis of a winning team. Adaptability, over the short term at least, was Mourinho’s game. He knew how to make the best of the resources he had, however limited, and produce lightening-quick success.
But his early days at Manchester United, especially when paired with his harrowing final months at Chelsea, suggest this golden touch has been lost.
The greatest symbols of that waning power have been his increasing transfer misjudgements. The sale of Juan Mata might be regarded as such, but his decision was probably just about justified tactically given Mata’s playing style and what Mourinho was trying to do at Chelsea, even if it was also probably indicative of a power struggle at the club, too.
Other decisions have not been so justifiable, though. Romelu Lukaku’s departure from Chelsea was evidently down to a failure from Mourinho to guarantee him a future, and that error will stay with Chelsea in the longer term whilst Lukaku blossoms. Then, perhaps the most painful mistake, with hindsight, was the inability to nurture Kevin de Bruyne. The Belgian is now one of the world’s best players and, at a time when Chelsea lacked guile, he was hardly used and cast aside by Mourinho. Excuses can be made for each of these sales, whether it be they weren’t ‘Mourinho players’, did not really want to remain at the club or they were sold for big fees.
In each isolated case, they can be understood, they can be accepted. But when you bring them all together, it is a different story.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan is the latest to be alienated by Jose Mourinho. Much like with de Bruyne, injuries initially kept the Armenian from full match fitness, but his absence has been prolonged as the manager still bemoans his player’s ability to play a full 90 minutes. Signed from Borussia Dortmund for a hefty summer fee, Mkhitaryan was on course to be one of the captures of the summer. His 11 goals and countless assists in the Bundesliga led the rejuvenation of Thomas Tuchel’s Dortmund, yet Mourinho cannot find a way to utilise his talents.
The fitness argument is one Mourinho has fallen back on before. Claiming players are not working hard enough, or are unwilling to play through injuries (as he did with Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw) is part of his warrior spirit. The Manchester United manager has always demanded players put their bodies on the line for the cause of victory and that does not always sit well with players who could be compromising their fitness in future seasons.
Public criticism of his players was avoided at all costs during the early Mourinho years, he was ready to make himself a martyr to protect his squad. His second spell at Chelsea and the fledgling days of his Manchester United tenure has been so very different. Comments that may have previously been confined to a quiet in-house meeting are now aired in the most public of press conferences and Mkhitaryan has already felt the brunt of this, even if Mourinho has only implied as such.
Manchester United’s current poor form, and lack of overall identity on the pitch, makes it harder for Mourinho to justify his continued exclusion. A player of Mkhitaryan’s calibre would unquestionably make a significant difference to the team, even if he did require a period of settling in. But unlike with Lukaku, De Bruyne or Mata, Mourinho cannot discard Mkhitaryan without significant questioning. The fee that was spent, his previous record and Manchester United’s barren goal scoring spell of late would make such a decision tantamount to accepting his own mistake, something that Mourinho is doing less and less. The longer this period of bench warming and curious absences for Mkhitaryan continues, the chances of his Manchester United career being a success take a nose dive.
There are haunting similarities for Jose Mourinho and Manchester United in the Mkhitaryan saga. One of the world’s best players just a few months ago, the Armenian is being treated and spoken of like a petulant, cocky youngster. It is impossible to know quite what goes on behind the scenes, what Mkhitaryan’s training ethic is like, but there are too many repetitive factors for this not to be a genuine issue. The openness of Mourinho’s comments, Mkhitaryan’s ‘fight for my future’ interjection and the sporadic appearances in the squad suggest a turbulent relationship. Little is plain sailing with the Once Special One, but this current plotline is the most worrying of all for Manchester United.