Jose Mourinho has always been a short-termist manager, and in many ways its hard to blame him. The Portuguese’s first experience of coaching with Bobby Robson, working as the late great’s interpreter, saw them move between three clubs in four years, and his first experience as a manager resulted in posts at Benfica and Unaio de Leiria lasting just a matter of months.
After his incredible success at FC Porto, he then worked for the most trigger-happy owner in the Premier League, Roman Abramovich, whose cutthroat approach unleashed a new culture of relentless hirings and firings in English football – including Mourinho’s own in 2007, just over a year after bringing back-to-back Premier League titles to west London.
For Mourinho then, it has always been about survival by providing instant and then constant success. He’s never been given two or three years to build a team in the same way as many of his preceding managerial greats like Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger were. And in a sense, that’s typecast him too – he’s now seen as the most pragmatic of top-end managers, someone who comes into clubs and quickly wins trophies without too much concern about style of play or legacy. Maybe some of that is his own making, but it’s also about how Mourinho’s working environments have inevitably shaped him too.
The problem though, is that Mourinho’s tenures tend to end in spectacular implosion, and then it becomes a question of what he’s left behind. More often than not, it’s a squad of proven, older professionals who could get the job done for him rather than a developing team built towards any particular direction, with emerging talents already on course to become the next generation of superstars.
And while there’s absolutely no suggestion Mourinho won’t be at Old Trafford next season, the lack of legacy the Portuguese leaves behind should be a real concern for Manchester United – a club that has created its success on longevity by nurturing young talent.
Ferguson and Louis van Gaal provide two key examples. Although the title-winning squad Ferguson left behind at Old Trafford is often criticised for being of deceptively poor health, it contained 17 players aged 25 or younger who featured at least once during the Scot’s final term in charge. Only five of them went on to never make another appearance for United, three are still at the club undertaking important roles for the first team – David De Gea, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling – and those 17 in total went on to register a further 768 outings for the Red Devils.
Van Gaal too, may have divided opinion tactically but for giving chances to young players he could never be faulted. During his final season, 19 players under the age of 25 featured, nine of which are still at the club in some capacity and three of which are exciting, attacking players who made at least 30 Premier League appearances last season – Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.
But the latter name is a poignant one, because it highlights how drastic Mourinho’s change in direction really is. While Martial’s agent is telling reporters that the France international wants to leave the club this summer, following two campaigns in which Mourinho rarely took the leash off a vibrant and impeccably composed young forward, other sources claim the Portuguese is eyeing a 29-year-old alternative in Chelsea’s Willian who will actually turn 30 by the time 2018/19 properly kicks off.
Now, Willian is a fantastic player, there’s little debate over that. Furthermore, using him to replace Martial would address a desperate imbalance in United’s attack – moving the excess of depth on the left-hand side over to the worryingly shallow right – and bring an offensive talent to the club who has proved he can flourish under Mourinho. They’re becoming an increasingly rare breed these days.
But how long does Willian really have left at the very top of the game, the level Manchester United compete at? Perhaps two or three years before his relentless pace significantly slows up, so Mourinho’s contract expiration in 2020 could well be the end for the South American at Old Trafford too. The next question then, is who would the next United manager prefer to inherit – a 33-year-old Willian, or Martial who at that time should really be coming into his prime?
Mourinho will argue that’s not his problem, but it is Manchester United’s. Mourinho argue will too that he can’t change Martial’s mind about leaving, that’s his decision, and what’s done in that regard is already done. But that’s precisely the issue; Mourinho’s mindset doesn’t allow young attacking players to flourish in the same way as Jurgen Klopp’s or Pep Guardiola’s and eventually they decide a move elsewhere will better their careers. Just look at Kevin de Bruyne and Mohamed Salah, who couldn’t wriggle a half-decent run in the first team out of the Portuguese.
So what legacy would Mourinho leave behind at Old Trafford, if he was sacked today? Well, there are just eleven players aged 25 or under who are considered part of Mourinho’s wider squad, and from those 11 only eight have featured at senior level for the Red Devils in some capacity this season, while only seven were given at least one runout in the Premier League.
Amid that cohort there is undoubted talent – it includes Rashford and Martial after all – but only four are what you’d describe as true Mourinho additions to the United first team. Aside from signings Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof and promoted academy products Scott McTominay and Axel Tuanzebe, the rest were all inherited from van Gaal.
The acquisition of Fred, aged 26, and the potential arrival of Willian suggests that skew away from young players isn’t likely to change. As long as Mourinho continues to pick up silverware, that won’t be seen as an immediate problem. But considering how suddenly and explosively most of Mourinho’s tenures end, the issue of legacy could present itself to United much sooner and prove to be much more problematic than expected.
One thing’s for certain – Mourinho will leave the next Red Devils manager with a real job on his hands, especially if he’s tasked with returning the club to its historic ideals of developing exciting young players.